Waiting Rarely Works: Late Bloomers Usually Just Wilt
A look at three pivotal longitudinal studies that clearly show: Late bloomers are rare; skill deficits are almost always what prevent children from blooming as readers.
For thirty years, up until about a decade ago, the idea of "late bloomers" was widely believed among researchers and educators alike. "Late bloomer" was the endearing term for a child who was slower than his peers in learning to read. The idea, so well captured in the term, was that these children would bloom in their reading—they would just do it a bit later than their peers. This common view, known among researchers as the "developmental lag" theory, was the reasonable basis for teachers' patience with students who didn't catch on to reading quickly—and it justified the common practice of delaying the diagnosis of reading problems until they were quite severe (Lyon et al., 2001).
But more recently, long after many teachers ended their formal education training, researchers have been able to put the developmental lag theory to rest. It has been replaced by an alternate theory of early reading weakness that defines the problem as a skill deficit. The main difference between the two theories is that the developmental lag theory posited that difficulties in learning to read would fade as the brain matured—early, urgent intervention was not necessary. In contrast, the skill deficit theory claimed that waiting wouldn't work; children wouldn't pick up these skills unless they were taught directly and intensively. In fact, waiting would be harmful, as it condemned children to falling further behind.
Three longitudinal studies (Juel, 1988; Francis et al., 1996; Shaywitz et al., 1999) have put the weight of research squarely behind the skill deficit theory and against the developmental lag theory. Each study tracked the reading development of children beginning in first grade.
In the simplest terms, these studies ask: Do struggling readers catch up? The data from the studies are clear: Late bloomers are rare; skill deficits are almost always what prevent children from blooming as readers. This research may be counter-intuitive to elementary teachers who have seen late-bloomers in their own classes or heard about them from colleagues. But statistically speaking, such students are rare. (Actually, as we'll see, there is nearly a 90 percent chance that a poor reader in first grade will remain a poor reader.)
The first study (Juel 1988) tracked 54 children at a school in Austin, Texas, from the beginning of first grade through the end of fourth grade using a variety of standardized tests of phonemic awareness, decoding, word recognition, listening comprehension, and reading comprehension. To see if those who are behind in learning to read do or do not catch up, Juel split the students into two groups based on their scores at the end of first grade on the ITBS Reading Comprehension subtest. Those who scored in the bottom quartile (based on national norms) were labeled "poor readers." Those in the top three quartiles were labeled "average or good readers."
Over the next three years, the poor readers, on average, never caught up to the average and good readers on any measure of reading ability. Consider, for example, the two groups' grade-level equivalents on the ITBS Reading Comprehension subtest at the end of first grade and at the end of fourth grade. The poor readers' mean score increased from K6 (a mid-kindergarten level) to 3.5 (a mid-third grade level). But the average and good readers' mean score increased from a 2.4 to a 5.9.
Of course, group averages don't reveal individual results. Were there some late bloomers hidden behind these means? Not many. On the ITBS Reading Comprehension subtest, students who score in the bottom quartile at the end of first grade are, in terms of grade-level equivalents, at least six months behind. So Juel examined the individual results at the end of fourth grade to see how many students were still at least six months behind. Of the 24 students who were poor readers in first grade, 21 of them were still at least six months behind in reading. Similarly, of the 30 students who were average or good readers at the end of first grade, only four had fallen six or more months behind. Juel summarized her findings as follows:
The probability that a child would remain a poor reader at the end of fourth grade, if the child was a poor reader at the end of first grade, was .88; the probability that a child would become a poor reader in fourth grade if he or she had at least average reading skills in first grade was .12. The probability that a child would remain an average reader in fourth grade if the child had average reading ability in first grade was .87; the probability that a child would become an average reader in the fourth grade if he or she was a poor reader in first grade was only .13. The evidence in this sample of children indicates that the poor first-grade reader almost invariably remains a poor reader by the end of fourth grade. (Juel, 1988)
Furthermore, Juel found that the poor readers lacked a critical skill: phonemic awareness. The poor readers entered first grade with little phonemic awareness and they did not approach the ceiling on the phonemic awareness test until the end of third grade. In contrast, average and good readers approached the ceiling on that test two years earlier, at the end of first grade. She concluded that it was trouble with decoding, rooted in poor phonemic awareness, that appeared to keep the poor readers from improving. With this finding, Juel did much to boost the case of researchers who believed that students who are behind in reading actually have a skill deficit—not a developmental lag. (And, as we see in the related article, the skill deficit between average and below-average readers can be largely erased with appropriate early intervention.
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Francis, D. J., Shaywitz, S. E., Stuebing, K. K., Shaywitz, B. A., and Fletcher, J. M. (1996). Developmental lag versus deficit models of reading disability: A longitudinal, individual growth curves analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(1), 3-17.
Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first to fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(4), 437-447.
Lyon, G. R., Fletcher, J. M., Shaywitz, S. E., Shaywitz, B. A., Torgesen, J. K., Wood, F. B., Schulte, A., and Olson, R. (2001). Rethinking learning disabilities. In Finn, C. E., Rotherham, A. J., and Hokanson, C. R. (Eds.), Rethinking Special Education For a New Century, Washington, D.C.: Progressive Policy Institute and Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Shaywitz, S. E., Fletcher, J. M., Holahan, J. M., Schneider, A. E., Marchione, K. E., Stuebing, K. K., Francis, D. J., Pugh, K. R., and Shaywitz, B. A. (1999). Persistence of dyslexia: The Connecticut longitudinal study at adolescence. Pediatrics, 104(6), 1351-1359.
Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2004 issue of American Educator, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers.