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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

Research Says… / Don't Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump

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It is, perhaps, education's Bermuda Triangle. For decades, educators have wrung their hands over a puzzling phenomenon that often occurs at around age 9 or 10: Students who were previously doing well in school see their performance dip, sometimes permanently. Research offers some insights into the possible causes and solutions for what Jeanne Chall and her colleagues dubbed "the 4th grade slump."

Early Reading Difficulties

Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin (1990) noted that 4th grade is a critical transition period, when students move from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." The slump, they suggested, might be related to students struggling to shift from reading relatively easy, familiar words and passages to using their reading skills to acquire new knowledge from increasingly difficult words and texts. For some students, encountering these more difficult texts may unearth a previously undetected lack of fluency and automaticity.
Willingham (2009) explains that if a student is still sounding out words, he or she will need to devote a great deal of working memory to that task. As a result, the student will have less brain power left to comprehend what he or she is reading. "The difficulty is that there's only so much room in working memory, and if we try to put too much stuff in there, we lose the thread of the … story we were trying to follow" (p. 86).

Variations in Vocabulary Knowledge

A second cause appears to be vocabulary development (or lack thereof). In grades 2 and 3, Chall and colleagues (1990) found that low-income students' vocabularies were on par with the rest of the student population. However, at this level, tested words tend to be fairly basic and familiar, masking the reality that low-income students often only know about half as many words as higher-income students (Graves & Slater, 1987).
Researcher Keith Stanovich (1986) has concluded that strong or weak vocabularies can create virtuous or vicious cycles for readers. Students with strong vocabularies find reading easier and more enjoyable; thus, they read more and develop ever larger vocabularies. Students with weak vocabularies, on the other hand, find less enjoyment in reading, read less, and fail to develop the vocabularies they need to become strong readers and learners.

Prior Knowledge

E. D. Hirsch (2003) has argued that another key culprit in the 4th grade slump may be students' lack of domain-specific knowledge. To illustrate, Hirsch notes that a well-educated Englishman who knows nothing about baseball would likely be baffled by the simple sentence, "Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run." He would understand the words, but not their meaning (p. 17).
To that point, a study by Recht and Leslie (1988) asked a group of junior high school students (in which one-half were identified as good readers and the other one-half as poor readers) to read a passage about a baseball game. The researchers found that poor readers with high knowledge of baseball fared much better answering questions about the passage than good readers with low knowledge of baseball. In other words, all readers may struggle to read unfamiliar content.

The Rise of Peer Influence

One final piece to understanding the 4th grade slump may come from looking at what goes on not inside classrooms, but rather inside the minds of 9-year-olds.
In 1967, Torrance surveyed research from around the world and found that child psychologists dating back to the 19th century had observed a "severe discontinuity" in children's development at about ages 9 and 10 (p. 292). Torrance found one possible reason for this difficult transition in a body of psychology experiments called conformity studies. These studies found that sometime in preadolescence, children become strongly influenced by their peers, even willing to perform poorly just to fit in.
To test these findings, Torrance gave students in different grades a difficult word problem and a full day to solve it, allowing them to consult peers, teachers, or parents. He consistently found that 3rd grade students were more likely to ask adults (30–50 percent) than their peers (fewer than 20 percent) for help on the problem. In 4th grade, students showed almost the exact opposite tendency: Fewer than 20 percent of students consulted adults, and nearly one-half consulted peers.

What Schools Can Do

Researchers have identified a number of solutions for addressing the slump, starting with providing good reading instruction in the early grades. Direct vocabulary instruction is important to ensure that students know key terms they encounter in reading passages. However, such instruction alone is not sufficient. By one estimate, explicit vocabulary instruction can teach, at best, about 400 words a year (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002), a far cry from the 5,000 or so words students need to add to their vocabularies each year to build the 80,000-word vocabularies they need to be successful in college. On the other hand, estimates based on the research of William Nagy indicate that if students read widely one hour per day, five days per week, they'd likely learn at least 2,250 words per year—possibly much more (Stone & Urquhart, 2008). Bottom line: direct vocabulary instruction is necessary, but not sufficient to acquire the word knowledge students need to become strong readers.
Schools should also consider the importance of building students' subject-area knowledge. Stockard's 2010 study of reading programs in Baltimore appears to support Hirsch's (2003) assertion that "an ideal language program is a knowledge program" (p. 22). Among other programs, Stockard examined Direct Instruction, a curriculum designed to provide students with the background knowledge they need to comprehend more difficult content in later grades. Students who received Direct Instruction, despite starting with lower reading achievement in 1st grade, had significantly higher reading achievement scores in 5th grade than did students in control schools.
Finally, educators can address increasing peer influence by shaping a positive school culture in which students experience peer pressure to dowell at school—like the "work hard, be nice," culture at the heart of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools.

A Schoolwide Approach

Teachers often observe that academic problems surface in the upper grades as a result of faulty approaches in the early grades. That may well be the case with the 4th grade slump. Addressing this phenomenon likely requires a schoolwide approach: boosting vocabulary and background knowledge gaps for younger students while developing a positive peer culture, in which learning comes first, throughout the school.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Chall, J. S., Jacobs, V. A., & Baldwin, L. E. (1990). The reading crisis: Why poor children fall behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Graves, M. F., & Slater, W. H. (1987). The development of reading vocabularies in rural disadvantaged students, inner-city disadvantaged students, and middle-class suburban students. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, DC.

Hirsch, E. D. (2003). Reading comprehension requires knowledge—of words and the world. American Educator, 27(1), 10–13, 16–22, 28–29, 48.

Recht, D. R., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers' memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(1) 16–20.

Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407.

Stockard, J. (2010). Promoting reading achievement and countering the "fourth-grade slump": The impact of Direct Instruction on reading achievement in fifth grade. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 15(3) 218–240.

Stone, B., & Urquhart, V. (2008). Remove limits to learning with systematic vocabulary instruction. Denver, CO: McREL.

Torrance, P. (1967). Understanding the fourth grade slump in creative thinking. Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Education.

Willingham, D. (2009). Why students don't like school: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind words and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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