There are a lot of kids who are doomed to perform poorly in school. You know some of the types: creative artists types who will never understand algebra. Insanely self-directed types who become obsessed with one topic and forget to do all their other homework. All the time. But here’s another type you might not know: kids who are behind in reading by third grade.

It’s been known for a long time that third grade is a make-or-break year for students. An educator in Time magazine suggested that since it’s so clear that kids who are poor readers in third grade will do poorly in school, we should just hold back every kid reading below grade level.

Of course we wouldn’t do that. It would be too expensive for the public school system, and also, there would have to be a new, non-linear way to talk about learning so that kids did not feel stigmatized, and school is inherently linear and competitive, so holding kids back would kill their self-esteem.

Which means that kids reading below grade-level in third grade are doomed. It’s mostly boys, of course. Because we start teaching boys to read (and to sit still or else!) before they are ready. And then we have to medicate them. And since a high percentage of boys are not medicated for ADHD but show symptoms of it while they try to cope, boys are behind in reading in third grade.

My brother was behind. In second grade my grandma noticed that my brother had no idea how to read. He was so good at math that the teacher would just give him more math during reading time. So my grandma taught my brother to read in between second and third grade.

Which is part of the research about third-graders, by the way. The rich kids do well and the poor kids don’t. My parents were both working at big jobs and oblivious to my brother. My grandma had a master’s degree in education and could spot a bad reader a mile away. That’s what it’s like to be a rich third grader: a grandma with a master’s degree.

If your kid is behind in third grade, take the kid out of school. There is strong evidence that where your kid stands in third grade is where your kid will be unless you intervene.

This data reminds me of the research that shows that the salary you are making at 40 will be the top of your earnings for the rest of your life. People hate that data because they don’t want it to be true, so they keep managing their life as if it’s not true. And I think people do the same with their third graders.

40 replies
  1. Lori
    Lori says:

    A logical conclusion would be to have boys start Kindergarten a year later than girls.

    I tried to have my son enter kindergarten a year later because his birthdate was 2 weeks from cutoff. No dice, then I had to remove him from 3rd grade to homeschool precisely because his reading was always 6-12 months behind where it needed to be to do well in the classroom. Now he reads but I see no reason to put him back in. At this point my eyes are wide open to the dysfunctional nature of school and Common Core.

  2. rachel
    rachel says:

    “…the salary you are making at 40 will be the top of your earnings for the rest of your life.”

    I see that statistic, but it doesn’t apply to anyone I know, including myself.

    I personally know 3 men and 2 women who didn’t start accruing real wealth until their 40s and 50s. And 3 of those people chose completed unrelated fields and started brand new careers and companies later in life.

    In fact, that’s when they started to flourish.

    I think it depends on who your friends are and if they have a scarcity mentality. Everyone around me just sees potential, except for the people in the field I’ve been in for most of my life.

    Fields of work die; not the people or their desire to succeed.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        Heck, there’s even a big difference between salary and take-home income. In some excellent jobs, the latter increases far more than does the former (yes, even after the age of forty). You’re doing well when less than half your compensation is salary.

      • rachel
        rachel says:

        Good point. I’ve never been paid a “salary”. It’s always been per project, per job, or commissions, or in my earlier years, per hour.

  3. Molly
    Molly says:

    Third grade was when I completely stopped doing homework, because it was boring and I was acing every test anyway. That continued through 10th grade, and I homeschooled (and skipped college) after that. Every single warning sign was there by the time I was in preschool even, but my parents didn’t want to believe that their gifted daughter could not succeed in school.

  4. mh
    mh says:

    Third grade is often when compulsory schooled children lose one recess. Also, their remaining recess becomes hostage to their work completion: If you don’t finish, you’ll have to do it during recess.

    Here is what I struggle with: exactly WHAT is so important in a 7-hour compulsory school day that you have to forbid the children from disengaging for half an hour? I can not figure out why teachers believe that making children sit still longer will magically improve their learning.

    • Vanessa
      Vanessa says:

      MH, couldn’t agree more. During the one month my first grader decided to try school, his teacher told the class that if homework continued to come in unfinished they would need to stay in during recess to complete it. Most of the class was 6.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s such an excellent point about recess! The research about the “turning points” and “trends” never take into account things so simple as a missed recess, outdated novels that the teacher loved as a kid, no time to sit on the floor – things that make such a big difference to kids and are totally off the radar of data collectors.

