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Should My First-Grader Be Held Back for Reading Challenges?

By Allison Gardenswartz, Consulting Educator


My son finished first grade. For the better part of the year he has been assessed as a slow reader and the school wanted to have him repeat first grade. He does fine with all other subjects and the social aspects, but reading gives him trouble.

We don't feel he needs to be held back; partly because of self esteem, partly because it is not the whole curriculum he is struggling with. We read to him, have him read to us and have him spell words at random.

My question is, can children catch up or is it better to hold them back a grade?


First grade is typically a hard year to be held back due to social concerns. If your son seems to fit in socially and to do well academically in other areas, I would recommend doing some supplemental tutoring with him to help improve his fluency and comfort with reading. This could be done at home working with you or elsewhere with a private tutor. Your school and new teacher could be good resources in seeking out some extra help.

Children can certainly "catch up." It is quite common for slow and late-developing readers to become avid readers as they get older. Reading is developmental and thus can really click for some a little later.

With that said, reading is the foundation for all learning so it is essential that you support your son and enable him frequent opportunities to read to and with you so that he can perfect his skills. Why not ask the school if he can go on to second grade with the understanding that you will get him additional support, which you can evaluate at progress-report time with the new teacher in a face-to-face conference? This will allow you the opportunity to know at the start of the year how he is progressing and to have a full understanding of the new teacher's expectations.

