Why Third Grade is an Important Year for Students 

Learn why parents and schools must work together before, during and after this critical grade to ensure the academic success of their students.

Third grade is considered to be one of the most difficult years of a child’s K-12 education. The first benchmark year and a time where students’ performance directly correlates with promotion or retention, third grade students and teachers alike feel the pressure — especially in post-pandemic years.

From Learn to Read to Read to Learn

It’s an age-old philosophy — up until third grade, students learn to read. After third grade, students read to learn — meaning, there is a dependence on reading as a primary means of learning. Beginning in kindergarten and lasting until third grade, students master three areas of reading — decoding, comprehension and reading fluency. 

Students who master decoding should be able to apply their knowledge of letter-sound relationships and letter patterns to correctly pronounce written words. Then comes the comprehension piece, where students know what words mean on a page and understand what it says. The final area is reading fluency, which is the ability for students to interpret an author’s literary devices, such as tone.

While these areas develop in different ways and at different levels throughout K-12 education, by the time a child has completed third grade, they should have a deep understanding of these three skills. 

“At the onset of fourth grade, the focus for education shifts from learning to read literary and informational text to reading to learn content,” says National Education Consultant Gary Abud Jr. “If there is a learning lag here, it can be difficult for students to catch up.”

Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for The Education Trust — Midwest, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, policy and advocacy organization that works toward the high academic success of all students, says decades of research show that promoting strong early reading skills for students is key to improving education. 

“Students who read well by third grade have a better chance to succeed in school, are far more likely to go to college, participate in the job market and even have greater lifetime employment earnings,” Mrozowski says.

A Benchmark Year

Third grade is the first benchmark year when state and national education testing begins. The Department of Education determines which state assessment tools are used. At the national level, the most widely used test to measure reading and literacy in both public and private schools is the NWEA Map Test.

The NWEA MAP Test measures a student’s progress on reading, language usage and math. This test creates a personalized assessment experience by precisely measuring progress and growth for each individual student over time, as it is administered three times each year. 

In Illinois, the Illinois Assessment of Readiness is given to third graders each spring. This test measures how well students are mastering state standards in English, language arts and mathematics.

“Too many states are missing the mark on improving early reading instruction, especially for underserved students, including students of color,” Mrozowski says.

Abud says that during third grade, there is more pressure on teachers and schools to hit benchmarks. Because assessments happen in third grade, that’s where a large portion of policies focus their attention.

Retention Laws

One such policy is the third grade retention law, which means that a third grader must be able to read at a certain level in order to move up to fourth grade. While specific retention laws vary from state to state, they all require a child to meet a reading standard to pass third grade. 

In Illinois, students with IEPs or 504 plans may be able to move on to fourth grade without meeting the reading standard.

While the retention laws were created to ensure that every child can read, these laws are controversial, as critics argue that forcing a struggling reader to repeat a grade is not a good solution.

Pandemic Impact

The pandemic had a real and profound impact on students. In addition to the majority of schools across the nation switching to remote learning models, assessments were paused as educators couldn’t ensure the integrity of the tests by administering them virtually.

“This was the first time we’ve seen assessments being paused at such a large scale at the national level,” says Abud.

Additionally, retention laws were waived based on extenuating circumstances, and all third grade students were eligible to be promoted to fourth grade in spite of their reading fluency.

School districts and educators seemed to take a targeted, responsive approach to learning loss to lessen the impact over time. For example, most teachers are not beginning with teaching exactly what fourth grade students should be learning. They are going back to the gaps in third grade and reteaching key areas that need to be in place before fourth grade.

“I take the time at the beginning of the school year to learn each individual child and address their needs so we can catch where the learning loss happened and how we can address it quickly,” says Lindsay Epstein, third grade teacher at South Park Elementary in Deerfield. “I’ve found that the gaps are wider than previous years, but not as wide as the whole world thought they would be. Kids are resilient. They still managed to learn.”

To address the pandemic, many schools are putting additional reading interventions into place in grades beyond third. In these instances, students are pulled out of class to work one-on-one with a reading specialist in key areas where they are deficient based on an assessment.

Lindsay Bertoncini is a teacher for the Reading Explorers Program at Franklin Fine Arts Center in Chicago, offering reading support to students in grades 1-4. 

“Students who miss learning the foundational skills early on are further behind and have difficulty working independently,” she says. “Many kids were moved on to the next grade who weren’t ready. As a result, we are seeing learning deficiencies that we are having to address with additional resources and support that may result in an evaluation for a possible IEP.”

Bertoncini says it is important for parents to be on top of their children’s learning, so students, parents and teachers can all work together to address their goals.

How Parents Can Promote Literacy

  1. Read to your children daily. Research shows the more children are read to, the better their reading skills end up developing. 
  2. Have your kids read to you and provide feedback. Help them to decode words that might be difficult and reinforce skills they are learning at school. 
  3. Practice sight words. Use sight word flash cards, apps and games. Practice sight words at the third and fourth grade level.
  4. Play word association games. These games help students to think about words differently, which helps build literacy skills for reading and understanding a text. 
  5. Work on grade level appropriate spelling words. Give children a chance on a regular basis to practice spelling these words.
  6. Post words around the house. Have kids read them when they walk by.
  7. Listen to audiobooks or story podcasts. These can be a great tool for parents and kids to work on reading comprehension skills together

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