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It’s Time for International “Catch-up” in 4th-Grade Reading

• Jim Hull

Approximately five year old African American girl reading with approximately five year old Caucasian girl with blonde hair in library.

Less than two decades ago, 4th graders in the United States were among the highest performing readers in the world. The year was 2001, and students in only three countries—Sweden, the Netherlands and England—significantly outperformed our nation’s students on the inaugural “Progress in International Reading Literacy Study,” better known as PIRLS.

PIRLS is administered every five years to dozens of countries around the world to assess and compare 4th grade reading performance. Regrettably, our 4th graders are no longer among the international elite in early literacy. By 2016, U.S. scores had not only declined from 2011, but 11 countries outperformed us. These included Russia, Singapore, Ireland, Finland and Poland, all of which made dramatic improvements to leapfrog ahead.

Why does literacy ranking matter? Time and again, research confirms that being able to read by 4th grade is critical to a student’s success, both in and out of school. In fact, data show that children who are not proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out and not graduate from high school.

In a labor market where two-thirds of the jobs in 2020 will require some type of postsecondary credential, a job with a livable wage and benefits will be extraordinarily hard to come by for those without a high school diploma. And if the U.S. doesn’t graduate enough students ready to gain advanced skills needed for businesses to compete in a global economy, the best jobs will wind up in countries with more prepared graduates.

Fortunately, it’s possible for the U.S. to again be among the leaders in early literacy in time for the next PIRLS in 2021. To do so, our states must proactively focus their efforts on improving early literacy assessment, instruction, support and intervention in primary-grade classrooms across the country.

Successful actions by states such as Florida, Oklahoma and Indiana provide evidence that a highly effective way to improve performance of struggling young readers is with a comprehensive K-3 reading program. By implementing a statewide early literacy program, policy makers can ensure their young students are reading on grade level and are ready to exit 3rd grade with the skills necessary to be successful lifelong readers—and learners.

Learn more about Comprehensive K-3 reading programs at

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