By June 22, 2015 Uncategorized 11 Comments

I wonder how people would react if I snuck into the next meeting of the Oklahoma English Language Arts (ELA) standards writing committee and proposed raising the age of formal reading instruction to age seven, sometime when students are in second grade.

With our state’s current push towards earlier and more extensive reading instruction (and testing), this proposal would likely be dispatched as quick as a dog can lick a dish.

Yes, this concept may sound radical to many, yet there is research to show its benefits.

The Finnish school system, as one example, does not begin reading instruction for students until age seven, yet is somehow able to obtain some of the highest reading scores in the world on international testing.

It seems the Finns believe the first few years of school should be used to build student curiosity and the desire to learn, and not on testing, ranking, and sorting of kids.

Another recent study in New Zealand compared Waldorf schools, which emphasize natural learning and begin reading instruction at age seven, to public schools, which begin at age five, and found no long-term benefit to earlier instruction.

There are certainly studies that show an advantage to early reading instruction; however, these typically compare children’s proficiency at around age eight or nine.  What these studies fail to reveal is that by age ten or eleven, the advantage disappears, and that by twelve or thirteen, it reverses, with children taught later showing greater comprehension and enjoyment of reading than those taught earlier.

Finland simply sets its standards at a place where most children will succeed. Oklahoma and many other states set them at a place where a significant percentage of children will fail. This is a choice. This research is available to policy makers, yet is routinely ignored.

It is important to recall that “grade level standards” do not exist in nature. They are not created scientifically, rather by fiat, based loosely on what we consider to be “normal” child development.

Unfortunately, when lawmakers promulgate capricious laws based more on political expediency than on true academic research, the end result for children can be highly deleterious and permanent.

In my previous post, I used a comparison of beginning a running program as an adult to beginning reading instruction as a young child. My intent was to illustrate the fragile nature of human motivation, regardless of age.

I believe that if you press a child to do something when he or she is developmentally unable to do it—a mistake that teachers and schools do every day—the negative impact on the child’s mindset can be catastrophic.

Policies which punish children for not being able to do things for which they are not developmentally ready create in that child the profound beliefs that (a) I hate this; (b) I can’t do this; (c) I will never be able to do this, and (d) There’s something wrong with me.

Moreover, when adults become anxious about a child’s development, that sense of anxiety is transmitted, either overtly or subtly, to the child. And most eight-year-olds can sense this. So what we may like to call “encouragement” or “support,” young children will often see as “manipulation” or “pressure,” and they resist it.

This resistance can take many familiar forms; inattention, irritability, disruption, withdrawal, restlessness, and forgetting. Interestingly, the “symptoms” of ADHD are also the behaviors of a child who is actively or passively resisting adult control.

And once you start to generate this resistance to learning, if you don’t change course quickly, it can solidify into something very disabling. In short, using punishment like threat of retention to coerce reading in young children can actually create an lifelong aversion to reading.

This is how we wind up with a society of supposedly literate citizens where nearly one in four did not read a single book last year.

We have all heard the popular refrain from those who push the third grade retention that: “Kids must first learn to read before they can read to learn.”

Maybe it is time to refine this statement to: “Kids must be motivated to learn, before they can learn to read, before they can read to learn.”

For some children, this happens at age four of five. For others with developmental delays, language deficiencies, or a myriad of other challenges, this may happen at age seven or eight.

Because there is something else that is pointed out repeatedly by all educational research. It’s that children are all different. Imagine that.

NOTE: For more comprehensive and scholarly discussions of third grade retention, I encourage you to review the following links:

Grade Retention Research

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

Position Statement from National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)

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