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Retention Doesn't Add Up: Holding back students with weak mathematics skills may do them more harm than good, according to University of Rochester researcher Julia Smith. For her study, Smith analyzed the test scores of 1,777 Chicago public elementary school students over a four-year period. Of that group, 400 who had poor math skills in 1st grade were not held back over the course of the study. She compared those students with hundreds of others who were retained at least once between 1st and 4th grade. Smith first estimated the growth and speed of students' learning over the study period. Then, she used a technique called "hierarchical linear modeling'' to estimate the effects of retention on that learning growth. She found that holding students back has a lasting negative effect on how much mathematics students learn from year to year. "Retained students not only never catch up,'' she says, "they actually fall further and further behind.'' Moreover, she concludes, repeating 1st or 2nd grade is more harmful than holding students back in later years.

Reading And Writing: Turning young children into successful readers and writers may have more to do with the difficulty of the books they read than with how they are taught to read. That's the conclusion of a University of Georgia study of 95 1st graders at two demographically similar schools that teach reading differently: One school uses traditional, phonics-based methodology, while the other emphasizes the whole language approach. In the more traditional school, teachers group children by ability and use lessons that draw heavily on basal readers and work sheets. At the other school, children learn to read much the way they learned to talk. They read a wide range of children's literature, interact regularly with their classmates, and spend more time writing stories and journal entries. "Since the whole language children did more writing, we expected them to be better writers,'' says Steven Stahl, the lead researcher on the study. "But that wasn't so.'' In fact, children in the more traditional classrooms outperformed those in the whole language classrooms. But the researchers discovered an even stronger correlation between children's reading and writing skills and the difficulty of the books they read. In both classroom environments, children who read more challenging material were the better readers. And children who were better readers also tended to be better writers, as measured by the complexity of their vocabulary and syntax. "The point isn't that everyone needs to go to a traditional reading model,'' Stahl says. Rather, he suggests, all teachers need to find ways to encourage students to tackle more challenging reading.

--Millicent Lawton and Debra Viadero

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