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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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Educators have known for more than 20 years that there is an effective way to teach reading based on how the brain learns. The collective scientific research and recommended practices based on them are known as the science of reading. And yet many students don’t receive instruction based on this proven method.

Giving Students Consistent Curricula

In addition to adopting curricula based on the science of reading, schools need to make sure those curricula are taught consistently. I was at a school recently where they told me they just love their Tier I curriculum, but it’s no good for Tier II or III. As a result, not only are some students not receiving the literacy support grounded in methods scientifically proven to help them read better, but they are actually being taught in two or three different ways.

Students need a Tier I curriculum that can scale to Tier II and III so that they aren’t receiving 45 minutes of instruction in one place and then a completely different kind of instruction for 45 minutes in another place. It’s confusing and only compounds the problem.

Preparing Teachers to Teach the Science of Reading

When I earned my bachelor’s degree in 2001, there were very few science of reading-based curricula available, though now there are dozens. Unfortunately, teacher prep programs are lagging behind and not training teachers to deliver those curricula for their students. A 2020 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 51 percent of teacher prep programs were using the science of reading. That percentage is trending up, but that means that half of teachers are still graduating without an understanding of high-quality reading instruction.

Those teachers can learn the science of reading after they graduate, but in my home state of Utah, the average career of a special education teacher is two-and-a-half to three years. If they are learning how to teach their students to read for the first year, that becomes a pretty meager return on investment. The right curriculum can help, but the career cycle of a teacher is so short that schools don’t have time to teach them how to teach reading after they come out of college. Students need their teachers to come out of teacher prep ready to teach them how to read.

Finding Students’ Genius

While a science of reading-based curriculum and properly trained teachers may help struggling readers make progress, the pain and frustration of falling behind can become its own barrier to progress.

The first thing I try to do with a struggling reader is to help them find their genius so they don’t hate school. Teachers are so hyperfocused on having students read at a certain level by grade 3 that it can become very uncomfortable for students to go to school—and it eventually impacts their school life far beyond reading.

When I talk to their parents, I ask them if they’ve ever had a job they didn’t like. How much worse would that job have been if they were reminded throughout their eight-hour shift that they were bad at it? It would start to impact their personal life and even affect the way people at home interact with them.

These kids need to know that the adults in their lives see their struggle. They’ve been through a lot.

They also need to know they are smart. Dyslexia, for example, has nothing to do with intelligence. Some students who struggle to read are great at math, theater, sports, music, art, or any number of other things. It doesn’t matter what it is. The important thing is to help them find something other than reading to hang their self-esteem on.

Once they have that, it becomes much easier to focus on reading.

Turning Down the Emotional Response

All of the negative consequences of struggling to read create a powerful emotional response in students, which makes it that much more difficult to learn. Teachers have to turn down the emotional response associated with reading challenges.

Once teachers have reassured students that they’re smart and have adults on their side, they need to make sure they are offering students a developmentally appropriate curriculum. A student who is reading years behind their current grade level doesn’t want to read about Sally going to the store or Spot running. They want to read about the same things other students their age enjoy. Fifth graders want to read about sports or science or dirt bikes, and giving them a curriculum that allows them to learn to read as they enjoy those kinds of developmentally appropriate topics helps them to maintain their dignity.

When students struggle with reading, high-quality reading instruction is essential. But to make sure the student is able to focus on reading, the adults around them also have to focus on what they are good at and build from there. Whatever their strength is, we can leverage that to build up their reading competencies instead of tearing down what they’re good at by making them repeat a grade.

I believe that when you know better, you have to do better, and the research on the science of reading has been clear for 20 years. We know better, and now is the time for everyone associated with reading instruction to do better for students.

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