Choppy waters in 4th grade reading — Why?

Picture your child in a long race. You’ve been running alongside him ─ pacing him ─ for the first few years, while he’s growing trillions more nerve cell connections (synapses) than you have in your own adult brain. You’re helping nurture his learning in so many ways, including learning to talk and read. He’s steadily progressing in learning to identify words ─ and over time, to interpret their meaning in longer reading passages. By the time he approaches the fourth grade, he likely doesn’t need or even want you to pace him in the reading department anymore because he can ─ and is ─ reading on his own.

So, you think he’s prepared at 9 or 10 years old when his teachers start to present a curriculum that focuses on more specialized learning. The task now is to start transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This is a difficult transition for many children. A term was coined for this transition nearly 30 years ago─ the “fourth grade slump.”[1]

When I hear the word, “slump,” that doesn’t sound so bad. It implies there might be a dip in learning for a time ─ it might be temporary. But the words and phrases many use to describe the slump that can occur around ages 9-10 sound much more ominous: ‘this is education’s Bermuda triangle,’ ‘educators are wringing their hands over this puzzling phenomenon,’[2] ‘the fourth-grade slump is a time when some children, faced with increasingly complex schoolwork, start to lose interest in reading.’[3] For many children, the dip in achievement will not be temporary–it starts a downward spiral throughout the school years. Many children end up in high school as poor readers ─ and poor at math, social studies, science, literature, and other subjects ─ because reading is so key to advanced learning.

What is happening in the fourth grade to account for this “Bermuda Triangle”? There are four main factors thought to be stirring up these choppy waters:

  • The reading is harder. Students have to use their reading skills now to acquire new knowledge from increasingly difficult words and texts. They’re shifting from reading relatively easy, familiar words and passages to reading more advanced materials. Children who struggled with reading in the early grades enter a jeopardy zone. Unless they receive help, understanding and encouragement, including at home, they’ll have trouble keeping up. They’ll grow more frustrated and eventually, many give up.
  • Size (of vocabulary) counts. When faced with reading more difficult texts, students with stronger vocabularies read more easily ─ and in turn, typically read more and develop even larger vocabularies. Students with weaker vocabularies experience the opposite ─ they struggle, and in turn, typically read less ─ as a result, they lose ground in adding needed new vocabulary.
  • Knowing about things (prior knowledge) counts. Children generally struggle to read (understand) content that is unfamiliar. Those who know more ─ who bring prior knowledge on a range of subjects ─ struggle less than those who don’t. Think about topics a child may understand a lot about─ like dinosaurs, going fishing, cooking, or soccer. If the child encounters reading passages that use the vocabulary and concepts of these topics, they’re likely to read them more easily. If they encounter reading passages on topics they know little or nothing about, it is just plain more difficult.
  • Fitting in with the peer group. Research tells us that sometime in preadolescence, [4]children become strongly influenced by their peers ─ they may rely on them for information more than the adults in their lives, including their parents or teachers. If the school culture is not a positive one for learning, many children will try to fit in with their peers ─ and give up on trying to learn.

These are some harsh factors coming down on fourth graders ─ reading for comprehension, acquiring new and more difficult vocabulary, facing more complicated new subjects, and wanting to fit in with their peers.

So what helps children swim well through the fourth grade waters, especially those in trouble?

Not surprising, the first recommendation from researchers is ‘don’t wait until the fourth grade to see if the slump is going to set in.’ Provide good reading instruction in the early grades. And include attention to vocabulary-building to ensure that children are armed with a strong arsenal of words for the more difficult reading that is coming.

Schools can help too by providing a curriculum in the early grades that provides students with background knowledge useful in understanding the more difficult content coming in the later grades. And schools can work at creating a positive culture for learning so that students know it’s cool to be learning.

Even with a schoolwide approach that works on “boosting vocabulary and background knowledge gaps for younger students while developing a positive peer culture in which learning comes first…,”[5] many students will still be struggling.

Now what? More life-saving strategies are clearly needed. Unfortunately, recent research is finding that “…classroom teachers may not be employing the strategies that can get these students back on track. Despite the difficulties that students have with [reading], teachers in grades four to 12 typically do not instruct students in the reading comprehension process … Unfortunately many upper elementary, middle school and high school teachers presume that their students have mastered [the] ….fundamentals.”[6]

What are some of these effective strategies?[7]

  • Students who struggle can increase their reading comprehension by doing three things: 1) reading the paragraph, 2) asking questions about the main idea and the details, and 3) putting the main ideas and the details into their own words.
  • Putting the information they pull from the reading passages into a “visual map.” A visual map helps structure information, making it easier for students to make sense of what they have read.
  • Marking sections in the text that are confusing or important by using a pencil, sticky note, or other marks such as symbols like question marks (?) or exclamation marks (!).
  • Underlining or circling key words and phrases they don’t understand or that keep occurring in a text.
  • Writing a short summary of each paragraph or section of the text in the margin or on a sticky note.

There is not a ‘one-size fits all’ when it comes to learning. Different techniques work for different children. But the challenge is the same for all children: “The ability to comprehend and produce spoken and written [text] is critical for academic success and literacy development.”[8]

So, how many U.S. fourth graders are swimming in these choppy waters? How many are in danger of heading into the downward slide?

The Nation’s Report Card (National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP) tells us that two-thirds of our children are not swimming all that well. NAEP starts testing in grade four (students are also tested in grades eight and twelve). The results from the most recent assessment of fourth graders in reading (2015) is sobering ─ only about one-third (36%) performed at or above the Proficient achievement level in reading. Two-thirds (64%) did not.

These numbers sure look like an educational “Bermuda Triangle.” Rather than wring our hands though, we should be throwing them the life rafts they need ─ preparing them well in reading in the early years and using the many proven strategies to help them through the choppy waters of the fourth grade.

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[1] Term coined by Jeanne S. Chall (1921-1999), Harvard Graduate School of Education psychologist, writer and literacy researcher for over 50 years.

[2]http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx: Research Says… / Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump. Bryan Goodwin

[3] Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm: Speech-language pathologists can help kids who struggle to read May 25, 2016 Source: University of the Pacific Summary: Classroom teachers may not employ the strategies that can help students master complex written language, according to speech-language pathology researchers. Journal Reference: 1.Jeannene M. Ward-Lonergan, Jill K. Duthie. Intervention to Improve Expository Reading Comprehension Skills in Older Children and Adolescents with Language Disorders. Topics in Language Disorders, 2016; 36 (1): 52 DOI: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000079

[4] Preadolescence is generally defined as the period from 9–14 years.

[5] http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx: Research Says… / Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump. Bryan Goodwin

[6]Science Daily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

[7] Info drawn from Science Daily   https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

[8] Science Daily   https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

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