Literary Statistics and What is 90% Literacy by Third Grade?

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KELLY SARTAIN, THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE BUGGY BUNCH HERE IN VERO BEACH recently advised that Moonshot Moment was the “hottest” thing happening in Vero Beach. It seems to be the buzz.

The theme of Moonshot Moment is 90% literacy by the third grade.

But what is the definition of 90% literacy?  It sounds good, Moonshot is promoting it, everyone is talking about it, but there has been no coverage to define what 90% literacy by third grade exactly means.

First, some statistics:

According to literacy fast facts from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), literacy is defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

Literacy statistics worldwide:

According to UNICEF, “Nearly a billion people will enter the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names and two thirds of them are women.”

Literacy statistics and juvenile court:

“85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.

More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.

Penal institution records show that inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% who receive no help. This equates to taxpayer costs of $25,000 per year per inmate and nearly double that amount for juvenile offenders.”

Illiteracy and crime are closely related. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.

Many of the USA’s ills are directly related to illiteracy.

A few more statistics from

“Literacy is learned. Illiteracy is passed along by parents who cannot read or write.

One child in four grows up not knowing how to read.

43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty compared to only 4% of those at Level 5

3 out of 4 food stamp recipients perform in the lowest 2 literacy levels

90% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts

16 to 19 year old girls at the poverty level and below, with below average skills, are 6 times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their reading counterparts.

Low literary costs $73 million per year in terms of direct health care costs. A recent study by Pfizer put the cost much higher.”

Now, what does 90% literacy actually mean?

We searched and the best explanation we could find came from a book by Eli R. Johnson entitled: Academic Language / Academic Literacy!  Mr. Johnson is a consultant for the California Department of Education.  A nationally recognized speaker and consultant, he earned a teaching degree from Brigham Young University and a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Washington.


Eli R. Johnson

According to Mr. Johnson, “The 90% rule of comprehension is when students know 90% of the vocabulary words in a reading passage and they are able to infer successfully and generate meaning (Stahl, 1999).  In addition, knowing 90% of the words helps the reader to use context clues, cognitive strategies and inferring abilities that strengthen reader comprehension and also support learning additional words (Nation, 1990).

If a student’s academic language fails to keep within at least 90% of the academic rigors of classroom texts, then eventually students will feel overwhelmed, and loss of motivation is almost surely to occur.  Teachers needs to monitor student’s language comprehension to make sure all students know at least 90% of the words before they are asked to engage in reading and comprehending the text (Rog. 2003).”


  • Frustration Reading Level: Below 90% comprehension
  • Instructional Reading Level: 90 -95% comprehension range
  • Independent Reading Level: 95% comprehension or better

While inquiring around to find out what 90% literacy meant we received this email from a reader we had contacted who is very interested in the subject.

The reader indicated with regard to Moonshot, “I agree they are not very clear on what the 90% means. I raised the same question; why 90% when we need to shoot for 100%? The explanation was that 90% was a realistic expectation.

When I was at the Taxpayers luncheon back in June Dr. Rendall spoke and brought up the Moonshot. What I gathered is he wants to push further with literacy. The Moonshot pushes 90% proficient by 3rd grade. Dr. Rendall implied the bar was not set high enough for our students and I agree. What happens to the kids not proficient by the third grade? The statistics are stacked against students passed 3rd grade that aren’t reading on grade level.

I was just reading yesterday that 2/3 of those students are 78% more likely to end up on government benefits as adults. I don’t think these students aren’t capable of being proficient readers; I think it’s because the focus ends at 3rd grade. Thus far I feel it’s falling short of the finish line.

We have these kids for 13 years if we are lucky; because by high school if students can’t read they are struggling in every single subject and their desire and confidence is low. There is no reason unless there is a learning disability that if we have a willing child and a supportive community that every student in our school district is not graduating proficient in reading. Why can’t we focus on both groups?”

3 thoughts on “Literary Statistics and What is 90% Literacy by Third Grade?

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