Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Why Third Grade Is So Important: The ‘Matthew Effect’

Children who have made the leap to fluent reading will learn exponentially, while those who haven't will slump

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FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / Getty Images

Children doing their homework in a gymnasium in Kentwood, New Orleans, LA on August 30, 2012.

Take a guess: What is the single most important year of an individual’s academic career? The answer isn’t junior year of high school, or senior year of college. It’s third grade.

What makes success in third grade so significant? It’s the year that students move from learning to read — decoding words using their knowledge of the alphabet — to reading to learn. The books children are expected to master are no longer simple primers but fact-filled texts on the solar system, Native Americans, the Civil War. Children who haven’t made the leap to fast, fluent reading begin at this moment to fall behind, and for most of them the gap will continue to grow. So third grade constitutes a critical transition — a “pivot point,” in the words of Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at CUNY–Hunter College. A study Hernandez conducted, released last year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, found that third-graders who lack proficiency in reading are four times more likely to become high school dropouts.

(MORE: Paul: Born to be Bright: Is There a Gene For Learning?)

Too often the story unfolds this way: struggles in third grade lead to the “fourth-grade slump,” as the reading-to-learn model comes to dominate instruction. While their more skilled classmates are amassing knowledge and learning new words from context, poor readers may begin to avoid reading out of frustration. A vicious cycle sets in: school assignments increasingly require background knowledge and familiarity with “book words” (literary, abstract and technical terms)— competencies that are themselves acquired through reading. Meanwhile, classes in science, social studies, history and even math come to rely more and more on textual analysis, so that struggling readers begin to fall behind in these subjects as well.

(MORE: Paul: What Distinguishes A Super School From The Rest)

In operation here is what researchers call the “Matthew effect,” after the Bible verse found in the Gospel of Matthew: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” In other words, the academically rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as small differences in learning ability grow into large ones. But the Matthew effect has an important upside: well-timed interventions can reverse its direction, turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.

Recognizing the importance of this juncture, some states have been taking a hard line: third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level don’t get promoted to fourth grade. “Mandatory retention” bills have already passed in Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Oklahoma, and are being considered in Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee. But many education researchers say holding kids back isn’t the answer. The ideal alternative: teachers and parents would collaborate on the creation of an individualized learning plan for each third-grader who needs help with reading — a plan that might involve specialized instruction, tutoring or summer school. Most important is taking action, researchers say, and not assuming that reading problems will work themselves out.

(MORE: Andrew J. Rotherham: What Do We Do About Poor Science Scores? Take Kids Outside)

It might seem scary that a single school year can foretell so much of a student’s future. But maybe we should feel grateful instead — that research has given us a golden opportunity to both build on what has already been accomplished or turn kids’ academic lives around.

38 comments
JK2XYS73
JK2XYS73

My third grader is going through this, and it's quite frustrating. I told the school I didn't think he was ready for third grade, but they advanced him because of the trauma of being held back.

Now he is failing the third grade. His teacher graded several failing papers but I didnt know about it until two weeks later when the graded paper folder came home. I think if a child fails more than one assignment, the parent should be notified immediately.

Now I've asked for a child study, but they are stalling until January.

readersandwritersparadise
readersandwritersparadise

It's true. I'm happy to say that 3rd grade was by far the most magical year of my school life, with my favorite teacher ever, and the only one I was truly happy. I often think back to it with yearning.

icelore
icelore

While fluency and reading comprehension are indeed pivotal in third grade, every single answer cannot always be "individualized education plan." In even a modest sized class, there are already students who have IEPs, and now there should be more who need it in reading, math, etc.  Teachers simply CANNOT provide one-on-one, specialized education time to every student in the classroom!

claireomeara23
claireomeara23

In a perfect world no child should be left until 3rd grade before reading difficulties can be addresses and managed. However, the world we live in is far from fair and this is especially true when it comes to educational systems and methods. Public school systems have many flaws and too many children fall through the cracks before they even get out of the starting blocks. 

hnikolaou
hnikolaou

@rachelamstutz @TIMEIdeas Indeed.

crazybtch
crazybtch

I want to give kudos to my 3rd grade teacher Mrs Beldon who was teaching at Sunset View E.S. here in San Diego way back in 1969.  I was an avid reader and she gave me extra reading materials.  She noticed that I struggled to read the blackboard even from the first row, although it wasn't the year for me, she asked the school nurse to have my eyes checked; they found I needed glasses.  What a huge difference being able to see things clearly!  She realized that in between my parent's several moves that I had missed learning to tell time and she spent several weeks of her lunchtimes staying in to teach me this important skill.  She encouraged me in creative writing and entered my stories and poetry into contests and I won a few.  She asked for me to be IQ tested and I was entered into the G.A.T.E. program.  (Back then testing was done 1 on 1, and it almost took a writ of God to get tested)  When I read her notes on my old report cards now, how much she cared about my progress, and me as a person really stands out.  I wish every child had a Mrs Beldon in their life.  She made me feel smart, she made me feel special and important, something that no one had ever given me before.  When I volunteered and worked with children years later, I endeavored to be her.

