You may have heard of a phenomenon in the education world known as the “fourth grade reading slump”. This refers to when students, who seemed to have previously been on par with their peers, begin to lag in their reading progression around the fourth grade. It’s a real issue that has been shown to negatively impact children’s later academic success across content areas, so it’s one to be wary of if you have any (soon-to-be) school-aged children.
Essentially, the slump is caused by the transition in instructional focus from learning to read, to reading to learn.
What is The Fourth Grade Reading Slump?
Until the third grade, a large component of children’s literacy instruction focuses upon helping them develop decoding and word recognition abilities. This means the focus is on developing an understanding that letters represent sounds, that different combinations of letters make different sounds, and that those sounds together make words. After the third grade, the focus of literacy instruction starts to transition to comprehension (understanding) of texts and critical thinking about those texts, while other subject areas also start to incorporate an increasing amount of print text as part of their learning materials. It becomes assumed that students will be able to successfully decode age-appropriate written texts while understanding them.
Why Kids Experience The Fourth Grade Reading Slump
Children experience the fourth-grade slump when they are not yet able to read with fluency (smoothly, in a way that reflects meaning) and automaticity and are instead spending their time and energy trying to figure out words in the printed text. We all only have so much working memory to dedicate to tasks, especially ones that involve learning something new, and so when much of someone’s working memory is being used to figure out each word, it becomes a struggle to also correctly interpret the meaning of those multiple words put together because their working memory is already being used at capacity. This is cognitively exhausting and emotionally discouraging for a lot of students, and it quickly impacts how they view themselves as a reader and a learner. Additionally, it has been found that students who experience the fourth-grade reading slump also often have a more limited vocabulary and background knowledge than their peers, which also contributes to their abilities to understand increasingly complex texts. Unfortunately, it’s not often long before this struggle with reading becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where students have now identified themselves as someone who doesn’t do well in reading and/or in school, so they avoid challenging tasks, which then confirms their theory and perpetuates the cycle. Not only that, but as students start to fall behind in reading at the fourth-grade level, that gap between them and their peers steadily widens throughout the rest of their school experience and they become less and less likely to succeed academically.
What Can we do About it?
As such, as parents, caregivers, guardians, and educators, we need to make sure we are investing in early reading development, as well as quality literacy intervention for struggling readers before they head to middle school. It’s important to note that the students who most often fall into the reading slump are those from low-income backgrounds, which means we also have a responsibility to invest in community literacy programs. At the earliest stages of reading development, this looks like developing children’s oral language, reading books as much as possible, developing a love of books and reading, and taking time to talk to children about a variety of subjects and experiences. For school-aged children, this means exposing them to a variety of rich texts and learning experiences about a range of topics, to help build their background knowledge and vocabulary. It also means taking the time to really focus on helping children develop their decoding skills, fluency, and automaticity, while consistently engaging them in a discussion about what they are reading and viewing, to further develop their vocabulary and comprehension abilities. Finally, it is beyond important that we help all children to experience success and develop positive reading identities, so that they hopefully do not fall victim to the limiting beliefs around reading and learning identity that so often plague those that become part of the fourth-grade reading slump.
Samuels, Christina. “Experts Eye Solutions to ‘4th Grade Slump’.” Education Week. Sept. 10, 2007, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/09/12/03slump.h27.html.
Goodwin, Bryan.”Research Says…/Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump.” Educational Leadership, ASCD. April 2011, http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx.
Chall, Jeanne and Vicki Jacobs. “The Classic Study on Poor Children’s Fourth-Grade Slump.” The American Federation of Teachers. 2003, https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2003/classic-study-poor-childrens-fourth-grade-slump.