A story behind the data

​​Why third-grade reading matters to DeLong student Illiana Moawad

Midway through Illiana Moawad's third-grade year at DeLong Elementary School, her teacher grew puzzled. The eager student entered the school year slightly behind in reading. Not so unusual. But by February her reading level remained stubbornly below average.

Tacoma Public Schools' School Board set early learning as one of its four strategic focuses. Third-grade reading ability provides a crucial indicator of future success. A student who can't read on grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who reads proficiently by that time, according to multiple studies.

Illiana's teacher, Erika Edwards, and other staff at DeLong initiated a new approach for helping Illiana and other students. For three months, staff members ran an intensive after-school reading tutoring program. Students rotated through three reading stations daily in groups of four or less, playing reading games and practicing vocabulary and reading for understanding.

The program quickly boosted Illiana's confidence, noted tutor Kimberly Blatt, also a third-grade teacher at DeLong. "She just took off. She was building her confidence. The smile that came to her face was so wonderful."

Illiana reads with friend Kaitlyn Howe during class reading time.

Principals, teachers and guidance counselors across the district develop targeted programs similar to DeLong's to lift each child up to their full potential.

Early learning matters. Students who develop age-appropriate reading, math and social skills early are more likely to graduate high school and earn higher-paying jobs, according to the Washington Department of Education. 

To help the district track its progress, the Tacoma School Board established third grade reading and math competencies as a strategic plan benchmark. That means the district holds itself accountable to transparently report the percentage of students who meet third-grade level reading and math standards on their report cards. In addition, the district made it a priority benchmark to raise the percentage of students scoring on level on the statewide third grade Smarter Balanced English Language Arts assessment.

"Third grade is a kind of pivot point," City University of New York Professor Donald J. Hernadez, who studies third-grade reading, explains. "We teach reading for the first three grades and then after that children are not so much learning to read but using their reading skills to learn other topics. In that sense, if you haven’t succeeded by third grade, it’s more difficult to [remediate] than it would have been if you started before then.”

Children growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods face an even harder time reaching third-grade reading levels due to less exposure to reading at an early age. Tacoma Public Schools encourages enrollment at its free preschool programs to help halt the early achievement gap.

He​lping every child

Illiana Moawad’s reading level soared after completing
an afterschool tutoring program at DeLong.

The reading program at DeLong proved greatly successful. Illiana’s reading level rose more than a year to reach a fourth-grade level in just three months of tutoring. Out of the 32 students who participated, one-third demonstrated a year’s worth of growth.

Part of the program’s success resulted from giving individual attention, adding fun reading games and providing “tokens” that kids earned to spend in the school store.

For Illiana, increased reading confidence translated into more reading at home. She’s a big fan of “Goosebumps,” a series of children’s horror fiction novellas by R.L. Stine, because their suspense keeps her guessing about what happens next.


“It’s important to be a good reader because when you’re older, you may want to write books,” Illiana said. “I might want to be a teacher to teach other people what I’ve learned.” ​​​​​​