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How can we get Philly kids reading at grade level by fourth grade? | Opinion

Read by 4th is made up of parents, educators, literacy specialists, neighborhood merchants, faith leaders, elected and appointed officials and program providers.

Damian Ayers (left) and his son Dylan read together.
Damian Ayers (left) and his son Dylan read together.Read moreHandout

The week of July 22, more than 700 thought leaders and funders from across the country gathered in Philadelphia for Grade Level Reading Week, to set a course for improving literacy among our country's children. The conference was a powerful reminder of just how vital it is that children enter fourth grade reading on grade level. Most important, it was a reminder that we all have a role to play in helping children achieve this fundamental goal.

Here in Philadelphia, this work is powered by a dynamic and diverse coalition of 130 organizations — anchored by the Free Library of Philadelphia — that have come together under the banner of the Read by 4th campaign.

Our goal is simple: Ensure that all children read on grade level by the time they enter fourth grade. Read by 4th is made up of parents, educators, literacy specialists, neighborhood merchants, faith leaders, elected and appointed officials, and program providers. We're connected in our unwavering belief that we can rewrite the early literacy story for thousands of young people in Philadelphia.

We know what it takes to get children to the grade-level reading benchmark. We need our children to enter kindergarten ready to learn; attend school every day, on time; and stay connected to learning in the summer. We need our schools to prioritize and invest in evidence-based reading instruction. And, most important, we need to support families and communities as the best and first teachers of their children.

The challenge we face is changing systems and behaviors in Philadelphia to increase the probability that more of our children will have the experiences we know to be essential to that process.

Read by 4th partners are connecting families to texting services that send brain-development tips to their phones. We have offered nearly 500 workshops for parents on early literacy and the best ways to read to children. We are working to ensure books are getting into the hands of children and families who need them and have distributed nearly a half-million books this year alone. We are recruiting hundreds of volunteers to read with children in out-of-school-time programs. We have placed literacy coaches in 150 Philadelphia schools. We are providing principals with best practices for increasing school attendance in early grades. We are recruiting Reading Captains — more than 100 to date — to support the parents and families in their neighborhoods.

The size of Philadelphia, however, prevents us from simply programming our way out of challenges to early literacy. Supporting the implementation, growth, and development of evidence-based programs is certainly part of our solution. But in order to truly succeed, we must get the entire city to join our cause.

We must invest in public awareness, support community organizing, create "learning landscapes" that catalyze adult-child interactions and drive language development, and pursue other opportunities that will shift behavior and ensure we are reaching every family and child in our city.

Why? Because our real goal is to change behavior over the long term — to change how our partners collaborate, how our systems work, and, most important, how families integrate literacy routines into their daily lives.

The important conversations at the conference confirmed for us that there is a role for everyone in this work. You can make a difference. Volunteer your time to tutor or read with children. Create and maintain a children's bookshelf in your neighborhood. Become a reading captain for your block. Find more ways to support early literacy at

What will your "reading promise" be to the children of Philadelphia?

Getting all children to proficient grade-level reading has been a considerable difficulty in many communities across the country. Encouragingly, our large-scale, evidence-based, and community-focused approach is showing promise and charts a new path toward victory in Philadelphia. While we know many challenges remain, we are certain this story will have a happy ending.

Jenny Bogoni is executive director of Read by 4th.