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Fourth-Grade Slump


Q. I've always heard that first grade, third grade and fifth grade are the "biggies" in grade school where the new material is introduced and the biggest academic gains are made, and that in second grade and fourth grade, it's mostly review. So if a child isn't doing very well in fourth-grade, should I not be concerned, even though middle school is looming right around the corner?


You should always want your child to do his or her very best. That goes for all grade levels and situations, but especially in grade school. Educators warn that the child who is at the bottom in first grade, when it comes to reading skill, tends to stay there throughout the school career. That's why so much attention is given to all readers in first grade.


For the first few years of school, struggling readers can usually get by. The reading material is simple, the lessons are repeated often, and intensive remedial help is common. But there comes a time, usually right around fourth grade, when pupils are expected to stand on their own two feet, academically, and the material starts getting harder. In fourth grade, the focus is no longer on "learning to read." Now, it is on "reading to learn."


Meanwhile, 4th grade teachers tend to expect that the pupils "get it," quit babying or nurturing the students so much, and might move too fast for the students who can't keep up with the mainstream.


It is a sad indictment of the way our nation has chosen to teach reading (the failed Whole Language philosophy) that 44% of fourth-graders have reading skills that are labeled "below basic" level by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.


It's as if good readers shift into a higher gear, since they can easily pick up new words, grammar rules and spelling eccentricities, building on their existing reading capabilities. But slower readers with less powerful language skills start to fall further and further behind as the emphasis shifts into fluency (how many pages you can read in an hour) and comprehension (how well you've understood and remember what you've read).


This becomes so noticeable that there's a name for the syndrome: "fourth-grade slump." It came from the late Jeanne S. Chall, a Harvard University reading expert. She found that the slump was worse among low-income children who had not been exposed to a vocabulary-rich environment in grade school. So she and others campaigned against the simplistic "basal readers" that are used in so many grade schools in place of more challenging traditional and classic works of children's literature.


She also fought for better phonics instruction to help children "decode" unfamiliar words, but often, once that element of their reading skill package was repaired, a new deficiency would become apparent because of the years that went by without the child decoding as well as he or she should have been. It's just another example of the cascading consequences to our children and our nation that our schools are not teaching reading correctly, with phonics-only strategies, in kindergarten and first and second grades.


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is among those researching all phases of reading disabilities, including this problem, at such research facilities as the University of Colorado at Boulder, Florida State University, the University of Houston, and Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute, a research and education facility that focuses on children with developmental disabilities.


The project is being funded through the NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, focusing on increasing interest in "response to intervention," or RTI, a teaching framework intended to catch and solve academic problems before they become too serious.


Homework: An education reform group in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky are focusing on grade-specific situations and needs, including what the American Federation of Teachers has called the "fourth-grade plunge." See their overview of fourth-grade challenges on:


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 134 2008


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