crazybtch
crazybtch

3rd grade is also a year that a bad teacher destroyed two of myson's confidence in themselves and their ability to learn.  I tried bothtimes to take them out of Mr. Sward's classroom and was denied by PUSD.This man was sick and destructive of children.  If a child wasreprimanded in the hallway, he would then come into the classroom andtell the children about it.  He used to describe in detail to theclassroom why his various foster children were in his care.  What he didto my sons followed them all the way through to high school, as itcolored their view of teachers and education.

ABKskylark
ABKskylark

Really? You would have had to hold back Einstein or John B. Gurdon, the Medicine Nobel laureate to contribute more to this society! Education system needs to change its antiquated methods to yield a better crop.

June Park
June Park

Today's public schools push children to this point well before third grade...usually by first or second. This can be too much too soon for some children. It is best to let them work at their own pace with their own interests. The skills they need will organically come if they are given the tools and allowed to progress in their own time. Being forced often makes children less interested in learning.

paulhoss428
paulhoss428

 Ability grouping is tracking, and tracking is wrong on all counts.

lindanewyork
lindanewyork

Waiting until 3rd grade for extra support for struggling readers is too late.  Teachers need to use data-informed assessments to identify students who need help from Kindergarten to 2nd grade so as to provide interventions such as tutoring and phonics.  Empowering teachers and small class sizes allow for differentiated learning to ensure that all students are reading fluently by the 3rd grade. 

Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences identified  one-on-one tutoring by qualified tutors for at-risk readers in grades 1-3rd and instruction for early

readers in phonics as two of only four evidence-based approaches proven to increase student achievement through rigorous, randomized experiments. 

chaucer1350
chaucer1350

It's also the point at which kids move from "reading for themselves" to "guess what the teacher/tester thinks this means." That sort of outward focus in reading (reading for school) is actually a different form of reading than the sort of narrative internalization (reading for pleasure/yourself) we most often think of as "reading." And "reading for school" is a more unnatural and unpleasant act than educators are often willing to admit - or even differentiate from "reading for pleasure."

Third grade almost ruined my oldest as a reader. He went from being an avid, self-motivated reader to a reluctant reader who only engaged school assignments and only engaged them at the last possible moment. I finally stopped calling what he was being asked to do for school "reading" and started calling it studying. We discussed the different strategies, expectations, and purposes - and we got him back. His reading EOGs came back at 72, 88, and 97 for 3rd, 4th and 5th grades.

Valley Forge
Valley Forge

An individualized learning plan. Don't rely on public school to do it for you. Parents need to take responsibility for their child's education. We taught our four children to read by age 4. If our first-grader is interested in whales or space the first thing he does is check out a dozen books from the library. By that evening he knows more about it than I ever did. My third-grade daughter reads so frequently that a list of 100 classic books for 4th-6th graders didn't last the summer. They are bright but no more than most children. Early reading is key to a life of learning, and few schools will do the job for you.

alyssaag
alyssaag

As I had a very strong educational foundation in third grade, I strongly believe that this article is accurate.  My third grade teacher, by providing advanced material beyond our years, had the ability for her students to enhance our knowledge and give us a passion to learn. This set the tone for my academic experience for years to follow, all the way up to my high school career.  A third grade teacher is a vital part of one's academic journey, as they can potentially lead a student on the right path to success at an early age.

brianmouland
brianmouland

Depends on the teacher my grade teacher two teacher got fired and committed suicide my grade three teacher was fired at Christmas the next year. Had a great grade four teacher who turned me around and a bunch of others around thank goodness for teachers like her

Steve032
Steve032

Ridiculous really - that parents are actively keeping their kids from starting school in Kindergarten (google "red shirting") but yet to fail in 3rd grade or be held back is a failure somehow 4 years later.

If parents are holding kids back so that they are bigger, stronger, faster than their peers in kindergarten then, the same should easily apply in 3rd grade.

The results will prove, like they have for kids that were red-shirted, that they are more successful in life and general get better grades. If they can't read well and get held back, dont sweat it!

