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Brianda Avila Ramirez gazed at the sentences on her computer screen. They told a story she was trying to follow. “The mayor stepped forward. Her face was …”

The child stopped, her eyebrows knitted together, and clicked on a button. The computer started reading aloud. Shyly, she said the story was easier that way.

Brianda was just a few days from the end of third grade at Kimbrough Elementary in Grant Hill. And she was a few days from a crucial milestone.

Educators eye closely whether children can read well by the end of third grade. Teachers describe it with a catchphrase: Kindergarten from third grade is traditionally where children are “learning to read,” while fourth grade and up is “reading to learn.”

If children still struggle with reading after that point, they can miss out on what they’re supposed to be learning and fall further behind. Weak readers may be able to scrape by at the beginning of third grade, when picture books with a few sentences on each page are typical. But by fourth grade, their textbooks prod them to dig deeper into readings. If those lessons presume children can read, some hit a wall.

One book used in Chula Vista fourth-grade classrooms asks, “What conditions made the Titanic especially hard to find?” Children at Olympic View Elementary School pair off to talk about the question, paging back through their readings about the man who discovered the Titanic underwater. If they strain to read the passage in the first place, however, it becomes doubly frustrating to try to analyze it.

“If they don’t have the skills up at that point,” said Becky Inumerable, who teaches fourth and fifth grade at Olympic View, “the curriculum gets harder and harder.”

Nearly half of all third graders in San Diego County fell short in English on state tests this year. English learners and children from poor homes are more than twice as likely to falter as other kids. Roughly half of all San Diego County elementary schools have more third graders falling short in reading than not.

In some schools, weak reading has made the supposed fourth grade jump to “reading to learn” a myth rather than a milestone. It has forced schools to adapt, teaching reading long after third grade. Schools scramble to get kids caught up to a curriculum that races past their reading skills. The problem has lessened over the last seven years, but the gap between the goal and the reality remains striking.

“If they miss the third grade mark, we don’t give up on them,” said Christine Sphar, language arts coordinator in Cajon Valley Union School District.

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Kimbrough, for instance, made big gains on reading tests this year, but less than a third of its students are reading well in third grade. Most students are learning English and almost all are poor enough to get a free lunch. Many are also illiterate in Spanish, giving them little grounding for English.

“Our teachers have to teach reading in every grade. We can’t stop,” said Principal Flavia Soria.

The school tries to tackle the problem by targeting kids’ needs. For part of the day, Kimbrough students split up into groups based on their reading ability, to get lessons aimed at their specific weaknesses. Teacher Lorin Mannella quizzed a group of third graders on grammar, asking for the past present tense of “I buy a few toys.” One boy squirmed. “I have boughten a few toys?” he answered.

It isn’t impossible for kids to catch up after third grade, but it is very, very hard.

Beth Rice, an education consultant for the state Board of Education, estimated that it takes three hours a day of intensive lessons, every day, for a year or two to bring a child back on track. Many school districts don’t bother to use intervention programs or don’t devote enough time to make them work, Rice said.

And she believes that even third grade could be too late.

“It should be a civil right that no child even leaves second grade without being able to read,” Rice said. “But we’re not quite there yet.”

Not everyone agrees that third grade is the best benchmark for reading or even a realistic one. In California, the third grade test tends to be especially hard and is based on a subjective standard. Some experts feel schools focus too much on quickly mastering the mechanics of reading, drilling them on letter sounds and decoding words, and end up alienating children for the long term.

“The bigger problem than the fourth grade slump is the seventh grade cliff,” said David Pearson, a literacy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “If we define mastery as being able to decode accurately, kids get shortchanged. They disengage.”

Striking that balance is tricky.

Schools want children to love reading — but they also want them to get the hang of it fast. At Olympic View, a school with stellar scores in the affluent eastern stretches of Chula Vista, every classroom has a sign stating the number of words a child is expected to read per minute.

Third grade teacher Doug Musolf tested a girl with sparkly pink sneakers while other students worked on a reading test. The girl read smoothly for a minute as Musolf listened for errors.

Even at high achieving schools like Olympic View, not every child meets the third grade milestone. So the school extends reading lessons beyond third grade and beyond the school day.

If kids fail to read, they go to a computer lab before and after school to practice, using programs that adjust to their level. Kimbrough has taken a similar tack, buying a computerized program and providing tutoring after school.

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Bringing kids back on track can also mean difficult trade-offs.

In Cajon Valley Union School District, where many students are immigrants newly arrived from Iraq or Burma, there are separate English classes in fourth grade and beyond where students focus on things children would ideally learn from kindergarten to third grade. But while kids take those alternative classes, they miss out on what the rest of their classmates are learning.

Though schools like Kimbrough get the bad marks, the problem with third grade reading extends beyond the school doors.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which launched a national campaign to get kids reading by the end of third grade, argues that besides better schools, children need to be healthy and show up at school. Parents need to be involved.

“The challenge is the more you wait, the more it costs and the harder it is,” said Ralph Smith, vice president of the Casey Foundation.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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