Early childhood education as a key to literacy

Students have been falling behind in literacy for some time. The impact of the pandemic significantly exacerbated this decline, with the release of the 2022 NAEP test scores showing a five-point decline in reading literacy nationwide. Meanwhile, fourth graders in New Mexico scored an average of 14 points below the national public score.

The data has made it clear that the process of teaching reading needs to change, and now is the critical time for action.

To see progress, the focus must be on building early literacy skills with strong foundations. In this essential early childhood lesson, children learn to read words and understand what they read so they build accuracy and fluency. Studies show that the sooner we can build these skills, the better.

We need to take advantage of recent studies and research that inform how children learn to read and develop strong literacy skills, and apply that knowledge. There is a need to devote more attention and resources to pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and early reading programs, particularly in underserved households and communities, to ensure every child is on the right track in their literacy journey.

Strong literacy skills are associated with higher employment rates and higher monthly earnings, and beyond the simple economic implications, there are extensive challenges that come with literacy shortages.

Long-term studies show that a student who does not read at grade level until third grade may never read at the appropriate grade level. After the third grade, reading and writing instruction shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. If a child slips through the cracks at this critical stage, they will inevitably face ongoing challenges throughout their education, increasing the likelihood that they will not graduate and consequently suffer lifelong obstacles.

There is no doubt that learning to read through third grade is essential. However, the strategy implemented today allows far too many students to miss this target.

One of the main indicators that children are becoming good readers is reading at home, but there is no one-size-fits-all for this essential step in the process, especially for people in difficult home environments and in a lower socio-economic situation. Expanding early childhood reading programs into preschool and kindergarten, access to free programs with local libraries, and ongoing support for early childhood reading organizations and nonprofits are some of the most realistic ways to get books into the hands and homes of young children.

Through these efforts at an early age, we can realize the love of reading. By capturing a passion for learning from an early age—when children read whimsical stories and books that rhyme—there are more chances to develop their engagement into strong literacy skills.

We need to take a holistic approach to literacy and give more importance to early childhood education. We cannot expect a child to enter their first year of school without first being exposed to reading and books and competently mastering these skills. Learning to read takes time, attention and practice, so our process and resources need to be set up that way from the start. The sooner we can share the joy of reading with our children, the more likely they are to succeed in what they want to do in life.