Grade Retention and Dyslexia: Why Kids Don’t Outgrow Dyslexia

Child readingThe first few years of schooling can be a time of uncertainty for parents of struggling readers. Parents wonder: is my child truly on-track?  Will he catch up? What is causing the trouble?  Is the teacher right that my child just needs the “gift of time” and will outgrow dyslexia?  Might repeating this grade be all my child needs to catch up?

I began my career as a teacher in 2003 and attended more than one meeting discussing promotion or retention of first graders where I heard, “Retention is our first intervention” and “We can’t tell yet whether it’s developmental or a learning disability.”  Many children whose test scores indicated that they were not meeting grade level standards were retained because the school team was convinced they could catch up if we just gave them a little more time.

Research contradicts this still widely held belief. Whether they are retained or not, students who are not meeting grade level standards in first grade are highly unlikely to meet those standards in 4th grade or beyond.

Cause and effect of poor reading skills

Most students don’t fall behind in reading because of their age or general developmental trajectory.  Rather, they fall behind because they are lacking the pre-reading skills that they need to learn to read by conventional methods.  Over the preschool years, most children demonstrate a remarkable ability to remember the structure and meaning of spoken words.  Parents and teachers notice this when children correctly use a word that they have heard only once or twice.  Children may also produce or point out words that rhyme or that start with the same sound. By kindergarten, most children can break spoken words into syllables (for instance, by “clapping the word out”) and break apart a three sound word into its first, last and middle sounds (such as representing “nap” as “n…a…p”) . This awareness of sounds within words (often called phonemic awareness) is a strong predictor of later reading and writing skills.  Poor phonemic awareness is a symptom of dyslexia.

As they enter the first year of formal schooling children with poor phonemic awareness typically struggle to relate speech sounds to letters. They may resist reading and writing practice.  By the time summer rolls around, they are not only behind in phonemic awareness but also in reading, spelling and writing skills.

At this point, there are really two options offered by the school system for grade placement.

  1. Grade Retention – Repeating a grade is the very definition of insanity: trying the same thing over and over expecting a different result.
  2. Grade Promotion – Promoting students to a grade for which they are unprepared will likely lead to them falling even further behind.

Over time, these kids read fewer words and fewer books than their peers.  Since by 4th grade  most new words are learned through reading, their vocabulary suffers.  Since word-learning is limited to what they can pick up by listening their performance in content courses suffers. They enter middle and high school behind their peers not just in reading and writing but academic achievement in core subjects. The research shows that very few of these kids ever catch up.

There is a better way.  Students at risk for reading disability can be identified at a very young age.  These students can then receive the early, research-backed, structured literacy intervention they need to become successful readers and writers.

Research has told us a lot about what works for students who are struggling readers.  There are a few things you should look for in a reading intervention for your child. The intervention should:

Grade Level Progress_girl

  1.  Focus on learning to sound out words.  The student should learn to identify letters and the sounds they represent, as well as other predictable word parts, such as prefixes, suffixes, and base elements.
  2. Discourage guessing at words and encourage understanding and explaining them. Even words that are not phonetically regular have sub-word structures that are rational and can be understood by young children.   
  3. Integrate reading,  spelling and writing instruction.  At the same time the student learns to analyze words (sound out and/or explain) for reading, they should learn to do the same for spelling.
  4. Move at the student’s pace, not the pace of the curriculum or school year.  Ideas should be taught until the child grasps the concept, not only until the class has to move on.
  5. Give the student immediate feedback and an opportunity to fix mistakes.  This requires a very small group or one to one instruction so that the teacher can catch the student’s errors and support a positive, can-do mindset for error correction.

Unfortunately, schools struggle to meet the needs of these students for various reasons. In addition to the reasons detailed in this article, too many schools still believe that, despite what research indicates, students will catch up if we just give them the “gift of time.”  If like most parents we know, you prefer your child get the gift of reading, contact us to begin a customized reading therapy plan for your child.

Image courtesy of stockimages and Phaitoon at

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Tori Whaley

Since 2003, Tori has been a committed special educator, working as an elementary special education teacher. Her drive to improve outcomes for her students with dyslexia led her to the Neuhaus Education Center, where she was trained in Orton-Gillingham the summer after her first year of teaching. "I was so frustrated as a first year teacher, not knowing how to meet my students' needs. I spent the entire summer learning about dyslexia and was thrilled by my students' progress the next year!" Since then, she has used the method in English and Spanish with students in three states. In 2009, Tori completed her M.Ed. in Special Education at the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, where she focused on educational strategies for students with learning disabilities. Tori joined the Lexercise team full-time in early 2014 after seeing students online for over a year. When she is not working, Tori loves to read, cook, garden, and spend as much time outdoors as possible.