      Penelope

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Isn’t that interesting that it’s third grade that will make or break you which is also approximately the age of 8. Is that a coincidence that the Finnish education system doesn’t really start until the age of 8, also in the state of Washington compulsory education starts at the age of 8. Maybe we need to rethink the whole K-2 and just have daycare for those ages and begin academics at age 8. Then boys may actual start school without the need for medication!

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      I’m glad you commented because I was having similar thoughts.

      Perhaps have kids get tested at certain ages, and they can test out of school altogether until the 3rd or 4th grade. But still have school available for younger ages if they are not learning anything at home. For some kids starting school at 2 might be better than 5, especially if they got more individual attention from a teacher.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Common Core was just–tragically–backward mapped from 12th grade graduation requirements, meaning they looked at what kids would need to learn in kindergarten in order for them to be prepared by 12th grade to meet graduation requirements. No attention was paid to what 5-6 year olds actually need developmentally. So, in other words, you’re right but we’re at this moment moving in exactly the opposite direction.

      I think Waldorf schools do something like what you’re describing, but they have their own special type of hot mess to deal with.

    • lilly
      lilly says:

      In much of Europe formal academics starts at age 7 or 8. In the USA this was the case for my parents’ generation. Some genius decided we’ll get better test scores if we start hotboxing 4 year olds. It’s so dysfunctional, and for most boys it is soul crushing. Most have checked out by age 8.

  6. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Only a minority of those boys who don’t read well in third grade don’t read well because they have some organic disorder. Most of them don’t read simply because their parents don’t read (the same reason most girls don’t read either). They spend more time in front of a television than they do in school, let alone reading outside of school. Why should they become literate?

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      I really have to disagree. Most boys who are not reading well by third grade are just plain not ready to. All of the data and research in this area shows that when left to their own devices with access to a variety of written material, all children will learn to read on their own. Some outlier children will do it at age 3 or 4. The outliers on the other end of the spectrum won’t do it until 11 or 12. There is nothing wrong with any of these children and by the age of 15 or so, it is impossible to tell who learned early and who learned late. Anecdotally, my youngest son (age 9) lives in a home filled with books, is read to daily, watches both his parents and his older brother read voraciously and yet, he still cannot read on his own. He is in all other respects a completely normal, bright and inquisitive kid who can do amazing things. The reading will come when he’s ready and not before then.

      • Vanessa
        Vanessa says:

        Karen, I definitely agree but I think the research shows that children who are given the time and space to develop at their own pace will eventually become successful readers, regardless of what age they begin reading. Those kids do often level out and those who started later typically pick it up quickly and are reading at grade level after 6 months or so. A distinction needs to be made though between those kids and the kids who are in a system that pushes reading before they are developmentally ready, and the research says that these kids are the ones who dislike reading and are less likely to read for pleasure. The book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Should Play More and Memorize Less is packed with research showing that kids who are turned off from reading at an early age are more likely to struggle in school and life.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Correlation does not imply causation. I think the data showing age readiness is more reliable than any data regarding parenting causing reading delays, which I would be happy to read if you provide a source…certainly there is some correlation but not enough to prove so.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        YesMKAS, I don’t think we even have to consider it a question of parenting, or parent-child dynamics. About a quarter of Americans are illiterate. Odds are their kids will be like them, just as odds are your kids will be like you. That’s not parenting, it’s normative behavior.

        What I’m saying is that illiteracy is not a schooling problem, it’s a cultural problem.

        In some literate families you have late reading kids, who end up not being illiterate. Super for them. Not my family, but I’ve met some. This is different from the problem of illiteracy, which is a problem not of reading later than others but of never reading. Illiteracy runs in families.

        I’d love to include more links, but as you know including links sends one’s comments to limbo.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          One of the pleasures of reading the comments section here is the creative ways that people abbreviate Yes My Kids Are Socialized. I have a theory that people love the pseudonym so much that they spend extra time thinking about how to abbreviate it in a response.

          Penelope

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I see. I’ll accept your points about literacy, however, many studies show that regardless of poor/rich or literate/illiterate parents that at least half of children shouldn’t be forced to learn to read before the age of 8. These are usually right brained dominate people, and I’ve researched this and found the best source of information comes from a site called The Right Side Of Normal, her studies show that children who are right brained dominant should be taught differently by subject and also right brained thinkers gravitate towards unschool http://www.therightsideofnormal.com/2012/09/25/do-right-brained-learners-gravitate-to-unschooling/

          Ms. Gaddis research has shown that right brained dominant children should begin learning to read ages 8-10. This link here is the best as showing the differences between left and right brained dominant children and what subjects in what order are ideal for both. http://www.therightsideofnormal.com/2012/04/16/the-natural-learning-development-for-right-brained-children/

