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"Waiting to Fail" Instead of Teaching a Child to Read

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Karen Asks

"My son is 6 years old and in the 1st grade. He has problems in reading, writing and spelling and is on grade level in all other areas. The school wants to retain him. They believe he is immature, and will benefit from another year in first grade. 

I asked the school to test him but they say "The test is so easy, he will pass." I contacted psychologists for a psycho-educational evaluation but this will cost about $1800. Our medical insurance may not pay for any of the cost." 

Pam Answers

Your story is painfully familiar. Your child has difficulties early, with red flags especially in language areas - reading, spelling, writing.

The school believes his problems are due to "immaturity." Oddly, this immaturity doesn't affect his ability to learn subjects like math or science. The school's solution to this problem is to retain the child while they continue to do the same thing with him, waiting for a different outcome.  

"Waiting to Fail" Has Been Discredited For Decades

This is often called the "Wait to Fail" approach. Although retaining kids in hopes that "maturity" will cause them to learn to read, write and spell has been discredited for decades, this news doesn't seem to have reached many people who work in schools. 

Preventing the Downward Spiral in Reading

First, read this article: Preventing Early Reading Failure

The only way you can prevent the downward spiral described in this article is to:

  • educate yourself
  • try to educate the educators (although you should expect resistance from some)
  • get a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation on your son by an evaluator who has expertise in dyslexia.

Please read articles about learning to read and teaching children to read on these pages:

Reading at Wrightslaw

Doing Your Homework

Retention is not an Appropriate Intervention

Despite clear evidence that retention does not work - and that it damages children - some school districts continue to use this outmoded policy. 

You need to educate yourself before you can advocate for your child.

Go to the Retention and Social Promotion page. Download and read these articles:

Position Statement on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

Grade Retention: Achievement and Mental Health Outcomes by Gabrielle E. Anderson, Angela D. Whipple, and Shane R. Jimserson, published by the National Association for School Psychologists.

"Often it is thought that the 'gift' of another year in the same grade will give the child reinforcing instruction as well as provide another year for the development of grade level educational skills. However, educational research fails to support grade retention as an effective intervention. In fact, grade retention has been associated with a host of negative outcomes on a variety of levels."

* Research: Retention is Ineffective, Maybe Harmful
* Impact of Retention on Student Mental Health
* Why Retention is a Failed Intervention
* Alternative Actions

Make copies of these articles for the members of your child's team. They support your position that retention is not an appropriate intervention, and often damages vulnerable children.

Frankly, I am shocked that schools are still proposing to retain children when they haven't evaluated the child to determine why the child is struggling in reading, writing and spelling - the classic signs of a language learning disability. 

Get an Evaluation by an Expert

You asked the school to evaluate your child. They should have scheduled an evaluation at that time. The fact that they are dragging their feet is concerning.

At this point, you don't want to insist that the school test him - the outcome of a school evaluation is predictable. Some staff don't want to evaluate him because they can see the writing on the wall. Others still believe in the discredited "Wait to Fail" theory.  

I know a comprehensive evaluation is expensive, but this is the only way to proceed.

A thorough evaluation by an expert in the private sector will give you a roadmap to use for years. The evaluation will describe your child's strengths and weaknesses, specifically what needs to be done to address his problems, and what will happen if the school continues to drag their feet.

What will happen if the school doesn't take appropriate action?

You child will continue to struggle and will fall further behind. In a year or two, the school will finally evaluate him - he'll probably be in third or fourth grade. After this belated evaluation, they will propose a special ed program that will not remediate his problems, will not teach him to read, and will not help him catch up with his peers. He is likely to be emotionally damaged by the process. 

If you have health insurance and your child's doctor recommends an evaluation, some insurance companies will pay up to 50% of the cost.

If I was in your shoes, I'd find a way to get the funds for that evaluation - I'd get a loan, get help from family members (especially grandparents) -- whatever it takes. 

Develop a good working relationship with the evaluator. Explain that you would like to consult with him or her about any program the school offers and whether your son is making acceptable progress.

After the evaluation, ask the evaluator to attend the Team meeting to explain his/her findings. It's harder for the school personnel to say "no" when the evaluator is sitting across the table, explaining how the child will be damaged by their continued inaction.

Teaching Your Child to Read

Assume you get this private sector evaluation and the evaluator concludes that your son does have a language learning disability and needs a specific program of remediation. Your problems are not over, and may have just begun. 

Do not assume that special educators know how to teach children to read. Most special education programs do not teach aspiring teachers how to teach reading. A special educator may have graduated with an "overview" of reading but no real training in any research based reading program

Speech language pathologists and reading specialists write to us, saying how sad they are when a student goes into special ed because they knew that child will NEVER LEARN TO READ. After all these years, I am still astounded by these emails.

I checked the curriculums at several schools that teach special educators. I found very little emphasis on teaching children to read, although this problem is shared by most students in special ed.

I hope this is helpful. If you don't have a copy of our book, Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd Edition, I urge you to get a copy. It costs $19.95, less when a group buys in bulk. You have a long road ahead of you, with many obstacles. You need to be prepared to recognize and deal with these obstacles quickly and efficiently.

You also need to be strong, determined and persistent. Your child cannot advocate for himself - he needs you to take on this job.

Bottom Line: Don't allow the school to retain your son. This will damage him. Insist that the school use a research based reading program that is implemented by a highly skilled, trained reading teacher

Please keep us posted,

Pam Wright

Last modified: 12/22/10
Created: 03/13/08

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