Improving Literacy Improves Behavior
The problem starts slowly. Students begin to struggle with their assignments. They work hard to understand the explanation of the concept, but it is just not coming to them as easily as it comes to their neighbor. When they go home to do homework, they do not have the same support system as other students. That frustration builds as they struggle to keep up with the rest of the class. One of the most accurate predictors of this negative behavior is literacy level.
Illiteracy is a threat to the teacher’s classroom as much as it is to the student’s future. Students who struggle to read act out during class in a variety of ways. Their outbursts cover the full range of emotions, from anger and lashing out to comedic interludes to gain attention. By the time they reach third grade, they possess a basic understanding of the fact that they are behind their peers. This can lead to the negative emotions that cause them to act out during class, doing whatever they can to distract from time spent having to learn. Students that have a hard time learning become adverse to going to school and using that time productively.
Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles at the Stanford School of Education discovered in a 2006 study that “relatively low literacy achievement in 1st grade predicted relatively high aggressive behavior in 3rd grade … [and] low literacy achievement in 3rd grade similarly predicted high aggressive behavior in 5th grade.”
The theory was that as students became more discouraged with school, they acted out more often. These issues are magnified over time, resulting in adults that are more likely to end up with lower earning potential (75% of unemployed adults have low literacy) and a higher risk of ending up incarcerated (70% of those incarcerated have low literacy rates).
Fortunately, early intervention can help students avoid these problems. Catching this shift in behavior early provides teachers, and other students, a much more conducive learning environment. Some positive information to consider:
- Children who can read at grade level by third grade are very unlikely to end up on the wrong side of the law. Those that cannot read at grade level at this critical juncture are four times less likely to graduate.
- Better social skills help improve performance in the classroom. When students are young, Miles and Stipek discovered that reading ability correlated with higher social skills. As time goes by the correlation weakens, but it is important during the years when building good reading habits matters.
- Encouraging high achievement makes better classrooms. When students are part of a class with high standards, there are fewer behavioral problems. Especially if the class provides the tools in the classroom to succeed.
The events that influence students before third-grade may cause ripples through their entire life. Helping students equate the class with a positive experience helps mitigate future problems. The less time teachers must spend dealing with unruly students, the more time they can contribute to developing all of their students into enthusiastic readers and lifelong learners.