Tremendous pressure is placed on children to learn to read by third grade. They must pass state reading tests created by those expecting them to read at this time. If they don’t do well, they could fail third grade. Yet there’s no clear research on the age a child should be able to read.
Not knowing exactly the age when a child should read leaves the door open for much conjecture as to the age adults expect children to read.
No Child Left Behind
There’s no research indicating we should be hurrying children to read early, which started with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), or earlier. Formal reading used to begin in first grade. But with NCLB, formal reading instruction has been pushed down to kindergarten. It has become the norm.
NCLB, however, was poorly conceived. Those who wrote NCLB chose third grade as a pivotal year. Yet, studies from years ago indicated NCLB failed to increase reading achievement in fourth grade (Dee & Jacob, 2011).
Supporters of this policy promised at the time, that by following punitive accountability measures all third graders would read at grade level by 2014! That did not occur (here are excuses why) and children, who are told not to have any excuses, have been paying the price ever since.
The third-grade reading ultimatum has remained in place since then. The Every Student Succeeds Act has done nothing to reduce such pressure and few consider that if children aren’t doing well on reading assessments, if they’re having trouble reading, maybe it’s due to NCLB’s harsh third-grade reading expectations!
I was notified that the Ohio House Primary & Secondary Education Committee is sponsoring a bill to eliminate retention under Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee (TGRG). Ohio 3rd grade teachers, educators, and parents should contact their representatives and express their concerns. HB 497.
When children don’t do well in third grade they might be retained.
Research shows that retention negatively influences a child’s life and could haunt them for years to come. Many retained students drop out, yet some states continue to follow former Gov. Jeb Bush’s poor 2002 practice of instituting third-grade retention.
Obviously, it hasn’t improved reading scores or everyone would be content with reading progress! This third-grade threat increases the pressure placed on preschool, kindergarten, and third-grade children.
Since NCLB, Kindergarten has been seen as an important class to learn to read, likely so children will be reading well by third grade.
It used to be a quiet time to introduce children to school. Kindergarten used to be only half a day. Children mostly played and learned a few skills and their ABCs and some counting. There wasn’t pressure to learn to read.
There are certain developmental traits that are encouraged, interest in books, rhyming, and speech sounds, but since NCLB the hyper-focus for students to read has been pushed down so early that many parents and educators insist three-year-olds, even younger, can and should read.
Sadly, even those considered reading experts still promote the NCLB message.
Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and former director of reading for Chicago Public Schools, stated in 2021 in USA News and World Report, When Do Kids Learn to Read?
These days kindergarten reading skills is pretty universal. There is no particular age that one has to learn to read. But starting early provides the greatest opportunity for children’s success.
Shanahan normalizes reading instruction in kindergarten when he should push back and remind parents that formal education used to be in first grade.
Next, he states there’s no particular age and he doesn’t define early. Parents who read this may focus on introducing skills, rigidly pushing children to read when they are very young.
In the same report, they state:
U.S. Department of Education reading programs often say children should learn to read by age 8, or third grade, because learning to read transitions into reading to learn other subjects soon thereafter.
Again, this is using NCLB still to tell educators and parents when children should read. They created the slogan.
If children aren’t reading well today, it is important to pull back the curtain and look more at the policies that have rigidly pushed reading instruction down to the earlier years.
It might start by not forcing children to read by third grade, and ending retention which we know is harmful.
Finnish children start school at age 7 and they are known for allowing children plenty of play.
Many point to the differences Finland has from America. There’s less poverty and a straightforward spelling system, and a much simpler syllabic structure than English. Many Finnish children also show up to school already reading.
We can point to these differences, but one thing is certain, the changes made to instruction with NCLB and the other school policy changes, like Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards, have not improved reading throughout the years.
Poor policy has dictated that children should read by third grade, and it has become sacrosanct even though there’s no steadfast rule when children should know how to read.
Why not review the harmful effects of NCLB and third-grade retention that have been around for twenty years?
It’s time to rethink third-grade expectations and the pressure placed on children even earlier to learn how to read.
