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Massachusetts Curriculum Framework

English Language Arts
ADOPTED February 1997

Early Literacy: Success in Reading by Grade Three

The Massachusetts Board of Education is committed to ensuring that all students become effective readers by the end of the third grade. Children's success at reading becomes the measure that schools, families, and children themselves use in determining whether or not they are adjusting to school and learning how to learn. The goal of well-conceived beginning reading programs is to have students reading beginning materials by the middle of first grade, reading at grade level by the end of third grade, and making continual grade-level progress thereafter.

The Carnegie Task Force on Learning in the Primary Grades recently published the results of its extensive study of preschool and primary programs across the country. The Report notes that:

Good readers, research shows, attend in a rapid, automatic way to almost all of the letters in the words they read; they also have a practiced sense of the likely associations of sounds in a language and of patterns within words and syllables.

The findings illustrate several important points about the teaching of reading.

  1. Research and practice have demonstrated that effective instruction outweighs perceived "abilities" in children. In particular, the ability to pay attention to the component sounds of language, or "phonemic awareness," is not highly correlated with general intelligence; it can be taught.

  2. Monitoring a student's progress closely is important.

  3. Adapting instruction to individual needs is critical in ensuring that all students learn to read.

  4. Teacher training and staff development must focus closely on balanced approaches to meet the needs of all students.

Phonics and Whole Language

The history of education is marked by vigorous debates about curriculum and pedagogy. In the case of beginning reading instruction, today's debate focuses on the differences between a "whole language" approach and a "phonics," or skills-based, approach. This is in many ways a debate that has gone on for one hundred years.

Proponents of a whole language approach claim that reading develops naturally, much as speech does. They do not deny the alphabetic principle of our writing system. But they do believe that understanding the relationships between sounds and letters is only one of the many ways students can learn new words encountered in their reading. They also believe that understanding sound letter relationships is not necessarily the most important way to learn new words, and that it does not need to be formally taught. Whole language advocates believe that instruction should focus on immersing students in meaningful reading materials.

Those who support systematic phonics instruction want children to read meaningful material, but note that students cannot read a whole story unless they can decode most of the words in it. Phonics instruction is based on the alphabetic principle, and emphasizes teaching children the relationship between sounds and letters. When a student knows the letter-sound connections, he can "sound out" and read the vocabulary encountered in a text. As most linguists and reading researchers have pointed out, learning to read is not like learning to speak; most children in cultures with writing systems have had to be taught to read. Moreover, learning to read is not a natural developmental phenomenon, since many cultures over the centuries never evolved writing systems on their own. To ensure steady progress in reading, all primary grade teachers should provide both explicit, systematic phonics instruction and a variety of high quality reading materials that motivate students to read fluently and with understanding.

Characteristics of Effective Early Literacy Programs

In the first edition of Learning to Read: The Great Debate, published in 1967, Jeanne Chall made the distinction between a "meaning" emphasis and a "code" emphasis in beginning reading instruction, pointing out that comparative studies from the early 1900s on show that students who have had systematic phonics instruction achieve higher scores in word identification and reading comprehension than students in programs with a "meaning" emphasis. In Beginning to Read, Marilyn Jaeger Adams has summarized and synthesized the past decade's research on reading instruction, confirming Chall's earlier conclusions. The heart of a sound beginning reading program is an appropriate balance between explicit, systematic instruction in the relationships between sounds and letters and a focus on the meaning of written language through the use of high quality reading materials and authentic language activities. While skills alone cannot develop good readers, few readers can become proficient without these fundamental skills.

Students are successful at learning to read when they know the elements that make up the words in their texts. They recognize letters and patterns of letters and they know the sounds associated with these symbols. This is called phonics knowledge or phonics skills. In Kindergarten, students should begin to develop an awareness of the different individual sounds in words, such as beginning or ending sounds (a phenomenon that reading researchers now refer to as phonemic awareness, and which used to be called beginning phonics). This can be accomplished with word games and other activities that develop students' explicit attention to the discrete sounds in words. The teaching of phonics skills should continue until students are able to read independently.

Oral language development is also vital to literacy development. Throughout the preschool, Kindergarten, and primary grades, teachers should read aloud to students and engage them in meaningful discussions. Students can learn to predict meaning in picture books read to them by looking at the illustrations, and discussing how the images complement the text. When older students visit the classroom, or when students learn to read independently, they should be invited to spend some time reading aloud to the class.