          See the correlation proves the point even accounting for literacy rates….when you remove literacy from the data you still have half the population that shouldn’t be forced to read before 8. I unschool, my nearly 7 year old is right brained dominant and we just have to go at her own pace, my 4 1/2 year old taught herself to read and can read at a traditional school grade level of first grade….so I work with one just to “keep on track” and not the other who does it all herself, I’m starting to really believe I shouldn’t force her anymore and just wait for her to turn 8. It doesn’t help that English has so many different letter combinations that make the same sound,f,gh, ph….I have faith that unschooling works and words will start to make sense at the right time, the right time is when she says so.

          • Commenter
            Commenter says:

            Thanks for the links, Yes.

            I found the second link interesting, as it described my son very well – in this typology, he is very much left-brained; he learned to read easily at 5, raced ahead in math and is enjoying starting algebra at 9. Interest in history developed later than I expected. I was an early reader, and it appears to me that my 3 year old girl will be as well (she can write all her letters). We don’t have any “right-brainers” in my family.

            I agree very much with your point that trying to force kids to read before they ought to is counterproductive.

            I think part of the difficulty with schools is that they have a mission to break intergenerational poverty, which is linked closely with intergenerational illiteracy.

            In my city, the only people who send their kids to public school are people with no options and people with multiple options. The people with multiple options can take their kids out at any time and send them to private school, move to another town, or homeschool. The people with only one other option already took it. What’s left here is like a big poverty cake with some privileged frosting.

            From the teacher’s perspective, the child who is growing up illiterate must look a lot like the child who is developing literacy late according to her natural schedule. With 24 kids, how can the teacher differentiate effectively?

            This is certainly a good reason to pull your right-brained kid out of school – much as frustration with the pace of reading and math progress is a good reason to pull one’s left-brained kid out of school. Turns out the schools are equipped to deal with neither.

  7. Lady Lilith
    Lady Lilith says:

    I think the problem is much bigger then that. Teacher send home reading assignments but they do not take the time to check or help the struggling students. The lack or reading and even reading comprehension has to be dealt with in first grade and every year thereafter.
    I see it in the older grades, they cannot read a simple paragraph without getting confused. It is really sad.

    • Vanessa
      Vanessa says:

      Lady, they simply don’t have the time. After volunteering in our local “good” public school I realized that there simply is not enough time and certainly not enough resources to help those who can’t read at grade level. I was given 4 fourth-graders at a time (out of 30 in this level) who were at a second-grade reading level who were really struggling. There was simply no way to match the level of help/assistance I could give to my own first grader who learned to read earlier this year at home.

      These teachers have their hands full and it simply isn’t possible to offer the necessary assistance to struggling readers in a classroom environment. They need parents and reading specialists who can give individualized reading instruction to new and/or struggling readers.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I think the bottom line is that when there are thirty kids and one teacher, kids are either proving the research that they can learn to read on their own to be true, or they are not learning. There is no way that kids who actually need help learning to read are going to get it in a classroom of 30 kids.

        Also, for those of you who think you are in “good” schools: The schools that test very high have one thing in common – they ship slow readers to another school district. You can see this by looking at reading scores in third grade. There is no way that the good schools are so good that they can overcome the fact that some kids aren’t ready to read as early as other kids. You can’t force a kid to get ready.

        I learned this by talking to teachers in the one elementary school that scores high in national rankings in Madison, WI. I found out that they tell parents to take slow learners to other school. Then I did some research and discovered it’s the unofficial policy in lots of schools. And then I thought, it almost seems fair because it is truly impossible to teach a wide range of kids in a classroom. So the good schools just give up on the idea of teaching a wide range of kids.

        Penelope

        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          This shows yet another way in which the creation of a “good” school depends on casting. The most helpful thing in creating high test scores is the expulsion of poor students.

          About half of poor readers are poor readers not because their natural development is happening on one end of the bell curve rather than the other, but because their parents are illiterate and they probably will be too. There is a very high correspondence between illiteracy and poverty. There is also a very high correspondence between poverty and poor test scores, truancy, delinquency, and imprisonment.

          Sending those students who can’t read at grade level to another school “where their special needs can better be met” is a great way for the school to rid itself of some of its poorest population. The magic result of higher standardized test averages then proves the school did the right thing, congratulations all around.