See: 3rd Grade Reading Laws Are Harmful (nancyebailey.com) by Stefanie Rysdahl Fuhr
Dee, T. S. & Jacob, B. (2011), The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Student Achievement. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 30(3), pp. 418-446.
*Note about the above picture. It’s good to read to babies, but I’m not sure this baby will be able to cover the stacks of books the caregiver has lined up for them!
Stefanie Fuhr says
Thanks for referencing my own entry and love your blog. Thanks for hitting everything needed to be said. I’d say that the tests themselves and the tests leading up to the tests are part of the problem. Reading has become so regimented and fragmented.
These tests cannot tell us what a reader does. But kids are tested all the time instead of being given time to actual work on reading for meaning.
Everything I hear about Shanahan points to a person with an ego and belief that he and only he knows the answer.
And how can parents be ok with all of the labels being placed on our children? Children learn differently. A qualified teacher, support and small classes are the answer.
These laws are ruining our children.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Stefanie. Teachers know you can follow the reading progress of a child, and help them over the hurdles, without punishment. Retention is punishment. A retained third-grader is developmentally older than their peers in middle school. It should be abolished!
Your points are perfect.
Stefanie Fuhr says
I’m reading “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari and a lot of his thinking and research supports what you are saying. I think our children are going to pay a hefty price for all of this early push and it won’t make anyone smarter or super human. If anything it will make us more robotic and dumber.
Reading without background knowledge is 2 dimensional. It means nothing but spewing out words. We need tons of background knowledge to make reading 3 dimensional. Play is exactly what does all of this.
Hari has a chapter called the flow state and I love the last part of this chapter.
“We all have a choice now between two profound forces-fragmentation, or flow. Fragmentation makes you smaller, shallower, angrier. Flow makes you bigger, deeper, calmer. Fragmentation shrinks us. Flow expands us.”
I think our current system is about fragmentation.
sandra wilde says
Amen. Obama turned it all over to his old basketball friend Arne Duncan, who turned it over to David Coleman, now head of the College Board. NCLB was a complete fiasco. Huge amounts of money were spent while student achievement plummeted.
Nancy Bailey says
You covered it well, albeit sadly, Sandra, and succinctly! Thank you for your comment.
Roy Turrentine says
Pushing math down into the grades has had the same effect. One of the problems, however, is unrelated to testing in an immediate sense. Successful parents are usually very competitive, and share this with their children. Their children tend to learn to read quicker due to the attention their education. Often these parents are granted social bragging rights: “my kid could read by the time he was 4”. Parents whose children are mortal are filled with angst that their children are behind. Unless there is time for communication between teachers, who know better, and parents, whose experience in child development is generally restricted to their own children and their friends’ children, the parents of average children may begin to push their children in ways that are fundamentally harmful to the ultimate success of their child’s education.
Children already compare themselves naturally with each other. They do not need inducement from parents whose myopic views of child development generally perpetuate social and intellectual inequality, exaggerated by economic inequality.
Nancy Bailey says
Well said, as always, Roy. It should be a well-known fact that no matter how early a child learns to read, their peers usually always catch up to them. So many parents brag that their children learned to read when they were three. Will they comprehend what they read is the larger question? Will they enjoy reading is also a concern.
In paragraph 9, what is the most likely reason Riley stays quiet as she and
Craig walk home?
A She is thinking about how well she played hockey.
B She is upset with Craig because he hurt her back.
C She is thinking about how to get skates for Craig.
D She is tired from skating in the hockey game.
Paragraph #9: Flying On Ice by Valerie Hunter
“Riley didn’t say anything on the walk home, but a few days later she
asked Craig if he wanted to go skating.”
What does paragraph 12 help the reader understand about Craig?
A Craig is too young to learn how to skate.
B Craig is very excited about learning to skate.
C Craig is unable to take the skates off by himself.
D Craig is worried that his sister will take the skates back.
Paragraph #12: From, Flying On Ice by Valerie Hunter
“The skates were a little big, but when Riley stuffed newspaper in the toes,
they fit. Craig couldn’t stop smiling. He didn’t want to take them off, but
he had to so he could walk to the lake.”
Which sentence best describes how paragraph 6 relates to paragraph 23?
