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Read Proficiently or Go to Prison?

Caitlin Dong works in National Public Relations and Communications for Kaiser Permanente and has been involved with nonprofit youth organizations for many years.

Perhaps you have heard third-grade reading scores predict the number of prison beds that will be needed in the future. Is this a fact or myth?

While the validity of that statement is up for debate, we do know reading literacy is a crucial skill that helps students lead successful, healthy lives.

Young children are affected by the learning that takes place in their households, even before they are old enough to set foot in a classroom. Exposure to books and being read to at home improve success in school.

Children who are read to at home pull ahead of their peers who are not; they are more likely to:

  • Recognize all letters of the alphabet
  • Count to 20, or higher than those who were not (60 percent versus 44 percent)
  • Write their own names (54 percent versus 40 percent)
  • Read or pretend to read (77 percent versus 57 percent)

And, once they start school, attendance is another factor that contributes to a young student’s reading proficiency. According to research, the number of young students who miss 10 percent of the school year can reach alarming percentages. These absences “can rob students of the time they need to develop literacy skills.”

A report from Attendance Works and Healthy Schools Campaign highlights how differences in school attendance rates beginning in pre-school play a role in achievement gaps and national high school dropout rates.

By the time students are in third grade, their reading levels do correlate to consequential life outcomes, such as high school graduation rates.

The Ohio Department of Education found, based on 2013 graduation rates, those who were not proficiently reading in third grade were three times less likely to graduate on time than their proficiently reading peers.

More specifically, their study shows that 95 percent of students considered advanced readers in third grade graduated on time. Only 57 percent of students who scored as limited readers graduated on time.

Other research supports the Ohio study. The Annie E. Casey Foundation sponsored research that found children with the lowest reading scores account for 33 percent of all students, but for 63 percent of all youth who do not graduate from high school.

LIF12d051Not graduating from high school has lifelong consequences. One expert sums it up this way.

“People may think that it doesn’t matter how well little kids can read,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago and founding director of the Center for Literacy. “But studies show their reading levels determine how they’ll do in school and even what their lifetime earnings will be.”

In a similar vein, the California Endowment turned its attention recently to raising awareness about the connection between educational funding and the state’s prison population and kicked off its #DoTheMath campaign.

Not to fear, though – there are many programs geared toward bringing and keeping kids up to speed in reading. Kaiser Permanente partners with Reach Out and Read, a literacy program that aims to make books and literacy promotion a fundamental part of well-child care.

The literacy program is national in scope. Kaiser Permanente focuses its collaboration in its Northern California region.

Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s participation includes:

  • 47 pediatric clinics as nationally-recognized Reach Out and Read sites, plus seven satellite sites.
  • more than 500 Kaiser Permanente pediatric providers across the Northern California Region provide guidance to children and their parents during well-child visits
  • nearly 230,000 books distributed to children in KP clinics
  • in one year, over 21,000 books distributed in the communities we serve through donations and community events

So, who knows? Maybe those in charge of ordering prison beds do take into account third grade reading proficiency levels. Regardless, the most significant takeaway here is that reading literacy is a huge predictor of the future successes and lives of youth today – those who read well most likely will also live well, and thrive.

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