Reading proficiency leads to equity

Traci MurphyAug. 2, 2021

“Today, about 20 percent of elementary students across the country struggle with learning to read, and another 20 percent are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading. But these nationwide averages mask a tragedy: among students growing up in under-resourced communities — mainly African American and Hispanic students and students whose home language is not English — about 60 to 70 percent have weak reading skills.” American Educator

Lead to Read KC is preparing for the launch of our fall reading and mentoring program, and not a minute too soon. A recent report suggests that more first and second graders ended the school year two or more grade levels below expectations. For students who were already struggling to read at grade level before the pandemic, getting them back on track can be the difference between a lifetime of success or missed opportunities.

Reading is the gateway to all other learning. It leads to academic success, personal empowerment and greater economic opportunities down the road. But if you can’t read very well, you don’t read very much. And poor reading skills make it hard to keep up in other subjects.  

Children who can read proficiently by third grade will be more successful in school. Yet according to the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, more than 80 percent of children from low-income homes miss this crucial milestone every year. Proficiency in reading by the end of third grade allows students to shift from learning to read to reading to learn. This means students will be able to master the more complex subject matter they encounter in fourth grade.

Lead to Read KC Reading Mentor and student at a reading session

There is also an association between income levels and reading proficiency. According to the United Way of Central Iowa, by age five, a typical middle-income child recognizes 22 letters of the alphabet, compared to nine letters for a child from a low-income family. And if a child has trouble learning, a family with disposable income has options, such as paying for tutors.

“If a goal of education is equity, schools have to pay attention to building knowledge and vocabulary, exposing kids to lots of content, helping them access a wide range of information and experiences. And schools need to encourage kids to read a lot. Because reading is one of the best ways to learn.” Emily Hanford, American Public Media

While most students fell behind during the pandemic, students of color fared much worse. National research shows Black and Hispanic students lacked access to devices, internet access, and live contact with teachers — items every student needed to learn during the pandemic. For these students, not only is the learning loss greater, it’s on top of historical inequities in opportunity and achievement. Many students will need additional opportunities, like our reading and mentoring program, to catch up to their peers.

At Lead to Read KC, we believe reading skills are key to equitable opportunities, not only in education but in our community. As always, we will speak up for equity in our schools. (Learn more about Lead to Read KC’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.)  

Together we can help close the opportunity gap. Learn more about becoming a Reading Mentor at — and invite your friends and colleagues to volunteer with you!