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Link Between Student's Reading Ability and Behavior Problems

The relationship between reading problems and aggressive/violent behavior is complex. Research findings indicate that there is a link between children’s developmental reading problems and a manifestation of aggressive, antisocial and delinquent behaviors.  This does not mean that all delinquents have poor reading skills, or that all youth who engage in aggressive/antisocial behaviors have academic deficits.  Rather, the data indicate that below grade-level reading abilities are significantly related to the development of aggressive antisocial behavior. When reading problems and conduct disorders overlap, reading problems precede the development of acting out conduct disorders.  Reading problems may contribute to academic failure, poor “bonding” to school and to a trajectory of negative behaviors. These behaviors include disruptive classroom behavior, placement in remedial classrooms with antisocial peers, grade retention, poor school attendance, suspensions and eventual dropout.  Antisocial behavior concurrent with low parent involvement, the absence of cognitive stimulation in the formative years and exposure to violence can contribute to poor academic performance. Ultimately, this leads to the development of a “vicious cycle” of cumulative academic failures and delinquent behavior.Reading competence has been identified as a protective factor and buffer for students who are at risk of perpetrating youth violence.The following statistics highlight the link between reading difficulties and antisocial behavior:Reading difficulties are found in:
  • 85% of youth who get in trouble with the law involving the courts
  • 4 of 5 incarcerated juvenile offenders read 2 or more years below grade level; a majority are functionally illiterate
  • 70% of incarcerated youth and adults in prison
  • 50% of youth with a history of substance abuse
The combination of poor reading and disruptive school behaviors are a harbinger of future aggressive and antisocial behaviors, as shown in the following findings:
  • Adolescents with deficits in reading skills are almost 3 times more likely to report fight-related injuries that require medical intervention. They are 2 times more likely to report missing school because of safety concerns.
  • Adolescents in the juvenile justice system who are poor readers are more likely to have been incarcerated for crimes of greater violence than better readers.
  • Adolescents who are incarcerated are, on average, reading 5 years below their expected grade level.
  • 2/3 of adult prisoners have low literacy skills.
The relationship between reading problems and antisocial, aggressive behaviors may be mediated by socioeconomic status, language impairment, low IQ, ADHD, conduct disorders and poor school attendance.

Children who cannot read on grade level by the end of 1st Grade rarely catch up without remedial help. Usually, the achievement gap widens as time progresses.  A child who can read by the third grade is unlikely ever to be involved with the criminal justice system.In the U.S., by Grade 8, students differ in reading achievement ranging from 3rd to 12th grade levels with 25% of students in the 8th grade reading below the 6th grade level. If a reading difficulty is not identified and addressed remedially until Grade 3 or later, there is a 75% probability that the child will continue to exhibit significant underachievement in reading throughout the elementary school years.Reading competence by grade 4 is one of the best predictors of which student will finish high school, become employable, have a successful adult adjustment and avoid problems with the law. Conversely, children with low reading achievement by Grade 3 have a greater likelihood of school retention, dropout, drug abuse, early pregnancy, delinquency and unemployment.  Among unemployed adults, the illiteracy rate is 75%.The rate of reading failure can be as high as 60% to 70% for minority populations (African-American, Hispanic and limited English speakers) from low socioeconomic families.  The functional illiteracy rate is 40% among minority youth.  On the positive side, research has indicated that:
  • Early preschool prevention programs such as Head Start Programs and the Perry Preschool Project have demonstrated improved academic performance and decreased rates of delinquency in adolescents. School Readiness M2_3 9
    These programs are designed to enhance a child’s school readiness skills and to improve literacy and social competency.
  • Interventions to improve academic performance have resulted in improved classroom behaviors.
  • Literacy skills have been found to be important protective factors against the development of aggressive and delinquent behaviors in high-risk youth.
  • Reading failure is preventable.
  • Reading is a fundamental skill necessary for academic success.
  • Professional development is successful in improving teachers’ classroom instruction.
  • Preventing reading difficulties depends on effective classroom instruction.
  • Poor school performance is a risk factor for developing aggressive and antisocial behaviors.
  • Students’ commitment to school serves as a protective factor.
Reading competence is critical for academic success. Therefore, when reading difficulties are evident, early intervention is crucial.  Children who are unsuccessful in learning to read and write by the third grade are unlikely to ever become literate. Students who read poorly by Grade 4 do not catch up.  In part, this is because once the cycle of reading difficulties begins, it is hard to break.  Reading difficulties lead to poor achievement, which in turn leads to a lack of commitment to school. This perpetuates a cycle of failure. In order to prevent this cycle, we need to ensure that all children are reading early, especially those children who are at a greater risk of becoming illiterate.The good news is that when children receive appropriate instruction, virtually all of them can learn to read and write by the 3rd grade (Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, 1998 ; Put Reading First, 2001  Multiple research groups, including the American Federation of Teachers (1999), the National Reading Panel, and Snow, Burn and Griffin (1998), have reached consensus on effective literacy instruction.  They concluded that if children are provided with adequate instruction in the early years, about 95% of them should learn to read and write appropriately.Translating this research-based knowledge into classroom practice is not easy or automatic.  This section of the website is designed to facilitate the implementation of proven reading instruction procedures.  Research has shown that when teachers’ knowledge is increased, the proportion of children who experience reading failure decreases.  Teachers who feel more confident about their ability to provide reading instruction are better able to manage their classrooms and to keep their students on-task and learning.  Professional development with supportive feedback fosters self-confidence in both teachers and students and improves overall school climate (Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 1999).
This web site has been produced by The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment to provide research-based school violence prevention procedures for educators. The web site has been made possible with the generous support of the Robert and Renee Belfer Foundation and other supporters.
The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment to provide research-based school violence prevention procedures for educators
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