241. If a child has not learned to read on grade level by 4th grade, what do we do then?


One of the most misinterpreted findings in reading research has been that, in standardized reading tests, students from all backgrounds and socio-economic classes tend to score significantly lower at the 4th grade level than in the previous grades.   This phenomenon is usually called the “4th grade slump.”    On many occasions, students begin to improve their reading scores on successive grades, surpassing the 4th grade scores and achieving significantly higher marks in the upper grades.   This recovery, however, is NOT even across all students’ backgrounds and all students’ socio-economic levels.   Generally, low socio-economic students and, in general, students of color do NOT recover in successive grades from the “4th grade slump.”

In a previous question already answered about teaching reading to upper grade readers, I summarized two recent research studies (See Question # 238).  In one of these studies, a well-known reading researcher hypothesized that the “4th grade slump” was due to the fact that standardized testing, in grades 1-3, was mostly testing of individual reading skills.   Children are usually trained during these grades to “decode” words, to master sound/symbol correlations that apply to a very small number of English monosyllabic words.  Standardized testing in grades 1-3 focuses on measuring how well children have “learned to read.

Fourth grade standardized testing, on the other hand, tends to measure how well children “read to learn.”  During the previous 3 grades, hypothesized the reading researcher, students have been busy mastering measurable reading skills, and their academic / content area vocabularies are extremely poorly developed.   Too much time has been spent learning skills that may NOT contribute significantly to the process of “reading to learn.”   Thus, ALL students tend to fail the 4th grade standardized reading test.

Another very important study summarized in Question # _________, relates to the fact that fluent readers can read with appropriate fluency and complete comprehension words in English where the FIRST and LAST letters are correctly spelled, but the letters in between appear in the wrong order.   It seems as if once the brain “absorbs” the correct spelling of a word and its shape, so long as the first and last letters are correctly written, the brain “re-arranges” the letters in the misspelled word and recognizes the word immediately.  This “re-arrangement” and recognition do NOT affect either reading fluency or reading comprehension of a complete passage where all words have correct first and last letters but incorrect order of letters in between.

Now, if you consider carefully what you have asked:

If a child has not learned to read on grade level by 4th grade, what do we do then?

and if you consider carefully what the research shows, the answer to your question is clear:  

Standardized testing in the 4th grade deals with academic knowledge, “reading to learn,” reading in the content areas.  In grades K-3 students should have plenty of opportunities to develop CONCRETELY, through EXPERIENCES, through hands-on instructional activities, the concepts they will learn abstractly (that is, through words only) in the fourth grade and beyond.   Children should be helped to develop a very large ACADEMIC and content area AURAL and ORAL vocabulary.   When most of the K-3 grade classroom time is spent in learning through experiences a large amount of ACADEMIC concepts, then reading to learn in the fourth grade – and in all successive grades—will be achieved.   Thus, reading on “grade level” at the fourth grade implies having had a huge number of concrete academic/content area HANDS-ON EXPERIENCES in the lower grades (K-3) that allow students to be so familiar with the concepts taught through WORDS ONLY in the fourth grade that they easily master “reading to learn.”            

What do we do if this is NOT the case, that is, if children have NOT had the kinds of COGNITIVE/ACADEMIC concrete language experiences in grades K-3 needed to successfully learn through words the same concepts in the 4th grade? Well, for sure, STOP teaching reading skills!!!!!!!   THIRD grade should be the ABSOLUTE END of teaching reading skills (According to the research, it should be at the end of FIRST grade or at the end of SECOND grade, for only TWO years maximum!!!! Either K-1 or First-Second grade reading skills instruction, NO MORE!!!!!!!!)

What 4th grade students need (and Kinder, First, Second and Third grade students should be provided), what ALL Fourth grade students, English-ONLY speakers, and NON-English or Limited English speakers need is CONCRETE, HANDS-ON, VISUAL, TACTILE, PHYSICAL, AURAL AND ORAL language experiences to develop the cognitive/academic concepts BEFORE they READ about these concepts in their textbooks or books.  Then, Fourth (and Fifth, Sixth, Seventh . . . . . . Twelfth grade students) will ALL be able to read ON GRADE LEVEL and master “reading to learn.” 



For more in-depth information, classroom demonstrations, and "coaching" of new and/or experienced teachers, Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK offers:

1. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
2. Cross Cultural Diversity - Multicultural Strategies
3. Effective Instruction for English Learners (L.E.P. students) Parts 1, 2, 3, 4
4. Promoting Academic Success in Language Minority Students
5. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
6. Oral Language / Literacy Skills / Higher Order Thinking Skills
7. 50/50 Dual Language Programs: design, planning and implementation
8. The Structure of English / The Structure of Spanish
9. Transition: Introduction to English Reading

Web Site Programs for Teachers: Numbers 1, 5, 7, 8, and 9.
Web Site Programs for
Paraprofessionals: Number 3.
Web Site Programs for
New Teachers:
Enhanced Cultural Sensitivity - The Challenge of Students Diversity
Identifying / Responding to Students' Language Needs
Phonemic Awareness: Teaching English phonics to L.E.P. students
Relationship Between Reading, Writing and Spelling
Improving Reading Performance -- Building Oral Language Skills)

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