Is repeating a year the solution for struggling readers?

Grade retention is gaining popularity in the US. Robert Slavin explains that a better solution is to use the right combination of proven programs

MANY CHILDREN FAIL TO REACH EXPECTED targets in reading during the primary grades. In the US, the focus has become achievement by third grade, when children are aged eight or nine. A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that poor readers in third grade were four times more likely than adequate readers to eventually drop out of school.

What we know
● Grade retention is very expensive, and does not have long-term benefits.
● Schools should spend additional funding on proven programs and practices.
● Different types of intervention are needed for different children.

Grade retention

Based on this kind of information, many states in the US have passed, or are considering, legislation requiring that students not reading at an established level by the end of third grade repeat the year. Usually, this “grade retention” legislation also includes some funding for schools to help struggling students meet the target.

These state initiatives raise important questions. Are they good for the students who were retained? Are they good for the overall school system? And is this a model that should be considered nationwide or in other countries?

Retention has been studied for many years in the US, and the research is reasonably clear. Children who repeat a grade do very poorly in reading and, ultimately, school graduation rates are similar to their low-achieving age mates who were promoted. In comparison to their new grade mates, the children who were held back do show a short-term gain because they are older when they take the test, but this advantage wears off within a few years. Furthermore, grade retention is expensive. Holding a child back incurs an extra year of per-pupil cost, which is roughly $10,000 in the states. Many states or districts have as many as 50% of third graders who might not meet the standards. This means that in a school of 500 students, holding back 50% of third graders would be failing about 35 children at a cost of $350,000 per year. Used differently, this is a lot of money to solve a well-defined problem concentrated in the first few years of a child’s education.

Spending money effectively

The reading-by-third-grade policies could potentially end up being beneficial, because they provide substantial incentives to use effective strategies for preventing reading failure. School leaders now have whatever funding their state gives them to reduce retentions, but it is important that they use it wisely.

Many schools in reading-by-third-grade states are simply hiring reading specialists to tutor children one-to-one. While tutoring can be very effective, in most schools one reading specialist cannot possibly tutor enough students to ensure they all meet the target. Instead, schools need to look to other interventions. There is no aspect of school improvement more extensively studied than preventing reading failure in the early years of school, and there are many programs that have been proven to be effective, especially one-to-one and small-group tutoring, cooperative learning, and whole-school reform models.Issue_12_Page_18_Figure 1

Use a combination of strategies

The research would suggest that different types of intervention are needed for different children depending on their age and how far behind they are, as shown in the made-up profiles of Figures 1 and 2. Students in the green section are likely to be reading at grade level, though high-quality teaching is still needed to keep them on track. Those in the yellow section are not on track for success, but are not too far from the criterion. Those in the orange and red zones need intensive help to reach grade level.Issue_12_Page_18_Figure_2

A school strategy only focused on the orange and red zones, providing one-to-one tutoring to struggling students, would not be very effective, as they have such a long way to go. Using tutors just for students in the yellow zone is ethically questionable and is still unlikely to get to enough children. Instead, schools need a thoughtful, integrated strategy to get the maximum number of students to the standard. This could involve using proven but relatively inexpensive strategies for all students, high-quality small-group tutoring for students in the yellow and orange zones, and high-quality one-to-one tutoring for children in the red zone, as illustrated in Figure 2.

If schools use reading-by-third-grade funding as an opportunity to use proven practices throughout the primary grades, they can reap substantial savings by avoiding unnecessary retentions, and most importantly, they can make a life-changing difference for all of their students. The same of course is true in the UK, as school leaders gain increasing autonomy in terms of how they spend their budgets.

About the author

Robert Slavin is a professor in the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, and the driving force behind the US-based Success for All Foundation, a restructuring program which helps schools to identify and implement strategies designed to meet the needs of all learners.

Further reading

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia is a good source of information about the strength of evidence supporting different programs and practices for struggling readers., and

Burkam D, LoGerfo L, Ready D, and Lee V (2007), The Differential Effects of Repeating Kindergarten. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(2), 103–136.

Hong G, and Raudenbush S (2005), Effects of Kindergarten Retention Policy on Children’s Cognitive Growth in Reading and Mathematics. Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(3), 205–244.

Lesnick J, George R, Smithgall C, and Gwynne J (2010), Reading on Grade Level in Third Grade: How is it Related to High School Performance and College Enrollment? Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Slavin RE, Lake C, Davis S, and Madden N (2011), Effective Programs for Struggling Readers: A Best-evidence Synthesis. Educational Research Review, 6, 1–26.


May 2013