Groves Literacy

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Punishing Students For An Adult Issue

Key Points:

  • Early identification of reading issue is critical
  • Holding students back is unfair
  • Not learning to read is not a kid issue; it’s an adult issue
  • Teachers need more and better training to teach reading
  • In many states, only one reading course is required to become an elementary teacher

A recent article in the NY Times, “A Summer of Extra Reading and Hope for Fourth Grade,” ( is yet another reminder of how ineffective our nation’s reading instruction is for emerging and struggling readers.

In the spring of this year, 1,900 third graders in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District failed the standardized reading test given to all North Carolina third graders. This represents almost 16% of all third grade students in the District. One in eight who completed third grade in Charlotte enrolled in summer literacy school. If these summer school students do not show enough improvement in their reading skills, school officials will recommend that these students repeat third grade.

Kindergarten through third grade is an incredibly important time in the development of a child’s reading skills. In these early grades, students learn to read. In fourth grade, schools make a conscious decision, moving from teaching children to read to expecting students to read to learn. If students haven’t successfully made this critical transition, they hit the proverbial wall and fall further and further behind their proficiently reading peers, who are now acquiring information from textbooks. Reinforcing the importance of early literacy skills, scientific studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown that by the start of third grade if a student with a reading problem is not identified and proper forms of intervention provided for him, there is only a 25% chance that that child will catch up in the remainder of his school career. We also know that a large percent of students who do not learn to read drop out of school and do not graduate; many end up in our prison system.

In 2012, fourteen states enacted policies either mandating or strongly recommending that schools retain students who are not skilled in reading by the end of third grade. Is it the child’s fault that he can’t read by the end of third grade? Do educators and policymakers really believe that having a student repeat third grade with the same curriculum and philosophy of teaching reading is going to solve the problem? Do these short-sighted individuals believe that suddenly the light bulb will turn on and the student repeating third grade will magically learn to read?

Not learning to read is not a kid issue. This is an adult issue rooted in ignorance and pride. Teachers and school administrators blame large class sizes, lack of educational funding, poverty, broken families, and non-English speaking students for poor reading scores. Certainly these variables make the teaching of reading more difficult, but there are highly at-risk students in each of these categories who do learn to read. Instead of the blame game, our state’s thought leaders and policymakers need to stop their distracting rhetoric about educational reform and find a way to fund the money needed to ensure that every child is a proficient reader by the end of third grade. Similarly, educators should look in the mirror and ask themselves what needs to be done to solve this problem. In doing so, they will find that teachers must be better trained in the structures of language and the stages of reading development so that they have the knowledge required to choose good curriculum, supplement curriculum as needed, and identify and chart an effective course for students who are struggling with learning to read. Thinking outside of the box is absolutely critical if we are going to change outcomes within our educational system.  We need to begin with the teaching of reading as it is the foundation of everything else a child will learn in school.

In most colleges of education, prospective teachers need take only one introductory reading course to graduate and receive their teaching license. This simply is not enough. Likewise, school administrators are responsible for providing their teachers with evidenced-based professional development that will ensure that teachers have the knowledge needed to be good reading teachers. Once teachers have the tools they need, there must be accountability for both teachers and administrators. We must stop punishing students for what is an adult issue.

John Alexander

Head of School

Groves Academy