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Perspective | A whole-child, birth-through-8 approach to improving early literacy

Test scores are in for the 2018-19 school year, and third grade reading proficiency has not changed much from previous years — nearly half our young students still aren’t reading well. The data reveal that low income, racial inequity and bias, disability, homelessness, and child abuse and neglect continue to create barriers to opportunity for North Carolina’s children. Improving the state’s average third grade reading proficiency will require comprehensive strategies explicitly focused on reducing these barriers that are standing in the way of reading proficiency for too many of our young children.

Why is measuring early reading so important? Research demonstrates that third grade reading proficiency is a strong indicator of high school graduation and workforce readiness. It’s also a good proxy measure for overall child and family well-being.

Third grade reading proficiency is impacted by a host of factors that begin before a child is born and that reach outside the domain of education. Through the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading initiative, the NC Early Childhood Foundation has outlined research that connects 50-60 data points — like adult pre-pregnancy health, infant birthweight, parenting education, safe and supportive relationships, high quality teaching, and regular school attendance — to third grade reading outcomes.

The research is clear that, because the pathways to grade-level reading proficiency are complex, cross-sector, and begin before birth, there is no silver bullet for improving early literacy. What works is a broad portfolio of investments in children’s health, education, and family and community supports from before birth through age 8. And, every year, disaggregated proficiency data highlights the importance of focusing intentionally on strategies that reduce barriers to opportunity around race, income, ability, geography, and language.

The good news is North Carolina has a plan. Working for over a year, hundreds of state and local leaders have co-created the Pathways Action Framework, North Carolina’s consensus proposal for how to start improving third grade reading outcomes in our state. After collecting input from across the state, they considered what needs to be done to ensure young children’s good health, support their families and communities, and provide them with access to a world-class education. The plan proposes strategies intentionally designed to reduce barriers to opportunity that are preventing North Carolina’s children from learning to read.

For example:

  • By creating family-friendly workplace policies — like paid leave or pregnancy accommodations — private sector businesses can improve workplace productivity, recruitment, and retention, grow a strong economy, and support children’s healthy development.
  • Increasing access to good childcare for babies and toddlers, particularly in geographic areas where more children and families encounter barriers to high quality early education, can ensure that babies’ development starts off right and parents can work to support their families.
  • Eliminating or minimizing suspension and expulsion in birth-through-third grade classrooms can lead to a more measured and data-supported approach of recognizing the impact of trauma on many children. Teachers and childcare workers can be trained to assess, identify, and address needs, screen for disabilities and refer for supports, and ensure that disciplinary policies are culturally competent.

The Pathways Frameworks have already informed initiatives like the NC Early Childhood Action Plan, myFutureNC, the Leandro Commission, and others. Your state or local organization, agency, department, school district, or school can endorse the Pathways Frameworks to join many others in recommending that this collaborative work serve as a foundation for building North Carolina’s birth-through-8 early childhood system.

And, stay tuned for news about the annual Pathways stakeholder meeting, to be held in November. Plan to come hear all about Pathways in 2020 and share the great work your organization is doing to support young children and their families.

Brain science tells us that a child enters kindergarten with 85% of his or her brain volume developed, with most of those neural connections made in the first three years of life. North Carolina is a state with a proud history of early learning investments. It is by building on this foundation to support young children’s health, education, families, and communities that we will start to see early reading proficiency improve.  

Muffy Grant

Muffy Grant joined NCECF in June 2019. Prior to her role as Executive Director, she was Director of Development at both Prevent Child Abuse NC and the Institute for Child Success in Greenville, SC. Before making a career change by entering the world of child advocacy in 2015, Grant spent the previous decade involved in exchange visitor programs in public/private partnership with the Department of State. Grant has had the good fortune to travel to many countries in support of public diplomacy efforts but believes that diplomacy truly begins early and at home and is happy to be a champion for the children of her native state, North Carolina.

Grant holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Humanistic Studies from Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame and her Master Degree in International Affairs focusing on demographics and labor migration from Georgetown University and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University. She and her husband are stretched, challenged, and filled with gratitude daily in parenting their four children ranging in age from 8 to 2.