02/28/2011 10:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading's Newest Efforts

I am currently in Washington, D.C. attending the kick-off of what is being called "The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading," a three-day event focused on an issue constantly growing in importance. Its organizers, led by the irrepressible Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, initially expected to attract between 50 and 70 participants; more than 200 of us signed up, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who will deliver the closing address on Tuesday.

Because we are now editing a piece for PBS NewsHour about what is often called "the vocabulary gap" that develops in the first three years of life, I am especially aware of the need for public action. We know that about 75 percent of the children who aren't reading competently and confidently by the end of third grade will never catch up.

No mistake: This is a crisis!

And while a staggering 91 percent of African American boys are below grade level in reading in third grade, this is not a racial issue/problem. It's a national crisis: 83 percent of ALL low-income children are behind.

That's right: 83 percent.

It's important to point out that the folks who organized this are not expecting schools to do all the heavy lifting. They know that parents and communities must be actively involved.

This admirable effort, generously supported by Target, has set a goal: all children reading at grade level by third grade. That's too low a bar, in my view. Here's a paragraph from The Influence of Teachers, my new book:

The national goal, all children reading by the end of third grade, is a low floor that I fear may become a ceiling in many schools. Children don't learn to walk just so they can walk in place; they want to be able to get somewhere more efficiently. So too with reading; children want to learn to read so they can make sense of the world around them. Good teachers capitalize on that intrinsic motivation and teach children the many strategies they need to read with understanding, of which decoding is only a part.

Experts talk about how the first three grades are for 'learning to read,' and after that it's all about 'reading to learn.' I think that's a phony distinction that rolls off the tongue easily, but I refer you to the paragraph above. Children are practical creatures; they want to read so they can navigate their environment. They read to learn, from the start. On that note, here's another paragraph from my chapter about reading in The Influence of Teachers:

Children do not need more drill in decoding. Reading specialists often draw a false distinction between decoding and comprehending, and because most tests reward decoding, teachers in the early grades may be tempted to treat it as a goal rather than what it is: a means to an end.

I don't want to rain on this important parade; what the organizers have done is bring all sorts of activists into one room, for three days of conversation, information-sharing, planning and organizing. Just getting everyone in the same tent is an accomplishment, and the energy I detect suggests that this is just the beginning.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is to be a three-year effort. Join in wherever you are, because reading is the foundation of individual growth and of a strong democracy. More info can be found here: