Persistence of reading problems: Research-based fact or urban myth?

  • 30 March, 2009

Last week, I heard from the Education Writers Association requesting information about what happens to children who don’t learn to read well by third grade… Do they drop out of high school? End up in jail? Become wards of the state? Go into politics? (Okay, they didn’t really ask that last one, I was just checking to see if you were paying attention.) The Writers had checked NAEP reports and the Department of Education but found no help there. So what really happen to kids who don’t read well early?

  Longitudinal studies show that early learning problems tend to be persistent. There are strong correlations between early reading skills and later academic attainment. That means that the kids who are learning well in grades 1 and 2, tend to continue to well right into high school. The studies have been done over various time points, but generally, they find a very strong consistency from grade 1 through about grade 11 (see citations below for the evidence).

  It shouldn’t be surprising that the past is prolog. Scientists who study children’s learning tend to be naturists or nurturists, but either way, the story comes out the same. The naturists claim that learning is governed mainly by genetically-inherited brain functioning (IQ, intelligence, ability, etc.). They would conclude that children who have strong ability to learn early on will continue to exhibit such ability as they get older as long as nothing physiologically goes wrong the brain will keep learning well.

  The nurturists tell a very similar story. Some children live in supportive environments with parents who talk with them, read to them, send them to good schools with other nurturing adults, etc. Of course, if kids are in stimulating and supportive environments early on they tend to stay there (the rich kid thrown into poverty without the benefit of parents is a staple of Dickensian fiction, but a rather rare event in real life in 21st century America). Kids who start out in lousy schools, tend to stay in lousy schools.

  The things that make learning work early on are the same things that make learning work later and so kids who do well early on tend to continue to learn (and, of course, this means that the kids who start out having a hard time continuing to have difficulty). With reading, the successful kids get the added benefit of being able to read well, which has a functional benefit later on (so even if they have a bad high school teacher, these students can sometimes even read around this temporary impediment).

  However, though early reading success or failure translates into later school success or failure is the pattern more than 80% of the time, there are always a few outliers who manage to overcome their initial limitations (again, because they are really smart or live in really smart environments that are arrayed to address the problem). This last point is really important because it says that redemption is possible. Just because your child is having trouble with reading does not mean this problem has to persist. Good teaching (in big doses) can solve this problem for most kids. Redemption is possible.

  So, what of the more dramatic claims? High school dropouts do tend to have somewhat lower reading scores than other kids, but the correlation between dropping out and reading level is pretty limited. That means, for the most parts, kids leave high school for lots of reasons, low reading scores being only one of the explanations (good readers drop out too—I did, for instance—and poor readers often stick around and graduate—just because they can’t read well doesn’t mean they’re stupid). I’m aware of no studies that look at high school graduation longitudinally so can’t say directly whether early low readers are more likely to drop out (they probably are, but how much the chance of this is increased is unknown—I suspect the increase would be rather small given the low relationship between reading and graduation).

  The idea that early reading problems translate into prison terms is an urban myth. No such studies exist. Data do show that incarcerated youth suffer startlingly high rates of reading disability (something like 5 times the normal incidence)… but most kids with reading problems DO NOT end up in jail, so a strong relationship between early reading difficulty and later criminal activity is not likely (and people like Bernie Madoff can read very well). Despite the claims that school achievement levels are taken into account by those who plan the building of prisons (they do not), the relationship between prison time and literacy is rather murky.


Fletcher, J., & Satz, P. (1982). Kindergarten prediction of reading achievement: A seven-year longitudinal follow up. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 42, 681-685.

Cunningham, A. E., &; Stanovich, K. E. (1999). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Journal of Educational Psychology, 33, 934-945.

Entwistle, D. R., &; Hayduk, L. A. (1988). Lasting effects of elementary school. Sociology of Education, 61, 147-159.

Jacobson, C. (1999). How persistent is reading disability? Individual growth curves in reading. Dyslexia, 5, 78-93.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children with reading disabilities. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 24-53.

Shaywitz, S. E., Fletcher, J. M., Holahan, A. E., Schneider, K. E., Marchione, K. K., Stuebing, D. J., Francis, D. J., & Shaywitz, B. A. (1999). Persistence of dyslexia: The Connecticut Longitudinal Study at adolescence. Pediatrics, 104, 1351-1359.



See what others have to say about this topic.

Jan Hasbrouck
Nov 30, 2017 10:55 PM

There has been a on-going discussion on the Spell Talk listserve about the emotional impact of poor reading skills. One person cited this article:
“Do poor readers feel, angry, sad and unpopular? Scientific Studies of Reading 16(4) 300-381, 2012.
"...poor readers in third grade were about twice as likely to consider themselves as angry, distractible, sad, lonely, and unpopular in fifth grade as those who had not been poor readers in third grade. ...reading failure contributes to generalized socioemotional maladjustment in young children.”

Nancy Souza
Dec 01, 2017 04:03 AM

Thanks for posting this interesting topic that has been discussed for a long time. As a certified Language Arts Consultant and also an Adjunct Instructor at a University off site campus for a long time and have read lots of research and theory. A role of mine working in public schools in many different school districts, large and small and different socioeconomic levels was to be a Tier III reading teacher. The comment that you made about having a teacher who has the skills to help at risk readers, is so critical for the success of a student. Both as a classroom teacher and an interventionist. Building confidence, providing the right strategies and resources is critical to the success of the learner. I have seen too many Interventionist/Reading Coaches who are not certified and have very limited knowledge of best practices to meet the learning needs of the student. Seems that many at risk readers are being serviced by the least trained teachers. Not even a non certified teacher would ever be in a position to teach physical education or any other area, but it seems to be okay for teaching reading. Thanks for the offer to share. I have been reading your books and have attended a few of your workshops.

Dec 01, 2017 01:42 PM

Well, as a teacher and a single mother of 3 I can say that 2 out of my 3 children needed reading support in elementary school; despite being read to at home, weekly trips to the library and weekly family reading night (similar to a family movie night.) All 3 graduated with honors from high school, graduated from college. The child that struggled most has a masters degree and the 2nd former struggler is now working on one as well. My children were very lucky to be in a strong district and that their schools believed in early intervention and provided strong support. I would agree that home and school do matter. That being said, the question is now how to reach children not so fortunate to have these supports.

Matthew Levey
Dec 04, 2017 06:19 PM

Tim, so what's the secret sauce to "good teaching and lots of it"? I assume it includes synthetic phonics and well-designed RtI when kids struggle but that's the punch line, right? not that the poor readers (for the most part) do not go to jail.

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Persistence of reading problems: Research-based fact or urban myth?


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