Examining the Link Between Poor Literacy Skills and Dropout

Examining the Link Between Poor Literacy Skills and Dropout

More than 1 million students drop out of high school every year in the United States (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010), which equates to almost 7,000 students leaving school each day of a typical school year. These numbers are alarming to say the least, especially considering the positive impact of completing high school on an individual’s future job prospects; students who do not graduate from high school earn a lifetime average of $400,000 less than their peers, and this gap is even wider compared to those who go on to earn a college degree (Shore & Shore, 2009). Moreover, the broad impact of dropout also expands to the national economy, influencing earnings by affecting the number of individuals qualified to serve in highly skilled professions. Estimates from the Alliance for Excellent Education (2013) suggest that substantially reducing dropout rates across the nation would generate billions of dollars in potential earnings and economic growth, as well as massive reductions in healthcare costs. Given this correlation, programs that are successful in reducing dropout have been described as “the best economic stimulus package” (Carlson, 2013).

Dropout is a complex, multifaceted issue for which the risks related to both the individual student and the surrounding system cannot necessarily be distilled into a short list. While efforts to quell dropout have largely focused on initiatives in middle and high schools—such as monitoring attendance and failing grades, offering “catch-up” courses, and ninth-grade academies (Kennelly & Monrad, 2007)—advocates for dropout prevention have called for emphasis on early skills and supports with the potential to bolster student success through high school (Shore & Shore, 2009). Indeed, research has documented a strong relationship between school completion and reading performance as early as third grade (Hernandez, 2011). 

Why is reading performance so closely linked to graduation rates?

The link between reading performance and graduation rates is observable early in a student’s academic career. Indeed, a longitudinal study that followed almost 4,000 students born between 1979 and 1989 found that those who were not reading proficiently by third grade were almost four times more likely to leave school without earning their diploma (Hernandez, 2011). This disparity was even more pronounced in students who were unable to master basic reading skills, for whom the risk of failing was six times higher than that of their proficient peers. The study also found that poverty exacerbates the effects of poor reading⁠—students who struggled with reading and lived in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty were at greatest risk for dropout, furthering the possibility of future economic marginalization.

When considering the modality of education, we quickly realize that most schoolwork is presented in a written format from the early grades onward. Thus, reading difficulty often translates to disadvantages across school subjects, even when a student has personal strengths and relevant skills in subject-area domains. For example, a student may have strong computational skills but struggle with reading and comprehending word problems in early numeracy tasks. As the grades progress, students are confronted with expanding language demands of printed and online books, textbooks, and articles in their science or social studies classes (Snow & Biancarosa, 2003). Simply put, reading is a vehicle for ongoing study—and without it, gaining the new knowledge and vocabulary upon which continued academic learning is predicated may be further limited (Anderson, 1996).

Discussions focused on predicting dropout can devolve into academic terms that outline significant variables, risks, protective factors, and more. While the empirical findings from research are critical to inform pathways for effective interventions to prevent dropout, we need look no further than a single student’s experience to understand why struggles with reading could increase the risk of stopping school all together. For this student, each day requires engaging with a ubiquitous but nonetheless challenging task that serves as a potential roadblock to other learning—and all the while, the same task may appear effortless to many of the student’s surrounding peers. Needless to say, managing these daily circumstances and remaining engaged in the face of struggle requires ongoing grit and persistence.

Addressing literacy issues is not a simple or easy process, and the needs of learners cannot be addressed with a single-pronged approach. That said, continuous effort by teachers and thoughtful coordination by school leaders have the potential to transform more students into proficient, confident readers who can not only take their place on the graduation stage but move forward into productive and engaging careers.

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