Allison Gardenswartz is the founder of a San Diego tutoring center specializing in gifted and remedial learning and test preparation studies. An educator for over 15 years, Allison is an expert in identifying and enhancing the learning abilities of school-age children. Allison now fully devotes her time to parent education, consulting and college counseling. Allison has a teaching credential and has taught for several years in various public school systems. She has three children: Jacob, 11, Sofia, 7, and newly adopted Ryan, who is 3.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"Is it MY decision whether or not to hold my child back a grade? Can the school force him to stay in 4th grade? Please send me an email letting me know an answer to this burning question!"
"My son is also having problems with reading. I think the school wants to hold him back. He reads most of a book at home for us. The teacher even mentioned that maybe he just dosent want to read for her. What can I do?"
"My son is also having problems with reading. I think the school wants to hold him back. He reads most of a book at home for us. The teacher even mentioned that maybe he just doesn't want to read for her. What can I do?"
"I am having the same problem with my sons school > he excels at every subject but reading and just isn't as 'fluent' as they want him to be. They want to hold him back but I want him to be promoted and worked with on his reading. They told me that it was state law and that it wasn't mine or their decision to make. Is that true?"
"I am a certified reading specialist with over 20 years experience. I also am a certified teacher. I would never recommend any child especially at the primary level to be retained. I've read all of these postings and wish I had your child in front of me so I could tell you what strategies would most benefit him/her. Please hold your ground with the school as they cannot keep your child back (retained) without your okay. DON'T DO IT! Each child has their own rate of development. The only part I agree with is additional support help. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten reports such as these from 'professionals' without any bearing or specifics. I then tested and tutored and in a very short time was able to present to same 'professionals' a very successful child. Again, do not let yourself be intimidated. Promote your child and keep close contact with all teachers involved in his/her education, and have them give you written details of all of the support help your child ! will be getting as well. "
"My grandchildren go to a school in El Paso TX. At parent teacher conference yesterday my daughter was told my grandson was going to be held back in first grade.Can my daughter have the school promote him to second with summer tutoring? My problem with this whole situation is my grandson has a twin sister in a different first grade class. The twins ,because of their birthdays being Oct are already older than most kids when they started school.I know neither are where they should be in the learning process but my grandson is far more advanced in his reading and math skills than my grandaughter and her teacher is promoting her.There are remarkable differences in these children.My grandaughter is so outgoing and grandson is more reserved.Grandson has diabetes, granddaughter does not.Their father is in Iraq and the kids will come home to Ohio for the summer. I have tutors lined up for both.I am aware that neither are where they should be in the learning process however how can on! e be promoted and the other not when the one being held back is more advanced. My suggestion was to have them both tutored over the summer and have both go to second grade. If they are not where they should be at that time hold one or both back.Does a parent have that right "
"My child has repeated kind. 2 years and now the teacher feels that he needs 2 be held back in 1st garde because his reading is not at grade level. i need 2 no what i should do. i feel that he should not be held back for just reading"
"well its the end of the year here and they want to hold my son back becouse he is not reading at the 1st grade level he does have some social problems he likes to play all day but i have noticed and so has his teacher that hes doing better i dont want to hold him back becouse i dont want him to be ashamed or be teased .can i make them pass him and if i do will that even bennifit him?i dont want to fail him. i feel imtimidated"
"I have girl in 1st grade the school says she has a learning disabilty and I think she can do it if she wants she is behide in all her subject do I as a parent have the control to say yes or no to hold her back in Illinois Gerry"
"I am now in my 30's but I was held back as a kindergartner. It was humiliating and affected me for my entire elementary years. I had to hide when coming into the school because I didn't want my previous years class to see me. Then when I was in highschool I was a full year older than everyone else. I don't know why I was held back...I think the teacher was crazy. Read to your kids...take them to summer programs to help them read. Don't believe the overworked teachers who don't have time for your kid! Don't sabatoge your kids future."
"Can the parents choose to advance the child to 2nd grade if the texas school does not want to??"
"Thank you for the article, but does this also apply for a third grader?"
"This article is exactly where I am at this point with my 1st grader. He does well with all other subjects except for the reading. The school uses the DIBELS Assessment and the students are required to read 40 words per minute by the 2nd marking period. My son reads about 1/2 of the words per minute. The teacher recommends that we keep him back in 1st grade because of his reading and he is also a very young 6 year old, but we do not agree. So we had him evaluated and he will begin tutoring to help him with the reading. We strongly feel that he will be able to catch up and do well in 2nd grade."
"I have sort of the same problem the school wants to move my 1st grader back to kindigarden in the middle of the year but I asked him and he would rather take 1st grade over than to be moved back,I believe even though a child is youg a person should still ask his ideas but now my 3rd graer no problems ,the only thing we did was move so where were at now is more advanced in what they teach in school ,My first grader tells me he would rather repeat 1st grade than to go back now to what he calls the baby class and i sort of tend to go along with that idea I think it would be devistating to go back to kindigarden in the middle of the year than to just repeat a class next year ,even at this age I my self would feel more of a failure than just to repeat again than to say your not good enough to be here so you need to go back ,thats my thoughts ,I would like iseas thought too maybe I am wrong for involving my children in there lifes"
"I have two boys 6 and 4. My 4 year old reads on a 1st grade level (levels 1 and 2 book from the library) and my 6 year old, who just started 1st grade, reads on a 3rd grade level. What worked for me was employing different reading tactics. I of course read to them when they were babies and throughout the years. Once they knew the letters and letter sounds the things that I think impacted them most are: 1.Watching programs like Sesame Street, Between the Lions, Reading Rainbow, and other such programs on PBS. 2. LeapFrog DVDs series (about 4 of 5 titles) on reading and building words with catchy songs about the rules of reading; ex. 'when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking'. It's animated and my kids loved them. 3. Making up flash cards of the sight words (using 3x5 index cards). Sight words are memorized and once they know the sight words they become better readers and their confidence shoots way up. (You can google 'sight words' or 'Dolch sight wor! ds') 4. Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate! I constantly gave out hi-fives, told them 'what a great reader you are' or when they had a difficult time with a book I said 'what a wonderful reader you're becoming'. Praise every effort. It makes a world of difference. I'm sorry I can't offer more on whether or not to hold you child back; it is really a tough decision. I did want to offer some suggestions and hope something I've said will be of help to you."
"It would also be helpful to ask about the percentage of time his class has spent in reading instruction and whether the teacher used any interventions to help him with reading. This because if the class spent over fifty percent of their time in reading and he is still having difficulty, it could signal a processing problem of some sort, which should be addressed now. Often, schools see problems which parents don't, therefore I would recommend asking the school more questions before deciding what to do."
"In kindergarten my son was considered a 'good reader' for that grade, however not until I put him in first grade at a small private school did I realize how much he wasn't doing that he was. At his school this year they are very BIG on phonics, and I have worked with him as well, I have used 'phonics windows' and sight readers, and to see the difference in just three weeks is amazing. The Parent-Teacher stores have outstanding materials for this, but a strong phonics cirrcula is what I would recommend. It really works."
"We had the same issue and did not hold our child back. Luckily we are in a school that has IEP courses and assistance to help with the reading aspect. Extra help is a must if you move him forward. Our son is in 4th grade and is at 2nd grade reading level, but 4th or above in all other subjects and socially. He has a bit of a 'victim' syndrome with reading - tries to get too much help from others which we're trying to break him of. He has trouble with standardized tests, but our school has a program where he can get an equivalent grade or reading help during the test depending on the subject. We felt and feel that holding him back would have made him bored or lazy in all of the other areas and that was a much bigger drawback than having him strive to be a better reader so that he could show how much he really did know in other subjects. We have not been disappointed. Especially now that it has finally sunk in this year that he needs to be able to read road signs to drive, applications to work, etc. - we're hoping the reading will click a little more and become easier. We definitely made the right choice for our son. All the best for yours."