Sofia
Sofia

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EarlVanDorn
EarlVanDorn

What the story ought to say is that ability grouping works. It's not important that every student learn to read at exactly the same point, but it is important that they master reading before going on to more advanced stuff. So let the brighter or harder-working students who master reading be grouped together, whether in first, second or third grade, while the slower students are grouped together and held back for a year or two to give them time to master the material. Don't put an older child in a class full of young kids, put the older child in a class full of older slow learners, so they can all learn together at a very slow pace.

Talendria
Talendria

I wouldn't hold a child back a grade without first assessing the reason for the deficiency.  Sometimes a child's social network is the only thing engaging him in school.  If you take that away and humiliate him by putting him in a class full of younger kids, you risk losing his interest forever.

Teachers can usually tell by kindergarten whether a child is keeping pace with his classmates.  That's the time to hold him back if you're going to.

In many cases, the reason behind a child's poor reading skills isn't lack of intelligence or maturity but rather a learning disability or emotional problems at home or at school (divorce, bullying).  In those cases, holding the child back won't improve his reading at all.  He needs targeted intervention (i.e., special ed).

Adnan7631
Adnan7631

The third grade? I don't think that it's that easy to pinpoint. I, for one, was reading for comprehension definitely by the 2nd grade, probably the first grade or kindergarten (I was definitely reading Harry Potter by second grade, encyclopedias on animals and dinosaurs much earlier). Such a narrow law cannot possibly be applicable to every kid across the country. 

BlakeCole
BlakeCole

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educatorang
educatorang

 Incorrect. Tracking or ability grouping, like anything else, can be used correctly or incorrectly. Sadly, because of its incorrect use and inability of systems to realize kids can and should move out of a tracked level as soon as they show they meet the standards needed, ability grouping has gotten a bad rap. If done correctly, it can make all the difference in the world. Because, whether we admit it openly or not, we are still tracking within a classroom when we use differentiated instruction. We give kids assignments based on their readiness level in regards to skills and/or concepts.

What's at issue is WHAT HAPPENS INSIDE the ability grouped classrooms. Unfortunately, especially in urban districts, the "lower classes" get dumped on new teachers or teachers who do not have the right experience and/or attitude to pull the lower kids up to standards. Because it can be done, but the teacher in the room has to know how to make it happen. You cannot teach a class of low level learners in the same way you teach an AP class, or even a regular class. The lower level kids need more support and guidance, until they have had enough practice with the skills needed to move up/on. Sadly, many teachers either don't know how to do this well (as is the case with many new teachers) or have "given up on" the students because they don't know what they "should know" by now.

Molly Fields
Molly Fields

 While I agree, unfortunately not all children have parents who can or will get involved in their education, and they should not be punished for it.  There are lots of reasons parents can't or won't, but in the end the child needs to be taken care of.  If the schools know a child is not reading at grade level (and they should know this) they need to take action as well.  It takes a village...

MsBlueRose20
MsBlueRose20

@Steve032  I have yet to meet a child that was home schooled and got held back once entering the school district... As a matter of fact, every parent I have meet that home schools their kids cares more about their child's education than any other parent I have ever met. As a matter of fact, we are home schooling our kids because the teachers simply are not doing the job to our standard. The kids that were enrolled in regular school and dropped on the teachers that don't really want them there or can't give the kids what they need, one on one, are the ones that really need the help.

Jim Lavagnini
Jim Lavagnini

The problem with ability grouping is that it's too difficult to move up out of the group you're in when you have a jump in ability. Also the cutoff for ability groups can be arbitrary - based on getting a certain number of kids into each group. Being at the low end of a high-ability group is a huge educational advantage over a child who is at the same ability level placed in the next group down. 

Also at large schools entire classrooms can be ability grouped. This eliminates the proximity of children of different abilities and motivation levels. An underachiever has no way to know that they are under-performing because they do not have high achieving peers nearby for comparison. This is important because as many kids mature they make the choice to work harder when those around them are working hard.

Reythia
Reythia

 Agreed.  Though I'd also add that while it'd be socially awkward to have a 7th-grader in a 3rd grade class, it probably COULD be worthwhile to have a 4th grader in a 3rd grade class, depending on the situation.  If the 4th grader fell behind because of, say, a long illness or because he needed glasses or because he had a learning disability, then once he's got a handle on whatever the problem was, he doesn't really need to be put with the slow learners of his grade.  What he needs is to be put with the regular learners, just back a grade so he can learn the material he missed.

Reythia
Reythia

There's a lot of truth in what you say.  And yet, if the learning disabilty or home problems last long enough -- for more than a full school year, say -- the kid may fall behind far enough then to have a lot of trouble catching up whenever the problem itself gets under control.  Imagine a third grader whose family situation, say, makes him act out and tune out school for two years.  When he "wakes up" emotionally, he's entering fifth grade... but he's only got the knowledge and skill set of someone ready to enter THIRD grade.  Some kids will be able to make the jump, especially if their families and/or teachers help them.  But a lot won't, or will only make it partway, so they can pass their classes but never excel as they otherwise could have. 