A Paragraph 6 provides a problem and paragraph 23 provides a
B Paragraph 6 asks a question and paragraph 23 provides an answer.
C Paragraph 6 provides a cause and paragraph 23 shows an effect.
D Paragraph 6 provides similarities and paragraph 23 shows differences
Paragraph 6. Flying On Ice by Valerie Hunter
“Riley retied her skate laces and crouched next to Craig. “Get on my
back,” she said, and Craig did. Riley started skating, but Craig didn’t feel
like he was flying. It just felt like a wobbly piggy-back ride.”
Paragraph 23. Flying On Ice by Valerie Hunter
“Riley and Liz started skating, pulling Craig with them. The edges of his
skate blades just touched the ice. The girls went faster and faster, and so did
he. When he looked down, his skate blades were a silver blur. His hat
nearly blew off”
These three items are from the 2019 NYS, Grade 3, ELA “reading” test.
These are typical of Common Core ELA reading items in grades 3 to 8.
The vast majority of kids can read by grade 3, but many of them can’t parse this nonsense.
Nancy Bailey says
It’s still amazing how education leaders and parents allowed Common Core into the classroom. Now it’s in almost all the online programs. There’s no great surprise there, but these test questions are so dull and confusing. Why would a child care other than being afraid? Oh! That’s right. They will fail third grade! I answered my own question.
Thanks for sharing.
Roy Turrentine says
Thank you for these examples of the crimes committed in the name of improving education.
Nancy Bailey says
It’s genuinely that.
Monica Plaza says
Again while very painful to read, I feel that my suffering has an explanation. Your article and all the contributing comments are so valuable. Since my children were young, I have suffered through this nonsense. Picking apart all this ridiculous common core material. I remembered asking a teacher is she read the questions given to the students via the online application. She said no! I just select the stardards! I have confronted admnistrators and teachers with the adsurdity of the school work. And they look unware, it is so alarming. Not only the common core standards are absurd but the teaching methology of doing and never giving backfeed to students about what they are doing wrong is so inefficient. As you said, the reading is just read, read, read. And yes, I have confronted administrators on the fact that “this is not working.” I also told them that the testing is NOT to tell us how bad the students are doing, but how schools, teachers, reasources are doing. Unfortunately, they will tell parents, “your child is not meeting the reading level!!” Of course, I always respond, “the school is NOT meeting the reading level.” They look at me and remain silent. The lack of integrity is horrifying. They are told what to sell, and that is the end of it. Values, ethics, morality are out the door when it comes to education. I went through the mentioned third grade ordeal. I pushed back with all my force. I explained very clearly that retention was very detrimental, and I would only allow it, if there was a real cognitive or developmental reason that could prove that my child would benefit by it. Of course, since they had no clue of anything. No more said, and we moved on. My child did not need to be retain only for a test at the end of the year. It is painful that parents have to push and advocate for their children in education. I love to work well with the people that educate my children in nuturing and amicable ways, but many have been seized by this commercialism. I really appreciate all the comments left here. I can relate to everyone of them!!!! This information helps me again gain more power. I am very outspoken and I am fortunate to have many years of higher education, so I am very confident to advocate for students and my children and put these administrators in their place. hahaha. Unfortunately, many lack any intelligence. We have to reverse these damages. Although, I am temporary homeschooling due to COVID, I am planning to getting my children back to schools. And Nancy, your info plus all the valuable comments are charging me great time. This pandemic is going to leave the schools very disarmed, since all the stardards never worked, I believe, now they really are going to show how deficient they really are. Hopefully, this will help make positive changes. The schools will be scrambling with shortage of teachers, incompetent administrators, students with severe academic defiencies and other psychological and behavioral issues. This weakening might lead them to open up to parents and educators and start ditching NCLB policies. Destroy and rebuild. Thank you so much Nancy!!!
Nancy Bailey says
I’m afraid Common Core and high-stakes standards have been pushed on schools throughout the years to where they are now simply a part of the curriculum. I am sorry for parents who have to work so hard to get school administrators and teachers to focus on the needs of their children. It’s a concerted effort to drive parents out of public schooling and embrace school privatization, and it has been going on for a long time.
