Dr. Michael Ryan

Dear young dyslexic,

There is an old saying, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Because few people, including educators, understand the science of reading, one of their few interventions is grade retention. Now a number of states are passing mandatory retention laws that mandate student retention if they do not pass a reading proficiency test. However, retaining a child is not a reading intervention!

Because it is an easy fix, grade retention surfaces about every 10 years as a "solution" for our academic problems. However, grade retention has been researched in dozens of studies over the last hundred years and it is consistently failed to show any lasting improvement in student's performance. In fact it does damage. S. Jimerson (2001) in a comprehensive review of dozens of studies over the last hundred years concluded that the vast majority of studies indicate no improvement in the child's performance during the year of retention. In the few studies that showed improvement that first year, these gains were lost within a couple of years.

Not only does grade retention not work, in harms the children. Numerous studies have demonstrated that grade retention increases a child's risk of dropping out of high school by 20–50%. Of all the possible variables, having retained a child is the best single predictor whether that child will drop out. Why would we choose an intervention that significantly increases a child's risk of not completing high school? Furthermore, grade retention injures a child's self-image. As a neuropsychologist, I have tested close to 2000 children for learning disabilities over the last 35 years. I always start by asking the children their grade. If they've been retained, they will almost always answer something to the effect of "I'm in fifth grade but I should be in six grade." The embarrassment and shame on their faces is very telling.

If a child is not proficient in reading, he or she needs a comprehensive evaluation and proper evidence-based intervention. 35 years of research by the National Institutes of Health have provided us with highly accurate tests and interventions. In fact, their research indicates that 95% of dyslexic children can become good readers and adequate writers with the appropriate treatment. Since many of us have suffered the consequences of poor teaching and inappropriate teaching methods, it is essential that we advocate for dyslexic children with both educators and legislators.

Be well and make a bit of noise,

Dr. Michael Ryan

Dr. Michael Ryan

Dr. Ryan explains why grade retention isn't the solution for academic problems, and how it may actually be damaging student performance.
When Everything Looks Like A Nail: Letters to A Dyslexic