Early Reading Skill Development and Characteristics of Reading Skill Profiles: Analysis of Early Childhood Longitudinal Study

Mengyi Li
Yuan Zhang
Little girls enjoy story time during after school program

Early reading is an important indicator of future academic success, and early reading development has been well studied, demonstrating the importance of early reading growth for reading performance in later grades. Despite such research efforts, results from the recent national reading assessments show that more than one-third of the nation’s fourth graders do not have sufficient reading skills.

This paper is part of a series of AIR-NAEP working papers that showcase AIR’s expertise and experience not only with NAEP but with other large-scale assessments and survey-based longitudinal studies. Explore all the AIR-NAEP working papers.

By utilizing two nationally representative datasets (Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-11 [ECLS-K:2011] and NAEP 2015 grade 4 reading assessment data), this study replicates and expands the early reading growth research to generate empirical evidence that can be generalized at the national level.

The primary objectives of this study are to

  1. Examine the unique development patterns of early reading skills;
  2. Identify the reading skill profiles of students who are struggling or at-risk for reading difficulties in fourth grade; and
  3. Examine the relationship between early reading development patterns and NAEP grade 4 reading performance. 

Key Findings and Analysis

Results from the latent growth curve model analysis of overall reading performance show that students demonstrated the most growth from kindergarten through first grade, and the growth slowed during the second grade and slowed down even further during third grade. Moreover, results from the growth mixture mode analysis suggest five groups of students with distinct early reading development patterns, characterized as

  • High Performers (5 percent of students representing high reading skills at the beginning of kindergarten and maintaining high reading skills);
  • Early Boosters (20 percent of students representing rapid growth between kindergarten and grade 1);
  • Average Learners (52 percent of students representing average initial reading skills and average reading growth);
  • Steady but Slow Learners (20 percent of students representing average initial reading skills but slow reading growth between kindergarten and grade 1); and
  • Struggling Learners (3 percent of students representing low initial reading skills and inadequate reading growth during the first 4 years of school).

Further analysis of the item-level data shows the importance of foundational reading skills, suggesting that starting kindergarten without mastery of the alphabetic principle and finishing first grade without mastery of phonological awareness is highly correlated with later performance below the NAEP Basic achievement level on the fourth grade NAEP reading assessment.

Findings from this study suggest three important practices to support students’ adequate reading growth in early grades and prevent students from falling behind:

  1. Providing high-quality early literacy instruction prior to kindergarten to help students master basic reading skills,
  2. Monitoring the development progress of all foundational reading skills such as phonological awareness, even in kindergarten and first grade, and
  3. Providing focused, evidence-based instructions to students as early as possible.