The formal reading program should begin in first grade. Students should be taught the relationships between sounds and letters and then given opportunities to practice decoding skills independently and in collaborative groups. Groupings should be flexible and allow for regrouping based on careful assessment of progress. As students acquire decoding skills, they become confident in their ability to identify unfamiliar words in increasingly more complex texts and materials.

Some students come to school already reading and can make appropriate progress in classrooms that place a strong emphasis on meaningful reading and writing activities. Other students may have reading disabilities and need long-term, structured programs. Nevertheless, the vast majority of children do not have reading disabilities or come to school already reading. These students benefit from a reasonable balance between explicit skills instruction and authentic reading activities to assure steady growth in the development of their ability to read accurately, fluently, and with understanding.

The Writing Connection

Young children need to learn how to form the letters that comprise their writing system, as well as how to express their thoughts in the written word. Italian educator Maria Montessori emphasized exercises in which children learn the correlation of sounds with shapes by feeling textured letter shapes, forming letters repeatedly with a pencil, and using moveable alphabets as they sound out words. In describing her teaching methods, Thomas C. Crain wrote, "Writing paves the way to reading. Through writing children form a muscular and visual memory of the letters and words and therefore can recognize them."

Students should spend time writing about ideas in a variety of forms--letters, stories, and short informational essays. Writing reinforces the fact that language has meaning. It gives students an opportunity to develop a personal voice and style upon which they can reflect.

Adapting to Individual Needs

Students come to school from diverse experiences with sound and symbol. Sometimes the sounds and orthography of the home language or dialect may be different from those of standard English. With explicit instruction, students can learn standard English as they continue to develop as effective readers. This is particularly valuable for young children as they learn a second language.

Students whose first language is not English need many opportunities to speak and read English. Teachers should encourage them to practice speaking and writing in English and should praise them regularly for the progress they make. Students can learn to speak a second language when they are given consistent and continual practice in using the language in authentic language activities and in all their school work.

Everyone agrees that learning to read is the essential mission of the primary grades. Therefore, administrators need to ensure that schools are organized to teach reading. Several pilot programs cited in the Carnegie report emphasize the importance of organizing class size, daily schedules, and assignment of staff so that smaller groups of students can practice their reading together with teachers and peer tutors.

If students continue to have difficulties with reading after grades one or two, they should have opportunities for intensive reading assistance. Reading help may be necessary for some students throughout their school years. It should be seen as a safety net to ensure that all students are able to achieve literacy and high standards in all curriculum areas.

The Goal of Early Literacy

This English Language Arts Curriculum Framework sets the goal that every child who enters Kindergarten or first grade in Massachusetts will become an effective reader and writer of the English language by the end of third grade.

Figures C, D, E, and F are designed to clarify literacy expectations for students in the primary grades. Teachers, parents, family members, and friends must take responsibility together for helping young children progress toward achieving literacy. As children become competent readers, they learn to love reading and books. The reading and writing skills and strategies presented in Figure C are the essential elements in teaching early literacy. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, nor does this figure suggest the order in which these activities should take place, for writing, reading, and literary interpretation are often part of the same lesson. As the standards and examples in this framework demonstrate, students continue to refine their ability to read and write throughout their academic careers.

What level of reading should be expected of students at the end of the third grade? Figure D shows three sample passages from reading texts designed for the end of grade three, and Figure E presents passages from the beginning of fourth grade readers. These sample passages of literary, informational, and practical texts have been selected to indicate the range of vocabulary and different kinds of formats third and fourth grade students are expected to read and comprehend.

Finally, the teaching anecdote in Figure E demonstrates one way in which an adult--teacher, parent, grandparent, or friend--might combine phonics instruction with the reading of a story and the exploration of different kinds of literature.

Figure C: Key Reading and Writing Skills and Strategies Introduced and Developed from Preschool to Grade 3

 Preschool-Kindergarten StudentsGrade 1
Grades 2 and 3

Use moveable alphabets

Scribble or "write " for a purpose (e.g., make signs, "write" letters)

Use "invented spelling to "write words"

Identify and form all letters

Understand alphabetic principle and concept of audience when writing

Know standard spelling of commonly used words; still use some invented spelling

With teacher help, begin to use basic mechanics such as end marks and capitalization

Practice handwriting

Consider audience and purpose when writing for a variety of audiences

Use standard spelling for majority of commonly used words

With teacher help, edit writing for basic mechanics and standard spelling


Identify initial and rhyming sounds of words

Identify both words in compound words (e.g., cowboy, raindrop)

Use pictures to predict when listening or viewing stories

Ask questions to clarify meaning when listening or viewing

Know most letter/sound correspondences and use them to decode/use words in context

Know common word endings (e.g., plurals, ing, ed) and use them to decode/use words in context

With teacher help, use relevant text features (e.g. bold print) to predict new information.

