Why the Third-Grade Reading Level Matters
Posted by Daniel Davis on May 28, 2021 in categoryFacts & Research

In the adult literacy field, we often cite the statistic that 43 million adults in the U.S. cannot read above a third-grade level. But have you ever wondered why the third-grade level significant? Educators have determined third grade is when students transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn (Weyer & Caseras, 2019).  

When a learner reaches the fourth-grade level, 85 percent of the curriculum shifts from the learner’s ability to just read the content to the learner's ability to actually comprehend the content (The Children’s Reading Foundation). A highly referenced study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Mattersexamines the long-term consequences of not meeting the third-grade reading benchmark (Fiester, 2010). The report highlights how reaching this pivotal stage impacts high school completion and salary range 

The Annie E. Cassie Foundation discovered that students who were unable to read at the third-grade level were four times less likely to graduate high school (Fiester, 2010). In addition, a study from the Ohio Department of Education found that when students met the third-grade milestone, they were five times more likely to achieve college and career readiness.  

There is a sharp contrast between the salary potential of low-literate individuals and those with more advanced education. The occupations available to these individuals often force them to live paycheck to paycheck, with little chance for promotion (EdSurge, 2019).  

In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics investigated the average weekly income of full-time workers who were 25 years old and over. The data revealed that those without a high school diploma earned $606 a week on average, whereas those who completed high school  earned $749 on average. The average salary rises to $975 a week for adults with a bachelor's degree or higher 

A more educated adult population would not only increase someone’s earning potential, but this in turn would result in huge economic benefits. Bringing all adults to the equivalent of a sixth-grade reading level would generate an additional $2.2 trillionor 10% of GDPin annual income for the country. So, how do we get there? It starts in grade school and ensuring we stop the cycle of low adult literacy. 

But, disparities in literacy proficiency exist from state to state (Fiester, 2010). One study indicated that only 16 states met the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s “basic” standard of proficiency for fourth graders, while other 34 states failed to even reach this standard (Fiester, 2010).  

Though the goal is still to help as many students as possible to reach the third-grade reading milestone, some learners will continue to fall short. For this reason, we must continue to seek out innovative ways to engage adults in literacy learning—whether in traditional adult education classrooms, with digital applications, or using a combination of both—to bring low-literate adults up to their full potential.  


The Children's Reading Foundation. (n.d.). Third grade reading success matters. The Children's Reading Foundation.  


EdSurge. (2019, January 18). Adult learning: Building paths to a better futureEdSurge 


Fiester, L. (2010). Reading by Third Grade. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. resources/early-warning-why-reading-by-the-end-of-third-grade-matters/ 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019, October 21). Median weekly earnings $606 for high school dropouts, $1,559 for advanced degree holders. opub/ted/2019/median-weekly-earnings-606-for-high-school-dropouts-1559-for-advanced-degreeholders.htm 

Weyer, M., & Casares, J. E. (2019, December 17). Pre-Kindergarten-Third Grade Literacy. https://  

Wilkerson, J. (2019, August 5). Gaming app aims to teach millions of US adults who can't read. 



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