Why reading by third grade is critical, and what can be done to help children meet that deadline

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Reading Specialist DeAnne Wilie works with second graders Alejandro Flores and Olivia Baarsma at Hillsdale Elementary School in West Valley City on Friday, January 20, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Literacy specialist Kathy Callister has helped two generations of struggling readers in her 20 years of teaching at Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary, a small school in the mountain village of Hesperus, Colo.

As a Title I school, Fort Lewis Mesa has a high proportion of students from low-income families. That means Callister's students are statistically at risk for low reading proficiency a problem linked with failure to finish high school and a lifetime of reduced opportunities.

Each week, Callister spends time with each grade's lagging readers at her school, applying research-based interventions to boost skills. She works with the school's teachers to improve their reading instruction, too. A particular emphasis is ensuring that kids read well by the end of third grade.

"Things change in third grade," Callister said. "Kids are not just learning fundamentals of reading. They are reading for meaning and to learn. If kids are struggling to decode the words, they don't get much meaning from the text and don't learn what they need to know."

Third-grade battlefield

Nationally, 85 percent of children from low-income families failed to reach proficiency levels by fourth grade on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Improving reading proficiency is seen as imperative to keeping the U.S. competitive in the global marketplace, and third grade is where the battle is being fought hardest.

Creating proficient readers by the end of third grade is considered so important that several states have enacted policies requiring third-graders with low scores to repeat the grade with extra coaching in reading. However, researchers and teachers haven't reached consensus about whether grade retention has long-term benefits.

Retention might even be counterproductive. Massive evidence shows that "retained students achieve at lower levels, are more likely to drop out of high school, and have worse social-emotional outcomes than superficially similar students who are promoted," according to a new study from the Brookings Institute.

However, the Brookings study goes on to say that previous research on retention might have an inherent flaw.

"The disappointing outcomes of retained students may well reflect the reasons they were held back in the first place rather than the consequences of being retained," the study said.

Factors in poor reading

Many of Callister's students at Fort Lewis Mesa are behind in reading readiness when they enter school, because they haven't had early exposure to books nor access to experiences that build reading readiness.

"Some families don't speak English at home, and many parents are overwhelmed and in survival mode," she said. "They are struggling to put food on table and don't have much energy left to talk, read and play with their children. You have to address the emotional and social issues before a child can really learn."

Absenteeism is a big contributor to reading difficulties at Callister's school, and across the nation.

"If parents don't value going to school, or have to work all night and can't get their kids on the school bus, it doesn't matter how great my instruction is," Callister said. "They aren't there to get it."

Retention vs. promotion

Her many years of personal observation have convinced Callister that holding a child back in third grade rarely helps.

"Retaining a child is an emotionally charged decision," she said. "It's often humiliating to the child, no matter how positive everyone is — often for the rest of their lives. The achievement gains fade. I think there are more appropriate ways to deal with lack of skill in reading."

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