Talking Ed: SMU Experts Connecting Science and Practice
Bite for Bite

Study Shows Reading Readiness is Working in Crucial Grades

In the news

First Results from Controversial State Test

Despite warnings of widespread failure, few Texas third-graders repeated a grade in 2003-04 after a new law requiring them to pass a reading test before advancing to the next grade. The Texas Education Agency reported that 2.6 percent of third-graders had to be held back. Some educators had predicted that 1 in 8 children would fail because of the new requirement on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills Test, (TEKS). Jill Allor, associate professor for learning and language development at SMU’s School of Education and Human Development, says reading intervention in kindergarten and first grade is contributing to stable retention rates and a decline in social promotion.

“Research demonstrates that with strong support in first grade at least 98 percent of all first-graders would develop literacy skills sufficient to prepare them for success in future grades and make it much more likely for them to avoid the well-documented and lasting negative consequences associated with retention,” said Allor, who conducts research on struggling readers at the Institute for Reading Research.

Not All Good News

Because social promotion begins in third grade, reformers have focused on passing rates with these children. The study, however, found 6.4 percent of first graders in 2004 failed their grade. Using the same 98 percent research standard for reading success, Allor says only 422 first graders would need to repeat a grade instead of the 21,101 repeaters.

“Retention does not help most students ‘catch up.’ In fact, it is the single most powerful predictor of dropping out of school,” Allor says. “By failing to give these first graders intensive early intervention, 18,000 Texas children will never possess the skills necessary to attend trade schools or complete job applications.”

Other Findings

  • The early grades had the highest retention rates; fifth grade at 1 percent the lowest.
  • Overall, 4.7 percent of Texas students were repeating a grade in 2003-04; more than 180,000 children out of 4 million Texas students.
  • Black and Hispanic students were far more likely to be retained than white or Asian students. In 2004, about 6 percent of all black and Hispanic children repeated a grade, compared with 2.9 percent of whites and 1.8 percent of Asian students. Among poor children, 5.7 percent were held back.

What is Intervention Research? Hear from the experts. video

Read the Research

  • Mathes, P. G., Denton, C. A., Fletcher, J. M., Anthony, J. L., Francis, D. J., & Schatschneider, C. (2005). The effects of theoretically different instruction and student characteristics on the skills of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 148-182.
  • Jimerson, S. R. (2001). Meta-Analysis of Grade Retention Research:  Implications for Practice in the 21st Century. School Psychology Review, 30(3), 420-437.
  • Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of fifty-four children from first through fourth grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

Study Offers Hope for Children with Mental Retardation

Prompted by the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education has given $9 million in grants to Southern Methodist University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Georgia State University to boost the reading scores of children with mental retardation. The hope is that by learning to read better, children with mental retardation will navigate more independently through life.

“This research will break new ground in determining what levels of reading competence can be achieved by students who are moderately or mildly retarded,” says Patricia Mathes, SMU principal investigator and director of the Institute for Reading Research.

Mathes says a plethora of studies conducted over the last 25 years has demonstrated that children once assumed as unable to read, do learn to read when taught very carefully and with constant intervention. The approach has worked successfully with children with dyslexia and other struggling readers, Mathes says.

SMU researchers are working with 150 children in nine Fort Worth schools over the next four years. Half will be taught reading with the district’s current methods. The other half will receive an hour of intense instruction daily to help them not only sound out and read words, but also to know what those words mean.

To view a demonstration, click here. Video
More about Mathes.
Facts and figures about SMU's Institute for Reading Research.

Making the Connection

Brain before and after reading interventionThese scans show the growth of neural pathways in the brains of struggling readers. The scans on the top were done before the child received intervention with a scientifically based reading curriculum for her dyslexia. Several months later the red areas in the bottom scans show how her brain is making new connections on both the right and left side of the brain. SMU’s Patricia Mathes, director of the Institute for Reading Research, conducted the studies using a curriculum she designed. Researchers at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston did the scans, which used noninvasive imaging to map brain function of dyslexia.

More resources online: