Skip to main content

The Promise and Peril of Third-Grade Literacy Policies

BOULDER, CO (June 3, 2021) – In recent decades, state policymakers across the United States have been tinkering with their early literacy policies, with the goal of ensuring that students are reading on grade level by the end of third grade. But this good intent is not always matched by good design or good outcomes.

NEPC is releasing today a policy brief, Making Early Literacy Policy Work: Three Considerations for Policymakers Based on Kentucky’s “Read to Succeed” Act, authored by Amy Cummings of Michigan State University. The brief reviews the research on early literacy policies and concludes that while they may be effective at improving student achievement in the short term, these policies do not include a full range of best practices in literacy instruction.

In 2021, in response to downward-trending reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and its own state assessment, Kentucky considered legislation similar to that introduced and enacted in states across the U.S., framing what would be one such early literacy policy. This “Read to Succeed” Act had not passed by the end of the 2021 legislative session, which ended on March 30. This brief, however, uses the Kentucky legislation as a way to explore the promise and limitations of third-grade literacy policies and provide guidance for policymakers in states that may consider enacting them in the future.

While many states’ policies require literacy instruction in the “Big Five” components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), experts have noted that evidence-based literacy instruction goes beyond these five components. Cummings explains that literacy instruction emphasizing the Big Five has been found to be limited in its effectiveness improving literacy achievement, and to pose implementation challenges for educators.

Considering the ultimate goal of improving students’ early reading skills, this new brief provides recommendations for policymakers to create effective literacy legislation.

Find Making Early Literacy Policy Work: Three Considerations for Policymakers Based on Kentucky’s “Read to Succeed” Act, by Amy Cummings, at:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: