helping struggling readers

Schools can do better than retaining struggling readers

A school psychologist explains alternatives to retaining students who aren’t reading at grade level

Grade retention is ineffective and expensive, but 17 states and Washington, D.C. mandate it (and at least 12 more states allow it) for students who are not reading proficiently by grade 3. The best way to stop grade retention, whether you live in a state with laws mandating it or not, is to provide students with explicit, phonics-based literacy instruction rooted in the science of reading, beginning in kindergarten.

Here’s how schools and districts can help students begin learning to read on track and stay there to avoid retention.

Who Gets Retained?

The number of students retained has fallen recently, from 3.1 percent in 2000 to 1.9 percent in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Being held back makes life harder for these students in the long run. It doesn’t make their lives better or more prosperous, just more difficult and challenging, and we do it despite a poor track record for retention policies and without a solid base of scientific research demonstrating that it’s best for kids.

Retaining students based solely on their reading achievement is punishing them for a failure in a specific area, but the punishment will not have effects in that area alone, but in the rest of their lives. Retention takes away their social group and identifies them for all their peers as not being good enough to advance.

Students who are successful in school have more going for them than just academics. They have reasons to come to school other than reading, like sports, clubs, friends, or even other academic subjects. But when they get held back, it destroys or hurts all those other areas that provide them the intrinsic motivation to come to school and keep working hard not just at the things they love, but at the things they struggle with, as well.

Giving Students Evidence-Based Curricula

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently released data finding that reading scores have dropped for the first time in more than 30 years. It may not be surprising to see record-breaking declines following a pandemic that massively disrupted learning, but the truth is that NAEP scores are more or less disappointing almost every year.

The reason why is that the educational system is not addressing the root cause. Lawmakers are really hyper-focused on 3rd grade with their retention laws, but the problem starts at least as far back as kindergarten and the curricula schools use to teach reading.

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