Category Archives: reading readiness.

Advantages and disadvantages of third grade retention

Advantages of third grade retention for poor readers:

If students are young for their grade (summer birthdays), retaining will make them among the oldest students in the class, often an academic advantage.

If students cannot read at a fourth grade level, promoting them to fourth grade sets them up for problems in all subjects which require reading.  If those students are instead retained, they have another year to prepare for fourth grade reading levels.

If all students, no matter their achievement level, are automatically promoted, they learn that they will advance through school whether they work or not.  This might lead to poor work habits.  Retaining students can make them more responsible.

If poor readers are promoted with their class, parents might deceive themselves about their children’s skill levels, and might not intervene until  students are hopelessly behind.

If teachers know their students could be held back, those teachers might try harder to meet the reading needs of poorer readers.

If the retained student receives additional reading help, his chances of starting fourth grade at grade level improve.

Disadvantages of third grade retention for poor readers:

If students are retained, they might have lower self-esteem which in turn might lead to depression, a poor work ethic and continued failure.

If students are retained, they will lose friendships they have made.  They might become the victims of bullying and ridicule.

Retained students probably will be angry when they learn what is happening, seeing themselves as failures, and wanting even less to learn to read.

If poor readers are retained, they may show a temporary burst in achievement, but compared to poor readers who were promoted, they might show less achievement over time.

A retained student costs a school district more than $10,000 for that extra year of schooling.

Students’ poor reading achievement could be due to social and familial reasons, which if not improved, might keep students at a low reading level despite retention.

Students who are retained are more likely to drop out of high school.  High school drop outs are five times more likely to have been previously retained.

If poor readers are promoted along with good and advanced readers, teachers will face students with a wide variety of reading levels in the same classroom.  Teachers will need to slow down and repeat, repeat, repeat for the sake of the poor readers, lowering the achievement of the non-retained students.

Does your state require poor readers to repeat third grade?

Fifteen states plus Washington, D.C, require third graders who are not reading at a “proficient” level by the end of the school year to repeat third grade.  Those states include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Washington.  Three more states are about to join the list:  South Carolina at the end of the 2017-2018 school year; Nevada on July 1, 2019; and Michigan at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.*

Eight other states allow third grade retention but do not mandate it: Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

States offer exemptions to some students, such as ESL students, special ed students, students who have recommendations from parents and teachers, and students who have been retained once already.

Even so, almost half of all states require or allow a student who is not reading well at the end of third grade to repeat it.

Why?

  • Educators consider fourth grade a transition year. In kindergarten to third grade, students learn to read.  In fourth grade and beyond, students read to learn.  Starting in fourth grade, students can’t learn well unless they can read.
  • Research in 2015 showed that about two out of three American fourth graders could not read proficiently, that is, at a basic level. Almost 4/5 of African American, Native American and Latino students could not read at a proficient level.
  • Down the road, about ¼ of those below basic level readers won’t graduate from high school.

In  the next blog we’ll look at some of the pros and cons concerning third grade retention.

* http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/third-grade-reading-legislation.aspx

My child can’t read CVC words after finishing kindergarten. Should I hold him back?

“It depends” is not the answer you want, but that’s the best I can do.  Let’s look at some of the factors you should consider.

Young child writing C-A-T.

  • Is your child doing poorly in reading only? Is he struggling to read but doing fine in math, for example? This kind of disconnect could signal a particular learning problem with reading.  He might need a reading specialist or a tutor to work with him in first grade so that he can catch up to his classmates.
  • Is he performing at a mediocre level in reading, math and most kindergarten skills? If so, he might not be intellectually ready to move on to first grade.  Kids’ brains develop at different rates just like their bones do.  An extra year to grow can make a great difference in a child’s ability to learn.
  • Is your son one of the youngest children in the class? Younger children in a kindergarten or first grade class sometimes are immature compared to their classmates.  Their attention span is less.  They have more difficulty sitting still.  They are more impulsive.  If your son was barely old enough for kindergarten, chances are that he is barely old enough for first grade too.
  • Is he showing signs of stress? Is he more babyish than his classmates, more apt to cry or sulk when things go wrong?  Our emotions grow at various rates too.  A student with good self-esteem will be better able to weather poor grades in reading and not blame himself compared to an insecure student.
  • Did your son miss school often because of sickness, moving, or problems at home? Is he depressed?  How motivated is he to learn?
  • What are the expectations of the kindergarten curriculum at the end of the year? (You can go online to find out your state’s curriculum requirements.)  Has he met them?  Kindergarten reading skills provide a base for first grade reading skills.  Will CVC phonics be taught in first grade or will it be reviewed quickly with the expectation that students already know that?
  • Does your son’s school have a strong intervention plan and well trained teachers for outliers like your son? If so, how will it be determined if your son meets the criteria for this special learning?  And when will the intervention begin—in September or in January?
  • Does your state have mandatory third grade retention laws, so that if your son is still doing poorly at the end of third grade, he would be forced to repeat that grade?
  • Do you have the time or the ability to work with your son to catch him up? If so, can you commit to this teaching, knowing your son will fight you?  If not, do you have the money for a tutor to catch him up while he moves into first grade?
  • Is there a younger sibling? Will both children be in the same grade if the older child repeats?   If the older child continues to do poorly, will his family status be threatened?  Will his younger sibling become a star in comparison?
  • Are grandparents pressuring you one way or the other? If so, how knowledgeable are they about your son’s skills?  Is their status threatened if your son repeats a grade?
  • Can you talk to teachers who know your child well or who have taught kindergarten or first grade, educators who can give you first hand advice?