        • Becky
          Becky says:

          Touche. This is certainly the case with some private schools. My daughter and son went to a “private independent” school in a college town (Corvallis OR) and every year several kids (mostly boys) would leave first grade mid year or at the end of the year because the expectations and homework load created a living hell for the child and parent alike. They got the picture that their child was not going to be served in that environment. Strangely, the principal would try to manipulate some families to stay (because there is often no wait list and they have bills to pay). I saw this play out every year for 10 years. Dysfunctional at best.

  8. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    In third grade I hated school. I was bored of all of it. My teacher, Mrs. Dominguez, dominated my days–and not in a good way. Plus, she had a mustache that really weirded me out.

    I remember a very specific day when I sat at my desk and counted the years until I could graduate. One of my friends had an older sibling in high school, and from that girl I learned there were 12 years of mandatory school to attend.

    I put my head down on my desk and cried when I realized I had 9 left.

    As you can imagine, I became a behavioral problem–talking, talking, talking. Each day I took home a sealed envelope with a paper that had a smiley or frowny face stamped on it–and watched as my mother opened it. I had no idea (truly) which it’d be, but the consequences were doled-out, good or bad. I learned compliance. I learned to respect a teacher I strongly disliked. I also learned to bury myself in books.

    And I did.

    I was already a reader, but I became a voracious reader and began journaling all my woes into a puffy Hello Kitty diary (with a lock!)–the blog of the late 70s.

    I loved learning, and I was good/decent at it, but I hated school.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Heather Sanders, you just brought back a fond memory. I think I had that same Hello Kitty diary, was yours about 4″ by 5″?

      I didn’t even know Hello Kitty was a “thing” until I went to Japan more than a decade later.

      I wonder what happened to that diary of mine? Those were not happy days for me; maybe it’s better off long-gone.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This graphic included with the theme of this post are one of the best combinations I can recall in recent memory. It ties together the time sensitivity issue of a lending library due notice (return no later than by date) with when a person is “done” with the material lended (book, magazine, etc.). More often than not, the two time frames don’t synchronize. Look again at the expression on the person’s face as they look at the notice. The learning that’s taking place among a class of students isn’t happening at the same time rate for each student. Some students are ahead of the material being taught while others aren’t fully comprehending what the teacher is trying to convey to the class. And that’s where the dreaded homework enters the picture …

  10. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Penelope,

    At 40 I was unemployed. So my top earnings will be zero? No wonder folks don’t want to believe that. Just curious as to your take on that situation.

    Thanks for your insight. I really enjoy your blogs!

  11. Dee
    Dee says:

    I don’t agree with the fact given: kids who are poor readers in third grade will do poorly in school. It all depends on the time and interest in study. The same kid can become a better student in higher- studies.

    • Linda Lou
      Linda Lou says:

      The issue is that the train leaves the station in 3rd grade. If they aren’t fluent by start of 3rd, then they get farther and farther behind, because the assignments are based on an assumption of fluent reading and good comprehension.

      If the child is homeschooled then of course their education develops naturally and is built around their development. It also avoids all the stigma of being the kid who is last to read.

  12. Marla Woodward
    Marla Woodward says:

    Hi Penelope!

    I’m very glad you brought this topic up. I’ve read many stats and studies that indicate that 3rd grade is a critical time in a child’s education. There are even some studies out there suggesting a correlation between 4th grade illiteracy rates and future crime rates. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevecohen/2010/12/25/a-5-childrens-book-vs-a-47000-jail-cell-choose-one/)

    I’ve looked into a lot of this because I also happen to be one of those children that you just described. I grew up in inner-city public schools and was behind in reading in 3rd grade. My parents both had full-time jobs, and we had a great home life, but since I was doing well in math and every other subject, this just went unnoticed.

    Since both of my parents worked full-time, I don’t think they ever considered homeschooling an option, but I wanted to share what made a difference for me as another perspective/option for institutional education today.

    In 3rd grade, my new teacher, having had a son with learning disabilities herself, had me go through basic competency tests for all subjects. I did great in all of them except one: reading. Instead of recommending that I be held back a grade (which I think would have REALLY lowered my self-esteem since I was doing fine in all other subjects), the school had a Special Education reading class for students who were struggling with the subject. They would have me go to this class when the other students had library time, and a small group of 10 of us go special attention for 45 minutes to work on our reading skills. The group of us that did not have serious learning disabilities were able to catch up in just a years time and were in regular classes again by 4th grade.

    I know many schools do not currently have the resources for programs like this for every subject, but it might be worth considering as an approach to providing differentiated education options without holding students back.

    Thanks again for posting! Really enjoy reading your perspective on things.

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