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What’s Behind The 4th Standard Reading Slump

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May 25, 2016

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You’ve done everything you can think of to encourage your child to be successful reader. But suddenly, around age 9 or 10, she hits a reading slump. She seems uninterested in books. She can’t find a title she wants to read, or she actively avoids reading. You may even notice her academic progress slipping.

Does this sound familiar?

If so, you and your child are not alone. Chances are, he or she is experiencing a phenomenon that researchers Chall and Jacobs call the “4th Grade Reading Slump,” a common phenomenon in the process of teaching kids to read. Educators first documented this alarming trend in the 1970s, but it’s a timeless issue; a 2014 survey by Scholastic polled children between the ages of 5 and 8 and found that 53% of them read every day — by ages 9 to 11, that rate declined to 32%.

Developmental research helps explain why. In the initial stages of learning to read, considerable brain power is spent deciphering each letter sound and stringing those sounds together to make a word. This leaves little room in the working memory to concentrate on the meaning of those words. With practice, however, children learn to decode words more quickly and automatically, developing what is known as ‘fluency.’ As fluency increases, young readers should be able to focus more on the meaning of the words, a skill known as ‘comprehension.’

But, what happens if a child never makes it to fluency and, consequently, can’t make the leap to comprehension?

That’s where the reading slump begins. Students who were doing well academically, sounding out C-A-T to perfection, are now struggling to read story problems in mathematics, or understand their science textbook’s explanation of photosynthesis.

Researchers agree that vocabulary — or lack thereof — is a driving force behind this reading slump. By third and fourth standard, students are expected to take on more challenging texts with difficult vocabulary; chapter books, periodicals, or nonfiction texts become increasingly common.

Additionally, children at this age also start encountering what E.D. Hirsch calls “domain-specific knowledge,” which can present another stumbling block for developing readers. Domain-specific knowledge requires a contextual understanding that helps the reader decide between multiple possible meanings. For example, a reader who knows nothing about cricket would likely be baffled by this simple sentence: “The bowler played five tests and did not concede a single sixer.” He or she would understand the words, but may not understand the meaning of “tests” or “sixer.”

The reading slump can be a very frustrating time for everyone, especially the child. Luckily, being aware of this phenomenon is half the battle. As a parent or caregiver, you can take special care to watch your child’s development as a reader for signs he or she is struggling. If you do notice new difficulty, you can take these simple steps to ease your child’s transition from learning to read, to reading to learn.

Get to the root of the reading slump.

If you child suddenly announces she does not like reading, or his academic performance begins to slip, the first step is to find out why. Begin by ruling out any physical or developmental barriers to success. (Maybe your child needs glasses to avoid headaches when she reads; maybe he is struggling to read in a second language; or perhaps, she is experiencing a common disorder like dyslexia.) If a physical or developmental cause is behind his or her struggle to read, talk to your child’s teacher; educators are developing more and more supports for students who need it most.

Let your child get hooked on series fiction.

An excellent way to help your child bridge from picture books to chapter books is to introduce them to series fiction. Series fiction books are sets of books that share common characters, are usually written by the same author, and often weave plot threads across multiple volumes. (Books in The Magic Tree House series, by Mary Pope Osborne; or the Mercy Watson books, by Kate DiCamillo; or the Geronimo Stilton series, by Elisabetta Dami, fit into this category.)

Somewhat counterintuitively, it is actually the repetitive elements of the stories that make them so valuable to struggling readers. Once children become familiar with the basic characteristics of the series, they can put more energy towards comprehending the words they read. In her 2001 book The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy Caulkins points out that, “reading the second or third book in a series is rather like rereading a familiar book, and this means that reading within a series can often give the reader extra support.”

Play to their strengths.

If comprehension is something your child struggles with, he or she may benefit from listening to audio books or to you reading a book aloud. Let your child follow along in a book while listening; matching the words on the page to the narration improves a plethora of reading skills. Listening to a story removes some of the mind-space fluency hurdles and allows children to concentrate on the content. They can hear new vocabulary words read in context, with expression, making them more likely to infer and comprehend their meanings.

“Understanding the message, thinking critically about the content, using imagination, and making connections are at the heart of what it means to be a reader,” writes Denise Johnson, a professor of reading education at the College of William & Mary in the US.

Bide your time.

Maybe your child just hasn’t met his or her favourite book yet. I’ve met many readers who say, “I didn’t really think of myself as a reader until I found [insert book title here].” After connecting with a book, children are usually hungry for more. So, encourage your child to get to know themselves as a reader, trust their instincts, and develop their individual reading tastes. This may even mean allowing your child to set aside a book that isn’t working out for them. After all, life is too short to waste our leisure reading time on books that do not interest us.

If your 9- to 11-year old is in a reading slump, don’t despair. Time, patience, support and the right book usually make readers of us all.

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Written By Julie Patterson

Julie Patterson is a Children’s Librarian and educator at Ascend International School in Mumbai. She is also the mother of three busy children (ages 10, 12, and 14), a gardener, baker, traveller, and all-around book lover.

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