When you weigh all these factors, one is most important:  What is best for my child?

What’s the right age to read Harry Potter?

Harry Potter turns 31 tomorrow, July 31, a good time to ask if there is a right age for children to read the Harry Potter books.


When the books were first published, Harry was 11, and The Sorcerer’s Stone was more fantasy and magic—owls who delivered mail, a sorting hat, photos who talked—than menacing evil.  No need for concern.  But later books focused on evil and Harry’s fight to conquer it.  Much tougher reading.

The first book came out in 1997; the second in 1998; the third in 1999; the fourth in 2000; the fifth in 2003; the sixth in 2005; and the seventh in 2007.  Kids who read the first book when they were eight couldn’t read the fifth book until they were 18 and, presumably, mature enough to handle its content.

But today, voracious eight year olds can devour the series in a month or two.  Should they?

Here are some suggestions to consider if you have a child coming of age to read Harry Potter.

Book one:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Harry turns 11.  Kids usually like to read about child characters who are slightly older than they are, so readers 8,  9, 10, and 11 years old (usually, third, fourth and fifth graders) might enjoy the first book.

However, a child’s reading level needs to be considered.  Some third graders are just starting chapter books while others have been reading chapter books since kindergarten.  Lagging readers might miss out on much of the meaning in Harry Potter books because of a lack of vocabulary or difficulty with inferences.  For them it might be better to wait.

Precocious readers, on the other hand, might be able to handle the first Harry Potter book with ease.  Two scary parts (a troll fight and a final fight between Harry and Voldemort) are a little scary, but not scarier than what children have been exposed to in the evening news or in video games.  They will miss some of the cultural differences between British writing and American writing (such as a cupboard in London being a closet in the US) but they will still understand what is important.

A child’s emotional resilience needs to be evaluated too.  If children suffer nightmares from TV shows or scary picture books, Harry Potter novels might not be a good choice until the children are older.  Or you could tell them when they start the first book that by the end of the last book Voldemort is dead and Harry is alive.  But that takes some of the suspense from the reading.

Book two:  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  Lexile 940 (grades 5-6 reading level)

If a child can read book one, that child is ready for book two.  It has another fight scene at the end, but in other ways The Chamber of Secrets is a fanciful children’s story like book one.

Book three:   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Ditto for books one and two except that the concept of a serial killer is introduced.  This concept foreshadows events in a later book.

Book four:  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Two minor characters die in this book right in front of the reader’s eyes.  Also, children learn that some people cannot be trusted when one such person tries to lure Harry away.  The tone of this book is darker than the previous three, and for that reason precocious first and second graders probably shouldn’t read it, and sensitive third and fourth graders might not be emotionally ready. As a parent, you should be prepared to discuss the themes of death and trustworthiness with your children before you let them read book four.  I recommend waiting until fifth grade or middle school for this book.

Book five:   Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  Lexile 950 (grades 5-7 reading level)

Someone Harry loves dies in this book.  Its tone is about the same as book four, that is, darker than in the first three books.  Harry is 15, indicating that readers should probably be almost that age too.  Postpone this book until middle grades for most children.

Book six:   Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Lexile 1030 (grades 6-8 reading level)

Book six is too tough for elementary school children and even for some middle grades children.  Harry, 16, must take on enormous responsibilities and he has no one to protect him.  No place is safe.  Another scary idea is that people exist who murder for the heck of it—not for a rational reason but just because. At the end of the book a pivotal character dies a terrible death at the hands of another pivotal character. Harry vows to avenge his friend’s death.

Book seven:   Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2  Lexile 980 (grades 6-7 reading level)

More deaths occur, but none so chilling as at the end of book six.  A reader who can stomach book six can stomach book seven.  Read during late middle grades or high school.

Board books meet babies’ literacy needs

baby reading a bookBoard books, those small-sized, thick cardboard books with brightly colored pictures and rounded corners, are celebrating their 70th birthday (more or less).  They were born with the baby boom in the late 1940’s, came in various shapes and sometimes included tactile surfaces for babies to touch.

