Reading for Success by 3rd Grade

May 15, 2012 at 11:18 AM Leave a comment

To hold back or not to hold back…that is the question? Maybe it is, if you are caught up in the trap of binary debate over 3rd grade retention. It is irresistible to enter an argument with adorable children, a high-stakes reading test, and studies that would suggest that 3rd grade is second only to kindergarten in determining lifetime earnings for every citizen on the planet. But we are missing the point. We look back with regret instead of planning for success from Day 1.

Why is it that the dialogue around children who fail does not seem to lead directly to failure prevention? A child who cannot read well by the end of 3rd grade has not been able to read for four years. During kindergarten, that child was the norm, but there was a need for intervention by the end of the 1st grade. Something was not working and should have been changed and changed again through 2nd and 3rd grades until the child was a reader.

One of my sisters – a fabulous 1st grade teacher – has often seemed like my most forgiving advocate in life. It was something I took for granted without knowing why until well into adulthood when she joked about how I had taught her to read. Apparently, she had admitted to me that she couldn’t read one day toward the end of 1st grade. As a 3rd grader, I was horrified and told her to sit down and I would show her how it was done. We worked together at home for a few weeks, which I had totally forgotten over the years. One day during class transition, she decided she was ready. She got up and joined a reading group. The teacher tried to send her back to the non-readers’ group, telling her, “Now, you know you can’t read.” My little sister assured her, “Oh yes I can,” and refused to back down. Her teacher relented and let her show everyone how she could “read.” The class laughed, but the teacher was dumbstruck as a very brave little girl opened a book and read.

That story should be anachronistic, but thirty-five years later another sister was advised by a friend to get her child out of a school because of reading. The friend worked as an aid in a 1st grade classroom. She had observed with dismay as my niece and another child in the classroom were left behind. Every day when the reading groups formed, they just stayed at their desks and looked sad. No one intervened. My niece would continue to struggle in various schools for the next five years until my sister moved her family to another county to get access to a district with a good reputation in Special Education. During 6th grade, a reading specialist assessed her reading at a grade level of 2.3. She worked with her for 18 months and raised that to 6.8 before she entered 8th grade. By 9th grade she was reading well and earning a B in Latin. She is entering college in the fall and plans to become a teacher.

Last year, it happened again. A young family member was having behavior problems, getting into fights. He had been the sweetest, most enthusiastic kid. He was finishing 2nd grade with low reading scores. Again, a family moved and the new school was a better fit. Reading was within his reach, and the young man has recovered his confidence and his good nature. But, like his cousin and his aunt, he had been treated to low expectations and interventions only for the symptoms of the problem in primary grades.

Yes, I come from a family of kids who tend to struggle verbally. However, my unrelated practice as a special educator has introduced me to far too many students who entered high school with 2nd to 4th grade reading skills. As a math teacher, I would pre-teach vocabulary and accommodate reading issues with word problems. I loved to build visual models as concrete bridges to abstract concepts. But I worried about my students’ futures as adults trying to earn a living and have families with such barriers to success.

On a hopeful note, some of the lowest performers had picked up at least a couple of grade levels in reading by the end of high school. Ironically, this was during the early years of high stakes testing. Under pressure, the system was able to deliver 2-3 grade levels of progress in 4 years. Unfortunately, there had only been a year or two of progress toward grade level in the previous 6-8 years. What had happened?

My SchoolsRetooled world view mentions my belief in miracles in Special Education. However, a truer translation would suggest that those beneficiaries of the miracles were actually children with far more ability than at least some of the adults in charge of their educations had expected. A missed intervention by 3rd grade can make a middle or high school special educator seem like a wizard. But I don’t really want the heroics; I want the best interventions in place when they still can prevent small problems from escalating into seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Update and Correction – email from my sister…

Good morning Kathleen,

I enjoyed reading your blog this morning. Its well said and to the point. I don’t mind you sharing at all. I tell my students about it every year. I tell them not to let someone else’s thoughts decide what they can do. I also tell them to take up for themselves when they need to. They are always amazed that you could teach me to read. You were actually younger. You were in second grade and I was in kindergarten, but the sentiments are the same. I should find a picture of that teacher and put her up in my room to visually remind me when I need to rethink how I’m working with my children. I bet I could get one from Fox. I may just do that. I should also post a picture of a teacher that inspired me. Thank you. You’ve given me food for thought.


Entry filed under: School Transformation, Student Outcomes.

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