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PHIL HARDWICK: The third grade reading gate, book buddies and school principals



For third graders in Mississippi the gate is about to be opened or closed for them to enter the fourth grade next year because this is the year that they must pass a test to make certain they are reading at grade level. The requirement is an effort to make certain that social promotions no longer occur and that students in third grade can read at grade level. It is an important step because research has shown that students who are not reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma when compared to proficient readers. The number rises when those kids also come from poverty.

There is also some research that shows that “nudging” can have a positive impact on behavior. So what is nudging? It’s basically a little reminder to do something or a comment to encourage something. Advertisers have discovered its effectiveness. So have some schools. Two researchers at Stanford University developed a literacy program for preschool children in San Francisco. According to a January 7, 2015 article in the New York Times entitled “Helping the Poor in Education: The Power of a Simple Nudge,” they sent parents texts describing simple activities that develop literacy skills, such as pointing out words that rhyme or start with the same sound. The parents receiving the texts spent more time with their children on these activities and their children were more likely to know the alphabet and the sounds of letters. Nudging isn’t just about text messaging, it’s about showing interest and reminding others.

Research also shows that effective elementary school principals have a significant impact on student success. In the Winter 2013 online issue of Education NEXT an article entitled “Measuring the Impact of Effective Principals,” reported that highly effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year; ineffective principals lower achievement by the same amount.

So what does all this have to do with the Third Grade Reading Gate? For the past 10 weeks I have been a Book Buddy to a third grader who was reading below grade level six months ago. The Book Buddy program in my town involves community volunteers reading to students or listening to them read. That alone has shown positive outcomes, especially for students in poverty. A good program for sure, but one principal has taken it to another level. In my experience in previous years with the program there was not a whole lot a of structure. The volunteer would go into the school and listen to a student read something of their choice or the teacher’s choice. Sometimes the volunteer would bring a book of their choice and do the reading.

The principal in this case is Benjamin Torrey at G.N. Smith Elementary School in Jackson. How he welcomed volunteers to his school and how he nudged me and the student is worthy of comment. What I have learned in those 10 weeks has made me more aware of the issues facing public education in Mississippi, not the least of which is that volunteering does make a difference.

I shall not expound on the ways to improve public education in Mississippi. Many others have been doing that for a long time. All are correct in their solutions. At least, from their perspectives. What I will do is share how a principal welcomed a volunteer to his school and what happened later. Here are seven things that the principal did:

 1.Meet and greet. The principal met me on my first visit, told me about the school and about the student.

 2. A notebook already made. This is the one thing that Mr. Torrey did that made it easy and special for Book Buddies. He had already prepared a three-ring binder with 10 weeks of readings. Each week there was a word recognition section, a reading with questions for comprehension at the end and a glossary of words to learn and discuss. Each week the student read and the Book Buddy silently timed the student on how many words per minute the student read.

3. An introduction to the teacher. The principal took me to the classroom and introduced me to the teacher. We had a conversation about the student.

 4. A place for volunteer and student. Next, I was shown where the student and I would meet each week. It was a quiet place, away from distractions.

 5. An introduction to the student. I then met the student and learned about his family, his likes and dislikes and his other activities. There was a sheet on the binder of suggested questions.

 6. Agreement on time each week. One important aspect of this program is a regular meeting day and time. The student does to expect it and the teacher can put it on the calendar.

 7. Constant communication. Mr. Torrey and I email each other about the student and what’s going on the school. For example, if there is a conflict on my regular day we agree on an alternative time and day.

Tomorrow (as I write this) is the day that my Book Buddy will take the test. He has worked hard on his reading skills. His teacher, his principal and others have done a lot of nudging. He has come a long way.

What I have learned from being a Book Buddy the past 10 weeks is offered to provide some tips for starting such a program in your community. This column is not just about education; it’s about the workforce of the future. In seven short years my Book Buddy and thousands of other students will be graduating from high school. Soon they will be knocking on the doors of the business community for a job. Perhaps the community should not wait until then to get involved with them.

Book Buddies provide such an opportunity.

» Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist and owner of Hardwick & Associates, LLC, which provides strategic planning facilitation and leadership training services. His email is phil@philhardwick. com and he’s on the web at www.philhardwick.com.


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One comment

  1. The “Book Buddies” program sounds like a great start for helping struggling readers. However, if they are still struggling in third grade, it is very likely they need far more intensive interventions for decoding or for dylsexia. I provide details for how parents can get the help their struggling readers need from their schools in my book (below), and provide updates on “Reading Gate” laws in the US in my blog. Failing a third-grade reading test should be viewed as a cry for help, not cause for the punishment of grade retention. With the proper remedial interventions, all children can read. Here is a study that shows how even schools filled with low-income students have “beaten the odds” http://www.ciera.org/library/reports/inquiry-2/2-006/2-006.html.

    Meanwhile, states such as Florida, which led in grade retention over reading scores, are retreating from the practice. Ohio moderated its program soon after it was put into effect (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/ohios-third-grade-reading-test-miss-goal/). I hope Mississippi will follow suit with great intervention programs in place of punitive retention policies!

    Susan Crawford, Director
    The Right to Read Project
    Author of “Help! My Child Isn’t Reading Yet — What Should I Do?”

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