By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, board books became a recognized “genre” of children’s literature.  Illustrator Helen Oxenbury was an early pioneer of these books meant for one- and two-year-old children.  Some of her books have become classics.

They have caught on for many reasons.  Board books are small in size, some just two inches square, perfect for tiny hands.  Their pictures are simple illustrations of babies and little children.  The illustrations use primary colors to attract toddler eyes.  The round edges of the books can be chewed by teething babies.  Board books can be flung, chewed and slapped without ripping.

Some board books have become classics, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.  Others teach ABC’s and counting.  Many focus on babies—animal babies and human babies.  Some have words—just a few and often in rhyme—but many are wordless.

Babies can learn quite a bit about literacy from “reading” board books.  They learn that books start on the left-hand side and move to the right.  They learn that book pages flip right to left in English.  They learn that there is a right-side-up to books.  They learn that the pictures and words have meaning.  They learn that reading is a fun experience and often a special time with someone they cherish.

For most children today, board books are their introduction to reading.

How to find the main idea in nonfiction articles

Understanding the main idea of a piece of writing is probably the most important aspect of reading once children understand phonics.  Yet many children struggle to find the main idea.  How can we help them?

  • Ask the children to read the title and any subheadings. Ask the children what those words mean.  Ask the children to predict what the writing might be about.
  • Ask the children to look at any graphics such as photos, graphs, charts, maps, diagrams or other nontextual information. Ask the children what they have learned from those graphics.  Ask them to predict what the reading might be about.
  • In nonfiction, the main idea is often expressed at the end of the first paragraph. Ask the children if the last sentence of the first paragraph tells what the main idea is.
  • In nonfiction, many times the first paragraph or even two or three paragraphs are a hook. They might give hints about the topic of the writing, but they might not tell the main idea.  Ask the children if that is the case with what they are reading.
  • In nonfiction, topic sentences often start the body paragraphs of a reading. Ask the child to read the first sentences of the body paragraphs.  Are they topic sentences?  If so, what is the topic that they are giving details about?
  • In the last paragraph of nonfiction, the main idea is often repeated. Ask the children to read the last paragraph and to identify the main idea if it is there.
  • Reading the first important paragraph (not the hook) and the last paragraph, one right after another, can sometimes help children to discover the main idea. Do both paragraphs talk about the same thing?  If so, what is it?

Some children will understand immediately while others will need many, many lessons focused on the main idea.  If children need more examples, more tries at figuring it out, make sure they get those extra examples and time.  Figuring out the main idea will be on almost every reading test they ever take from first grade to the SATs.

But more importantly, it is a life skill which they will need.

Teach the vocabulary of school subjects

Sometimes we think vocabulary words are the kinds  found in good literature, words like “evade,” “grandeur” and “prescient.”

Math VocabularyBut many times the words children must learn are the basic words and phrases of the subjects they learn in school, words like “remainder,” “summarize” and “find the function of.”

When children are in pre-K they are taught words like “thicker than,” “thinner than,” “shorter than,” and “taller than.”  We parents and teachers take the time to instruct about these terms and then to quiz the children informally to be sure they understand.

But as children age, some terms fall through the cracks.  The third grade teacher assumes that the second grade teacher has taught words related to subtraction, such as “difference” and “minus.”  And the second grade teacher probably has.  But what if a child was sick that day, or was distracted, or was moving from one school to another?

I was reminded of this when the mother of a middle schooler told me her son was having trouble figuring out some math terms, including “at most,” “at least,” “no more than,” “no fewer than,” “maximum,” “minimum” and “below.”

Her remarks reminded me of my own trouble learning what “function” meant in my algebra class.  Whatever my teacher said didn’t help me, and for weeks I was confounded by that word.

How can we help our children learn the vocabulary basic to the subjects they are studying in school?

  • When a child starts a new learning skill, such a multiplication, or a new unit, such as erosion, teach the vocabulary the child will need to know. Page through the child’s text to see what words are used.  Then quiz the child on the vocabulary, both informally and formally.  Make definitions part of subject matter testing.  Be sure to use domain-specific words, such as “factor” and “water cycle” as well as informal words.
  • Regularly review  vocabulary in a field of study. You could offer a “spelling” bee reviewing definitions of volcanic terms, such as lava, molten, intrusive, extrusive, ring of fire and magma.  You could play a BINGO game based on figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor, hyperbole and personification.
  • Ask students to create dictionaries of terms they need to know in order to talk about a subject. Instruct students to read their dictionaries for two minutes before each day’s instruction on that topic.
  • Give pretests which include definitions.
  • Be aware of students who are absent when you teach vocabulary and give them private lessons or ask an advanced student to catch the laggard up.
  • In emails home to parents, name new words the child needs to know and ask parents to discuss these words to reinforce them.

One of the key skills in reading well is learning and remembering vocabulary.