With teacher help, reread to improve understanding

Know all letter/sound correspondences and use them to decode/use words in context

Know common suffixes and prefixes (e.g., tion, ment, re, un) and use them to decode/use words in context

Independently use relevant text features to predict new information.

Independently reread to improve understanding


Develop awareness of story structure (i.e., beginning, middle, end)

Learn difference between fantasy and reality in stories

Follow simple concrete, oral directions

Respond personally to literature

"Write" stories or letters by dictating to teacher who models writing.

Develop appreciation of literary devices such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and figurative language

Recognize story elements such as events, characters, setting, moral

Understand difference between fiction and nonfiction

Follows more complex, abstract, oral directions

With teacher help, make connections among pieces of literature and between literature and life experiences

After brainstorming ideas and key vocabulary, write stories, letters, reports

With teacher help, recognize and create literary devices such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, figurative language

Understand story elements, including theme, and use them in reading and writing

Write simple informational reports and recognize genres (e.g., fables, fairy tales

Read and follow "how to" directions

Make connections between literature and other experiences more independently

Write stories, letters, and reports more independently

Recognize and use literary devices such as rhyme, alliteration, and figurative language more independently

Figure D: Sample Passages Students Should Be Able to Read at the End of Grade 3

The lowest part of the Titanic is divided into sixteen watertight compartments. If one compartment starts to flood, the captain can just pull a switch. A thick steel door will shut. The water will be trapped. It cannot flood the rest of the ship. Two or three or even four compartments can be full of water. Still the Titanic will float.
The Titanic had another nickname--"The Rich Man's Special." Some of the richest people in the world are sailing on the Titanic. Their tickets cost more money than a sailor earns in a lifetime.

One afternoon Henry arrived at Mr. Capper's garage in plenty of time to fold his papers. He counted a stack of forty-three Journals and as long as he was early, he took time to glance through the paper. He looked at the headlines and read the comic section. Then the picture of a smiling lady caught his eye. It was the lady who gave people advice when they wrote to her.

During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington and his soldiers faced a bitter winter camping at Valley Forge. It was very cold and there was little food--sometimes only oats and milk. But they always lit a fire and cooked what there was. Valley Forge Oatmeal was simple to make. Today, by adding some special ingredients, it can be a delicious treat, too.

To make 4 servings, you need:

1 1/2 cups of rolled oats
3 cups of water
1/2 teaspoon of salt
4 pats of butter
2 cups of milk
a stove (and someone to help you with it)
a pot
4 cereal bowls

How to do it:

  1. Add half a teaspoon of salt to the three cups of water in the pot and bring to a boil.
  2. Stir in the rolled oats, gradually, so the water comes to a boil.
  3. Reduce heat.
  4. Add a handful of raisins.
  5. Let it simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Stir now and then.
  6. Pour the mixture into four cereal bowls and top each with a pat of butter.
  7. Mix in a teaspoon of honey in each bowl.
  8. Add a little milk to each bowl.
  9. Sprinkle with cinnamon on top and enjoy! It's also a good way to keep warm!

Figure E: Sample Passages Students Should Be Able To Read at the Beginning of Grade 4

Nothing Paul Bunyan ever did was small. He had an ox named Babe, who used to help him with his work. Babe was just about the most phenomenal ox in Michigan. His color was blue, and he stood ninety hands high. If you happened to hang on to the tip of one horn, it's doubtful if you could have seen the tip of the other, even on a clear day. One day when Paul and Babe were out plowing, the ox was stung by a Michigan deer fly about the size of a bushel basket. Babe took off across the country dragging the plow behind him, right across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, with the deer fly bringing up the rear. After a while Babe reared south and didn't stop till he got to the Rio Grande. The plow that Babe was hitched to dug a furrow two miles wide and two hundred miles long. You can check it in your own geography book. They call it the Grand Canyon nowadays.

A wonderful thing happened this new school year. Gigi, Consuela, Paquito, and I were all going into the fourth grade, and we were put in the same class. It had never happened before. Once I was in the same class with Consuela, and last year Gigi and Paquito were together. But this--it was too good to be true! Of course knowing Gigi and I were in the same class made me happiest.
Our teacher, Miss Lovett, was friendly and laughed easily. In early October she told us that our class was going to put on a play for Thanksgiving. The play we were going to perform was based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, called "The Courtship of Miles Standish." It was about the Pilgrims and how they lived when they first landed in America.

