Early Childhood Education & Literacy

Literacy proficiency by the end of third grade is perhaps the single most essential educational milestone. Students who do not read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Aside from the academic consequences, struggling readers are also far more likely to end up in the criminal justice system: at least a third of youth in juvenile correction facilities have a specific learning disability and 40% of local, state, and federal prisoners have not completed high school. Read more about the vital issue and how we can improve literacy for Black boys in this Chicago Tribune op-ed from Executive Director Mimi Rodman and literacy professors Nell K. Duke and Ernest Morrell.

How do we help every Illinois student achieve the critical milestone of reading well by the end of third grade so they have a fair shot at prosperity?

Preparing students for language and literacy should start well before they set foot in a classroom. About 90% of the brain develops before the age of five, and these are key years for nurturing and learning. The achievement gap starts early. Some key strategies that can help level the playing field for Illinois students are:

High-Quality Pre-Kindergarten. Years ago, Illinois was considered the national leader in funding early childhood education, but as other states have stepped up, Illinois has fallen to the middle of the pack. There are 80,000 children ages 3-5 (about a quarter of Illinois’ 3-5 year-olds) served through Preschool for All programs in Illinois. Despite a significant funding boost in the FY20 budget, the amount spent per pupil is lower than most states’ preschool allocations.

This is money well spent, both for students and the economy. Research shows a clear return on investment in early childhood paying long-term dividends: every $1 spent today on early education will yield $7 in future economic benefits for the State.

Full-Day Kindergarten. Full-day kindergarten offers an array of benefits to children, families, and the State as well, from improving academic achievement, building social-emotional skills, closing the achievement gap, and decreasing retention. But just 80% of Illinois kindergarten classes are full-day programs. Thirteen states and Washington, DC require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten programs; Illinois is not among them.

Interventions and Supports for Struggling Readers. The common adage says that third grade marks the transition point between “learning to read” and “reading to learn.” As the subject-matter content grows more challenging with each grade, students struggling to read will fall further behind. But only 37% of Illinois’ third graders meet or exceed grade-level literacy standards, including 24% of children from low-income families and half of children who are not. Students with reading deficiencies need early screening, individualized reading plans, evidence-based reading curriculum to gain phonemic awareness and decoding skills, and teachers who receive high-quality professional development in early literacy instruction.

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