I think this article is pointing out that, in such cases, it would be better to help the kid directly -- through summer school and tutoring if possible, and through repeating a grade if not -- than just let him fumble along toward middle school without really learning the material he missed earlier on.

Kelley McCown Huebner
Kelley McCown Huebner

I don't think that she's saying third grade is when all the kids make the jump from decoding to fluent reading since that really can't be pinned down across the board. What I got is that third grade is the start of when the kids have to start reading to learn. They're expected to read from textbooks and understand. If they haven't made the switch to fluent reading, then they can't learn as easily when it comes to learning that requires reading of large passages.

crazybtch
crazybtch

@Molly Fields If someone is not willing to be an involved parent, then they should not bother having children, these people need to step up for sterilization.  This is far too important a job to blow off and it's high time we stop making excuses for these sorry a$$ed people.  Children are our future.  

The village thing is tired and old.  No village can make up for the damage that bad parenting inflicts on innocent children.  Trust me, I have first hand knowledge.

Villainess
Villainess

You're on to something important here. Having worked with a lot of reading challenged kids as a substitute, I think that flexibility grouping would be a great idea. Strugglers get to be part of a mixed ability reading class, perhaps even 'in unison' reading, and ALSO get one-on-one and small group focused help with access to lots of books to practice at school and home with a volunteer, parent and/or pet.

I worked with a struggling reader last week who tragically told me there were NO BOOKS in her home! And she was even in a special program!

She was begging to read to me and improved significantly over just three days. Other students in the class saw it happening and wanted it for themselves. But extra adults are needed in the classroom for this kind of focused learning.

EarlVanDorn
EarlVanDorn

Jim, I agree with some of your points. But the key is to change the system, not deny kids a decent education. I think putting low-ability students in a classroom with high-ability students harms them and provides little motivation. In most cases they are advancing slowly not because of a lack of work but because of a lack of ability. No need to rub their noses in it.

Talendria
Talendria

Agreed. I just think third grade is an arbitrary synch point academically, and it's a terrible time to remove a child from his peer group (unless he has no friends anyway). I'd rather see a kid repeat kindergarten or fifth grade, because I think that's less damaging socially. I also think there should be some consequences to the school. This scenario places all the blame on the child for not learning, but where are the consequences for the teachers who didn't teach him?

My child didn't learn anything in kindergarten through third grade, partly because of a learning disability (he has a sensory disorder) but mostly because his teachers sucked. Instead of holding him back, we sent him to a summer tutoring program, and they were able to make up most of the lost ground before he started fourth grade. That's what we really need is summer school boot camp where they take small groups of kids and whip them into shape. My child went to public summer school one year, and it sucked as much as his regular teachers. Even one year of having a bad teacher is disastrous for a child; that's why we have to get rid of these unions that protect slackers.

Troy Lee Turner
Troy Lee Turner

Exactly, 3rd grade is the first year that there are consequences across the board for NOT reading-missed homework, et al.  Not that homework assignments are expected to be strenuous then, but kids should have the ability to do what's asked of them...

deekoo
deekoo

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Reythia
Reythia

Oh, I absolutely agree that there are bad teachers out there -- and in some schools, they're a significant percentage of the teachers, sadly.  I had such a teacher in 5th grade, and I'm quite certain that the kids who were struggling then only struggled worse in 6th grade because of it.  So yes, I am all in favor of improving teacher quality (or maybe, making the quality more uniform, so all teachers are as good as the top 50% are now).

I think the best way to do this, frankly, is take a long-view and start at the top: at teachers' school.  Right now, education is a rather easy major to graduate with.  There's a long history of people who couldn't cut it in engineering and science switching to education because it's so much easier, for example.  If the program was more rigorous, more smart students would see it as a challenge (though, I should note, the intro salaries would have to increase accordingly with increasing skill level).  Additionally, do you realize that high school teachers don't actually have to major -- or even minor -- in their subject matter?  I didn't, until some of my physicist friends decided to quit their jobs and teach high school physics instead, and found they were the only science teachers who'd taken more than a single semester of any one science discipline in their whole school!  How can we possibly expect such teachers to do well explaining things, when they barely know more than the students?

Anyhow, that's a rant for another day.  Suffice it to say, I agree that lousy or even just weak teachers are a significant part of the problem.  On the other hand, I think we've all seen the case where the teacher is good, but some students still struggle a lot, even while others are excelling.  It should come as no surprise that those kids fall behind even further the next year, if no intervention is made.