Why should parents worry about ‘fourth grade slump’ in reading?

Maria was shocked when her bilingual daughter Trisha (8) said that reading is difficult and boring.

Although Trisha was very good at reading in P1 and P2,  she had clearly problems with understanding materials she read in P4. It all puzzled Maria since Trisha was a bright child who used to love books.

Unfortunately Trisha is not an exception. Problems with reading comprehension affect many bilingual (and monolingual) children around P4. Rather unsurprisingly the phenomenon is called ‘the fourth grade slump’. Since it might affect children’s learning and future prospects in a significant way, ‘the fourth grade slump’ should be a  concern for bilingual children’s parents.

What is actually ‘the fourth grade slump’?

From P1 to P3 children learn alphabetic knowledge and decoding skills. In other words they ‘learn to read’. School in the UK are usually very effective in teaching elementary reading skills and therefore most of children become readers within two-three years.

Interestingly, it appears that bilingual children actually learn decoding skills slightly faster than monolingual children. Perhaps, parents of bilingual children are aware of linguistic challenges their children will have to face at school and therefore they work harder at home on reading skills than monolingual children’s parents. Unfortunately, the early success in reading might might actually dull parents’ vigilance.

About P4 children enter a more challenging stage. They ‘read to learn’.  Suddenly children are confronted with increasingly challenging reading materials (both lexically and cognitively). Such texts contain abstract, academic, conceptually challenging  vocabulary children might have never encountered in daily conversations with their peers and parents. Many children who were excellent at decoding in P1-P3, show abrupt decline in reading comprehension in P4 and have considerable problems with learning. Unfortunately bilingual children are in the group mostly affected by dip in comprehension performance.

What causes ‘the fourth grade slump’?

Underdeveloped vocabulary and conceptual knowledge are primary reasons for ‘the fourth grade slump’. Words such as ‘accomplish, adaptation, calculate, contrast, eliminate, essential, evidence, infer, passage, result, summarise, temporary’ are rare in daily conversations but plentiful in textbooks. They are also rarely taught to young children using empirically-based instructions. It shouldn’t surprise that gaps in vocabulary knowledge of many bilingual young children adversely affect their reading comprehension. Also lack of well-developed knowledge about the world contributes to the predicament. Children might understand all words in a sentence but if they lack in relevant knowledge, they still might still not understand its content. In a simple sentence: ‘Poles may be losing now, but it’s a game of two halves!’ children are likely to know all the words, but might still not understand the content if they don’t know anything about football.

Also absence of relevant experience might impede comprehensions.
Oakhill and her colleagues proposed reading the following text and making sense of it:

‘This process is as easy as it is enjoyable. This process can take anywhere from about one hour to all day. The length of time depends on the elaborateness of the final product. Only one substance is necessary for this process. However, the substance must be quite abundant and of suitable consistency. The substance is best used when it is fresh, as its lifespan can vary. Its lifespan varies depending on where the substance is located. If one waits too long before using it, the substance may disappear. This process is such that almost anyone can do it. The easiest method is to compress the substance into a denser mass than it had in its original state. This process gives a previously amorphous substance some structure. Other substances can be introduced near the end of the process to add to the complexity of the final product. These substances are not necessary. However, many people find that they add to the desired effect. At the end of the process, the substance is usually in a pleasing form’

The text is about building a snowman :).

It is pretty obvious that a child who experienced the process will understand it better. The more varied child’s experiences are, the better her knowledge. Finally also lack of fluency and automaticity in reading might exacerbate problems with reading comprehension. Children’s working memory is limited. If a child needs to focus on decoding words, she will not be able to  attend to  reading comprehension.

Last but not least, there is little evidence that schools do enough to counteract problems with reading comprehension. The current instructional practices in the UK focus on decoding, fluency and phonological awareness during children early years.

Consequences of ‘Fourth Grade Slump’

In 1986, Keith Stanovich used the term ‘Matthew’s Effect’ in the context of reading. The term describes cumulative advantage of children who are better readers. Children with well-developed vocabulary and knowledge tend to read more, more challenging texts, consequently they learn more words. Children with underdeveloped vocabularies are frequently frustrated with difficult texts, in a result they read less, less challenging material and learn fewer words and content knowledge. Therefore we can speak about ‘virtues’ or ‘viscous circle’ which has potential either to narrow or widen word and knowledge gaps between children.

​Sadly,  when children struggle as young readers, they are likely to struggle with reading later in school and life. Since reading is a tool for learning, its development is critical.

‘Once a child falls behind in reading, writing or language, deceleration is likely to increase with each succeeding grade’ (Chall et al., 2009, p.159)

What can you do to avoid ‘fourth grade slump’ in your child’s reading skills?

Don’t wait until it actually happens! Your child might be a proficient decoder in P1 or P2 but it does not mean she will be a good comprehender in P4. If your child is between 4-7 years old, she is in the window of opportunity which cannot be squandered.

Don’t think it is not going to happen to your child. The proof of reading  is in reading comprehension about P5. Before your child does not start reading independently more challenging texts in English, it is only wishful thinking.

Remember that bilingual children have vocabulary gaps which might affect their reading skills. Develop child’s academic vocabulary from very early age. Teach your child challenging vocabulary either in primary language or English (preferably in both). Teach vocabulary actively and systematically using direct teaching methods.

Between age of 4-8 you can teach your child between 2000-4000 important words. That is going to make a huge impact on her readings performance.

Remember that child’s great communicative skills in English might mask problems with academic language. Don’t judge child’s English proficiency on the basis of fluency or accent!

Develop child’s knowledge. Teaching words is actually a great opportunity to develop child’s knowledge. For instance teaching child word ‘abstract’ is an opportunity to develop child’s knowledge about patterns, shapes, colours and regularities in the world around us.

Don’t ignore decoding, fluency and automacity. They are prerequisite for reading comprehension.

Expose your child to both narrative and informational text. Select books for reading carefully. You should read to child for fun, but you cannot read only for fun. Challenge your child with texts. Change the way you read books.

Summary

Your child needs an extra support to develop her early language and literacy skills. What you do to your child before she starts school is critical for her reading skills and future prospect. This is also important for monolingual children, but it is critical for bilingual children.

Getting back to Maria and Trisha. Maria spoke excellent English. She used to read books both in Spanish and English to Trisha since she was 2. So what went wrong? Firstly Maria never focused specifically on developing Trisha’s vocabulary. She expected that noticeable gaps in English vocabulary would close when Trisha would start school. Maria did not know that actually opposite is happening, lexical gaps tend to widen with time. Also Trisha had no experience with informational texts. Yet, such texts were more and more frequent at school. Fortunately, it was still possible to help Trisha with comprehension issues. However it required much more effort (and stress) than preventive instructional activities I suggest to all parents of bilingual children between age 4 to 7.

References:
August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners. Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, Mahwah, Lawrence Erlbaum
Biemiller, A. (1999). Language and reading success. In J. S. Chall (Series Ed.),
From reading research to practice: A seriesfor teachers. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
Chall, J. S., Jacobs, V. A., Baldwin, L. E., & Chall, J. S. (2009). The reading crisis: Why poor children fall behind. Harvard University Press.Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2014). Understanding and teaching reading comprehension: a handbook. Routledge.
Chall, J. S., & Jacobs, V. A. (2003). The classic study on poor children’s fourth-grade slump. American educator, 27(1), 14-15.
Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading research quarterly, 360-407.