It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over: On the Idea of Developing Third Grade Readers by Grade Three

  • remedial reading academic vocabulary
  • 15 October, 2017

  I often use this space to challenge myths about the teaching of reading.

      And there are a bunch of those. (Sisyphus ‘R Us.)

    Which one caught my eye this week?

      A blog follower raised a question about educational policies aimed at getting all kids up to a third-grade reading level by Grade 3. He was surprised about my response, and maybe you will be, too.

      There is a slew of studies that reveal the persistence of reading problems... for instance: Those studies show that kids who are struggling with reading in the primary grades continue to struggle long after.

      Given that, many states have committed to the idea of addressing those reading problems once-and-for-all in the lower grades. I’m usually pretty supportive of such efforts… someone wants to improve preschool and primary reading instruction, I’m there.

      So where’s the surprise?

      My reply included the following statement: “There is no research that suggests a deadline for reading proficiency. There is no question that the longer one delays addressing reading problems, the more prodigious they will become over time. But older readers can benefit from remedial work.”

      My correspondent’s surprise was that the overheated rhetoric about catching reading problems early had misled him into thinking that was a line of demarcation: kids would either be successful readers by then or they would not be. But is that really the case? Is that really what that body of research means?

First and foremost, please understand that if you’re responsible for a student who is older than 8, a struggling reader… It is not too late. There is a possibility of redemption. There are great reasons for teaching kids well early on—just as there is reason to be wisely skeptical about such efforts. But it is never too late; learning can happen with older students (there is a body of literature on adult and adolescent literacy that would suggest the artificiality of any age-based reading demarcation that divides the possibility of success from the certainty of failure).

        It is certainly true that struggling beginning readers tend to continue to struggle, but we are working with correlations here. The reasons young readers struggle early on are all still likely to be true later in their post-third-grade-reading level lives as well.

        Let’s make things simple: the barriers to early reading success are going to be in the head or out of the head.

What I mean by that is that there are some potential barriers within the child: how efficiently the brain processes information, the suppleness of its cognitive coordination, the strength of memory, ability to concentrate, genetic predispositions, and so on. And, there are many potential barriers that are environmental: parents’ education levels, the child’s experiences with language, quality of teaching, availability of books and other relevant material resources, and so on. (Yes, inside the head and outside of the head do interact which complicates what I’m saying, but those complications don't change the conclusion.)

      If youngsters have several of these barriers—or profoundly serious versions of any of them—they may have difficulty learning to read. If you are successful in getting them to read like the average 8-year-old by the end of third grade, that would be great….but would it actually remove or overcome any/many of those barriers for all time?

        If Johnny’s parents don’t provide much academic support when he's six, will they now that he can read at a third-grade level? If his brain requires significantly more stimulation and experience to figure something out, will alter this situation?

        That’s one of the reasons why the effects of programs—even those that are clearly successful--tend to wear off over time. The kids don't forget what they have learned, they just don't continue to make the same kind of progress they made when they were getting a lot of supportive teaching. A lot of literacy learning has to take place after Grade 3 for someone to reach common adult levels that we depend upon in Western society, and whatever slowed these kids initially, will continue to.

        Let’s face it: the reason why reading problems persist is that our efforts to address those problems usually do not.

        There are great reasons to invest heavily in beginning readers: those reading problems can be addressed later, but the longer we wait the further behind these kids will fall. That’s inexcusable since the youngster can fall so far behind his/her peers that there is little chance the schools will later be willing to invest in trying to fix it then. Of course, being a struggling reader is unpleasant as well, and can limit other opportunities to learn. Why let a child languish? What's the benefit of that?

        Addressing reading problems early and powerfully is a smart move. But, if for some reason that hasn’t happened, that is not an excuse for tepid later responses. Remediation with older readers can be quite successful.

            I live in Chicago—the place that is known for “voting early and often.” That should be the byword of anyone who has responsibility for a struggling reader. We need to intervene early—providing powerful teaching to young children throughout preschool and primary education. AND we need to continue to provide effective instructional support well beyond that.  

We teach early and often!


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jen Harmening Oct 16, 2017 09:32 AM

Should remediation for older students include additional time beyond the core ? Do you think it is effective for older students to miss a class like social studies or a special to receive additional reading minutes?

Ally Austin Oct 16, 2017 08:57 PM

There is no excuse for tepid later responses, but what does the best later response look like for older students? What should a reading intervention look like at the middle or high school level? (For students who are a little behind and also for students who are still beginning readers.) Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Oct 17, 2017 03:56 PM


Older struggling readers tend to be more diverse than the younger ones are, so more diverse options are needed (and obviously kids in grades 4-5 are more like primary kids than they will be later on). A very small contingent of older readers need phonics and phonological awareness help; they are usually in severe need and should get that teaching. Most older readers tend to have difficulty with vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension so intervention should focus on one or more of those. Personally, I like the idea of focusing that work on texts from the content subjects that they might be missing due to the intervention time.

Karen Oct 19, 2017 04:13 PM

I'm reading Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick for an online discussion group. I'm only about half way through, and it's pretty dense reading, so maybe I'm misinterpreting, but Kilpatrick seems to suggest that many older, struggling readers suffer from phonological deficits (and that those phonological deficits are the cause of vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension issues). What are your thoughts?

I appreciate your comment that struggling readers will continue to need support. It seems like a lot of teachers have the idea that once we "fix" struggling readers, we don't have to worry about them anymore.

Thomas Zurinskas Oct 20, 2017 07:25 PM

There is a gigantic gap in literacy tools in US and beyond that must be filled to achieve better literacy rates. If phonemic awareness is so important, and it is, then why don't we have a phonetic notation that can be used by children and adults to learn English. Fortunately, we now have such a tool in truespel phonetics and it's free. Here is the reason for the necessity of a "writable" phonetic system .

Timothy Shanahan Oct 20, 2017 08:00 PM

Karen- David and I have argued about that. He believes that students need much more phonological awareness to be a successful reader than most experts including me. He might be right, but I’m not satisfied that there are sufficient data to conclude that.

Erin Pizzo Nov 05, 2017 10:40 PM


There is a study (Preschool Morphological Training Produces long-term improvements in Reading Comprehension by Lyster, Lervag, and Hulme, 2016)) that suggests that phonological awareness does not have long-term impact. I would contend to say that since the written language is not primarily based on the phonological principles but rather phonology is more of the raw building blocks that are used within the morphemes it would be beneficial for teachers to work with students on the morphological awareness as early as kindergarten. Since the approach to reading has been heavy on the phonological processing realm, we as teachers are seeing more and more 'non-responders' to intervention. Perhaps it is not the students but rather the instruction?

Elizabeth Murray, Nov 26, 2017 09:03 PM

I have a question on another topic and would really appreciate your thoughts. MY district is moving towards a guided reading model . The administration has emphasized that they would like teachers to move away from an emphasis on text to skills that may be applied to any text...I am struggling with this .

I do a combination of reading and writing workshop with a balanced literacy approach, including whole class and small group work...with lots of word work daily. I use flexible small groups but will often do 1-3 reads of a text.I will choose a focus for a session: summarizing, questioning....but feel like deep conversations about the text are important...any strategy or skill needs to be nested in a context( the text)...What are your thoughts? Thanks so much.

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It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over: On the Idea of Developing Third Grade Readers by Grade Three


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.