Many mammals of the Ice Age grew heavy coats of hair. The hair protected them from the cold. The woolly mammoth was one of these. It lived in what is now Europe, and in China, Siberia, and Alaska.
The Columbian mammoth lived in a warmer climate, too. It traveled from Asia to Europe, and to parts of America.
Sometime it is called the Jeffersonian mammoth. It was named after Thomas Jefferson, who was President when one was discovered in the United States. President Jefferson was interested in the past, He encouraged scientists to find out more about it.

Figure F: Early Literacy In An Elementary Classroom

The following snapshot of a combination first/second grade class illustrates how a teacher fosters early literacy. In these lessons, the teacher, Mr. Griff, demonstrates how he incorporates phonemic awareness into the reading of literature with his class. As he reads, he gives students the opportunity to think carefully about ideas and vocabulary and, at the same time, reinforces their decoding skills.

The class gathers around Mr. Griff in the group time corner. Both teacher and students have copies of William Steig's Amos and Boris, the story of an unlikely friendship between Amos, a mouse, and Boris, a whale. The story begins as Amos falls overboard in the middle of the ocean, and Boris comes to his rescue. They develop a strong friendship; and many years later when Boris is beached by a hurricane, the tiny mouse finds a way to rescue the great whale.

As Mr. Griff begins to read, the students share books and follow along:

Amos, a mouse, lived by the ocean. He loved the ocean. He loved the smell of the sea air. He loved to hear the surf sounds - the bursting breakers, the backwashes with rolling pebbles....

Earlier in the day, Mr. Griff and the children have brainstormed several of their daily word lists, printed the words on big newsprint pads, and placed the lists on easels in the group time corner. One of the lists contains "beginning B" words, such as boy, beach, bread, and butter. Mr. Griff knows that, as his students listen and read along, they will bring different memories and experiences to their understanding of the story; he also wants them to make connections to letter sounds and vocabulary. First he reads the whole story to them. Then he rereads the opening lines and says, "I love the way the author uses words that help me hear the sounds in this story. What are some words that help you hear the sound of the surf?"

"Bursting breakers!" one child answers, " and backwashes with rolling pebbles!"
"Which ones are 'B' words?" Mr. Griff asks.
"Bursting breakers and backwashes," another child replies. "We can add them to our brainstorm list."
"Boris should go on our list too," says a third child. "With a capital 'B' because it's a name."
"Pebbles should too," says another child.

Mr. Griff pauses and says, "Let's listen carefully and look at that word again. Where is the 'B' sound in pebbles?" The child reconsiders and says that it is in the middle.
"What sound does pebbles start with?"
When she identifies "P" as the first letter, Mr. Griff says, "Right! Can you think of other words that begin with 'P'?"
She comes up with "pad," "puppy," and "printed."
"Perfect!" says Mr. Griff, starting to write the new list on another piece of paper. After the students have added the new words to both their lists, he resumes reading.

"What sort of fish are you?" the whale asked. "You must be one of a kind!"
"I'm not a fish," said Amos. "I'm a mouse, which is a mammal, the highest form of life. I live on land."
"Holy clam and cuttlefish!" said the whale. "I'm a mammal myself, though I live in the sea. Call me Boris."

Mr. Griff is aware that this "mammal conversation" provides an opportunity to expand his students' vocabulary, and he asks them what they know about mammals. Students offer information and observations from their reading and experience:

"They have warm, red blood! I think they have hair."
"They give birth to their babies, not hatch eggs."
"Amos and Boris look so different, but since they're both mammals they're the same in some way too. Maybe that helps them be friends."

The class finishes reading the story together, and on the following day Mr. Griff introduces "The Lion and the Mouse," an Aesop fable about a lion who spares the life of a mouse who in turn saves the lion's life. By introducing another story in which friendship is the key idea, Mr. Griff builds upon students' knowledge of Amos and Boris to help them think about how similar ideas are used by two different authors. He asks students to talk about how the two stories are the same and how are they different, and then write about the connections between the two stories, as well as connections to other stories they have read.

In the course of this two-day unit, Mr. Griff has skillfully interwoven lessons about letters and their sounds, the meanings of words, the beauty of language, and the ideas that stories can convey. He has started his students on the pathway of discovering a lifetime of wonder, enjoyment, and knowledge in the books they read.

Last Updated: February 1, 1997
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