You are here

What We Stand For: Literacy

Effective Early Childhood and Adolescent Literacy Strategies

A White Paper by Laura Bornfreund for Stand for Children Leadership Center

Literacy—defined as the ability to write, speak, listen, think, and read effectively—is a crucial developmental step that enables young children, adolescents, and adults to communicate clearly.

The development of literacy skills begins at birth, with language development. Parents and caregivers play a critical role in building infants’ and young children’s vocabularies. Researchers have found that children from middle-income families begin kindergarten with a vocabulary of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 words, whereas children from lower-income families start school with about 5,000 words. In other words, literacy gaps appear well before children step foot in a classroom.

The early elementary-school years are a critical time for children’s literacy development. Through the end of third grade, children are “learning to read,” before making the transition to “reading to learn” in the later elementary grades. But fewer than half of all American schoolchildren successfully make this transition. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 66 percent of fourth-graders read below the proficient level and 34 percent read below the basic level. And despite substantial improvement over the past decade, fourth-grade reading performance did not change in the most recent NAEP. This is a good indicator that too many children are not learning to become confident readers in the early elementary grades. Further, large achievement gaps persist between white and black or Hispanic students, as well as between middle- or high-income and low-income students.

Failure to obtain necessary literacy skills in the early grades undermines children’s ability to succeed in school and in life, as they move into the later grades and experience difficulty understanding and achieving in the content areas.  Middle and high school students’ reading scores are a major predictor of whether they will graduate. Students who perform poorly on reading achievement tests are 20 times more likely to drop out than those who perform well. 

Fortunately, a wealth of research has been conducted on literacy, including numerous high-quality evaluations, enabling policymakers and practitioners to identify and focus resources on effective policies and strategies. This research has identified strategies to support early literacy development (birth through third grade), build literacy skills for early adolescents (fourth to sixth grade) and older adolescents (seventh to 12th grade), and help struggling readers. While gaps in research remain, experts are confident that some literacy tools work well with certain type of struggling readers. They are less confident about how best to coordinate and combine these tools to create an effective overall literacy strategy for young and adolescent learners.

The rest of this paper is available as a PDF download:


Laura Bornfreund is a senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative.

About Stand for Children Leadership Center

Stand for Children Leadership Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides leadership development and training to everyday citizens. Our mission is to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, college and career training. To make that happen, we:

  • Educate and empower parents, teachers, and community members to demand excellent public schools.
  • Advocate for effective local, state and national education policies and investments.

  • Ensure the policies and funding we advocate for reach classrooms and help students.

Why Stand?

A message from Stand Leadership Center board member John Legend.

Make a Difference

Take action to improve your school today.