Thank you for sharing your experiences, Monica. I wish you and your children the best.
Monica Plaza says
Well the fact that they have been trying to push privatization for a long time without success, still, might be our sign of a collapsing agenda. In Georgia, republicans are passing laws for more parents to be able to provide their opinion on education. This is clearly a political strategy to get votes from big mouths, however it could create a real chaos in schools full of complaints. Although, I don’t see this as a good policy, but it will rattle them with entitled angry parents about everything from common core, race critical theory, so on and so forth. We know this pandemic has made some parents to even bring weapons to school board meeting. Teaching the chambers of congress in Germany in sixth grade, like my son was learning and other common core bright ideas leads to uneducated kids, since this is so irrealistic plus ignorant. When these generations reach college, they are going to be so grotesquely unprepared that we will be lagging in highly educated professionals, creating a huge shortage of nurses, doctors, engineers, teacher, etc. We already have an outrageous levels of college dropouts, from financial stress and lack of good educational background. I really think the philosophy behind the common core is great, but as you said it has the agenda to privatize and it is manipulated to push for “forced” failure. Many charters schools here are disastrous, and if we start suffering the consequences, people will push and politicians will go with the most squeeky wheels. Whether is good or not. So far many European countries are removing tests, reducing the impact of grades, making changes to accomodate the fallback from the pandemic. They are also rethinking old beliefs, such as do we really need grades to teach? Thank you Nancy, best wishes as well!
Sheila Resseger says
Some thoughts from me in my blog in 2017 about the CC$$. These days I am tutoring a 9th grade Honors student. His English homework comes from Studysync. It is pure test prep, which he knows. The students are expected to do the work independently with no context whatsoever. (a very UNthank you to David Coleman) Then the teacher gives them a grade on it. pitiful
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Sheila. Unbelievable really.
Miranda Werner says
Hello. I love this article, it covers just about everything that i am feeling as a mother. My son is currently in 3rd grade and we are facing retention due to him failing reading by 7 points. I had a meeting at the school and fought and pushed with everything in me to get them to give him some extra credit or do anything to help us. My son is on the bigger size, so i know that him staying back is going to destroy his self esteem and just his whole being. I am very scared for what is to come. I am looking for any input on what could possibly be done I am researching everything i can, and possibly finding a child advocacy/education attorney. I am just so worried and lost. If anyone has any advice I would appreciate it more than anything. Thank you.
Nancy Bailey says
I am sorry. They should not hold him back if you insist that he get extra help. Let me know if you’re able to get an advocate, Miranda. I don’t know if I can help but feel free to use any of the other posts about retention.
Miranda, most district require an unanimous vote between the parent and an adminitrator and the teacher. Most principals and administrators do not know anything. Just say NO. I faced the same predicament with my son in third grade and found this out. The parents have the ultimate saying. Unless you believe your son would benefit by it, say NO. I would be glad to speak with you if you need support. Please call me at 404-429-9283. I am with you. Best luck. Do not feel helpless.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you so much, Monica.
I am very glad to help Nancy. You are very welcome. Have a great memorial day weekend!!!
Hello Miranda, reading my message, I realize that I was not fully clear. But your distress is very real to me. Let me fill in the gaps. For retention, there should be a retention meeting, which I believe you must have had. Look in the county schools’ website for retention policy. As I said most likely, they will require an unanimous vote of 3 parties , parent, teacher, and administrator. Once, one says NO to retention, your child moves onto next year. Parents have rights. In my case, my principal was not aware of the policy, she just knew that not passing the reading standardized (milestones) test would mean retention. This is NOT the case. Most teachers and administrators are also parents, and although, they might seem against you, they suffer the same “crap” we do, so show that you understand this requirement. Ask them how they believe that your son would benefit by retention, if it is only the score, then tell them that there is NO foundation for this retention in your view point and you decline. Find all the rights you have as a parent in the policy of your district. And please call you if need to 404-429-9283. Best wishes
Is this policy for all states including South Carolina?
It is possible. Check your district’s school policy. Usually southern states tend to have similar policies. Look for “school retention policy.” They have to have it on their website. Parent consent is very important in this decision.