English Learners and K–3 Grade Retention

Spring is the time of year in many schools when serious discussions about retaining students begins. English learners (ELs) in K–3 are likely subjects these discussions. Teachers of ELs need to be advocates for their young students during these discussions. It’s my belief that grade retention isn’t usually helpful academically and it can be devastating emotionally.

Let’s look at a few study results from Buckmaster’s (n.d.) Grade Retention and ELLs: A Survey of Research and Best Practices.

  1. Retained students did not experience a benefit in their growth rate and made less progress compared to the randomly selected group of students (Silberglitt et al., 2006).
  2. First generation immigrants are more likely to be retained than ELs who are born in the United States (Soria & Stebleton, 2012).
  3. Retention was a negative predictor of academic self-concept and homework completion and self-esteem, but a positive predictor of inadequate motivation and school absenteeism (Martin, 2013).
  4. Student accounts of their experiences of being retained included things like
    1. the unhelpful nature of the repeat year, academically;
    2. social stigmatization by peers, primarily for being overage for grade level; and
    3. their own immediate and longer term emotional reactions to these academic setbacks and peer pressure (Penna & Tallerico, 2005).

Retention of English Learners in K–3

I would like to discuss grade retention of ELs who are in K–3 because it is my experience that this is where they are the most vulnerable. ELs are often retained because their literacy levels are not at grade level. Skills in reading,writing, and math are, in my opinion, related to ELs’ English language development (ELD) levels. I think it is discriminatory to retain ELs who have not yet had the time to become proficient in English. (See the Lau v. Nichols video on Colorín Colorado with Roger Rosenthal from the Migrant Legal Action Program.)

Many states now have laws that don’t allow students to be promoted to the fourth grade if they don’t pass their states’ English Language Arts Assessment in third grade. These laws seem discriminatory to ELs who may not reach this level at the appointed time because their ELD is lagging. At the very least, ELs need to have exemptions from these policies. Much research supports the idea that retention in a grade has to qualify as one of the most damaging and emotional obstacles for a student. It has been demonstrated in many studies that this archaic practice is ineffective (Levine, 2003).

I taught elementary ESL for 28 years and dealt with supporting and advocating for ELs that the school district wanted to retain. I was generally against retention in kindergarten if it was based on low scores on reading tests. I remember vividly Sergio, an EL from Russia, who spoke English well and was going to be exited at the end of the school year from ESL. His kindergarten teacher, whose opinion I respected, made a good case for retention. Sergio was immature and unable to focus on the math and reading content that had been taught during the school year. When we met with Sergio’s parents, however, they were against the retention and actively fought it. In the end, Sergio was not retained. When he reached fourth grade, his teacher told me that he was above grade level in reading and math. I think what the kindergarten teacher and I missed was that Sergio began to get a lot of parent support at home after we suggested retention. His parents had not realized how academic our kindergarten curriculum was. With time, he matured and was able to keep up with the academic content of his grade.

I worked with many teachers who wanted to retain my students because they did not meet the grade level standards for literacy. Let’s face it: If a student comes into school in kindergarten and is not on grade level in March, is this a reason for retention? I think not. We would not place a new arrival in first grade who spoke no English in kindergarten. We would give that child 2-3 years, at least, to catch up. Kindergarten students present a huge range of emotional and academic development levels. We can’t let the pressures of standardized testing drive our promotion decisions.


Buckmaster, J. (n.d.). Grade retention and ELLs: A survey of research and best practice. https://www.tesol.org/docs/default-source/education-programs/graderetentionandells-j-buckmaster.pdf?sfvrsn=1388e5dc_0

Levine, M. (2003) A Mind at a Time: America’s Top Learning Expert Shows How Every Child Can Succeed.

Martin, A. J. (2013). Holding back and holding behind: Grade retention and students’ non-academic and academic outcomes. British Educational Research Journal, 37(5), 739-763. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411926.2010.490874

Penna, A., & Tallerico, M. (2005). Grade retention and school completion through students’ eyes. The Journal of At-Risk Issues, 11, 13–16. http://dropoutprevention.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/JARI1101.pdf

Silberglitt, B., Appleton, J. J., Burns, M. K., & Jimerson, S. R. (2006). Examining the effects of grade retention on student reading performance: A longitudinal study. Journal of School Psychology, 44(4), 255–270. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2006.05.004

Soria, K. M., & Stebleton, M. J. (2012). First-generation students’ academic engagement and retention. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(6), 673–685. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2012.666735

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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