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

Callister suggests intensive intervention at school by trained reading specialists, summer reading programs and workshops to help parents help their children.

"I really believe parents love their kids, they just sometimes need the skills to help their kids," she said. "Developing a relationship with the parents, and never judging, really makes a difference."

In Florida, retention policy changes show results that suggest retaining low-scoring readers might have benefits in some cases. Since 2003, the state has required many third-graders with low reading scores to repeat the grade with intensive remediation. (A variety of exclusions allow some low-scoring students to be promoted.)

It is too soon to tell whether Florida's retention policy will improve students' eventual workplace success and educational attainment. But, the retained students do perform better than their promoted peers in reading and math for several years after repeating third grade, according to the Brookings Institute Report. Those benefits diminish over time, however.

Third-grade retentions jumped from 2.8 to 13.5 percent in Florida after the policy was implemented. In the subsequent six years, the percentage of retentions declined steadily, prompting speculation that the retention policy might be motivating parents, teachers and students to work harder at improving reading skills.

Among many literacy experts who don't favor retention is Timothy Shanahan, curriculum and instruction director for the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"Retention offers a child an extra year of instruction at state expense. But many children refuse the offer; they return the extra year when they turn 16 by dropping out," Shanahan said. "If you retain a child a single year, you increase markedly his or her chances of dropping out. If you retain (the student) twice, you pretty much guarantee they will not finish high school. The medicine is as damaging as the malady it is prescribed to prevent."

Shanahan said that such problems as neglectful parents and poor school instruction at age 8 don't improve much over time.

"Retention doesn't address any of these underlying problems, so students aren't benefited by retention," he said. "Finally, retention is expensive. If your state pays $8,000 per student per year, and the schools were to retain 10,000 third graders, then it would cost the state approximately $80,000,000 in additional instructional costs."

The Brookings Institute report concludes that retention is most effective when additional funding is in place to provide retained students with intensive, research-based instruction in reading. And, local educators should have discretion to make decisions they believe are in the best interest of the child without compromising increased accountability. More evidence is needed, with those conditions in place, to determine how the benefits of retention stacks up against the cost, the report concluded.

Email: cbaker@desnews.com

How to improve a child's reading skills

Title 1 literacy specialist Kathy Callister offers tips for parents:

Talk to your children, from birth onward. Read aloud to them.

Make the library a fun place to go.

Encourage pre-school children to ask questions and answer patiently.

Pay attention to how much time children spend watching television and playing video games.

Enjoy nursery rhymes and songs together.

Build letter awareness by pointing out letters on signs and singing the alphabet song.

Point out the sounds that letters make, and have children listen for words that begin with a particular sound as you read to them.

Stay in close contact with your child's teacher.

Make age-appropriate reading material available at home, and listen to children read.

Have children write captions for the pictures they draw, make grocery lists for you and write thank you notes.

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