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How long should it take to teach a child to read?

• Mike Thomas

That longstanding debate is playing out once again in Michigan as the state considers a retention policy for third graders who have not yet mastered the skill of reading.

To put this in perspective, by the end of third grade, a child has spent four years in school. Is that enough time to expect children to learn reading? And if not four years, then how many years should it take? Five? Six?

In Michigan, it appears the two sides of this debate are lining up accordingly. On one side are defenders of a status quo that argues all children are not created equally in terms of both ability and circumstance, and so holding them to set standards and deadlines is neither realistic nor fair.

On the other side are reformers who argue that squishy standards and built-in excuses allow adults in public education, enabled by their political backers, to sidestep their responsibilities. The children they profess to protect from retention are the very ones for whom illiteracy will be a deal killer for their futures.

My sense is this. No, it is not possible to bring every child up to grade-level reading by third grade. But a retention policy will ensure a lot more of them will reach that standard than if it was not in place.

The first thing to understand about such policies, however, is that this is not your father’s retention. Schools should not go blithely along for four years, give kids a reading test, and hold back those who failed it.

Retention is simply one component of a policy that includes a variety of strategies. It is possible to begin identifying children who will struggle with reading the day they walk into kindergarten. And that’s when they should be surrounded by a variety of wrap-around services that begin with parental notification and reading improvement plans.

Such children must be put in the hands of well-trained teachers using scientifically proven reading strategies. A block of their classroom time must be set aside for reading. And so what you have by the end of third grade is a child who has received intensive intervention for four years.

Even so, one test should not determine retention. There can be exemptions allowing students to use alternative assessments if they have a bad day when taking the state test. Teachers also can prepare portfolios of their work demonstrating reading proficiency.

Students who still are retained should have access to summer reading camps, and intensive intervention the subsequent school year.

The role retention plays in this process is simple and one everybody in the private sector fully appreciates. It takes clear expectations and hard deadlines to drive success. You get an entirely different set of results when you make a goal optional as opposed to mandatory.

That certainly has been evident in Florida, which dramatically cut third-grade illiteracy with a well-thought out retention program. The lesson learned from this is that for decades, an untold number of children capable of reading were not taught to read. And that predisposed them to dropping out of school. How much ability did we leave on the table at their expense? How many lives were wasted?

Critics of retention talk about compassion for low-income kids who don’t have the life advantages of their more affluent peers. But how is it compassionate to excuse them from learning a skill that will determine their success in life?

Critics of retention argue it is harsh on children. I would argue illiteracy is much harsher.

Critics of retention point to the thousands of children who could be held back. I would argue that those numbers are an indictment of the existing system and, in fact, are the best argument for retention.

Who do we think we are we kidding when we promote children into fourth grade who can’t even read the coursework?

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at