Overcoming the "Fourth-Grade Slump"

    Every so often a phrase bubbles up and captures the attention of many educators, quickly becoming part of the lexicon we use to describe the challenges of teaching. The "fourth-grade slump" is one of those phrases that has been around for awhile, but only recently has provoked a flurry of writing by researchers, policy makers, and media pundits. Why the sudden uptick in interest? Anne Grasso de Leon asks in her excellent summary of both research and best practices in the upper elementary grades published by the Carnegie Foundation (http://www.carnegie.org/reporter/05/learning/index.html):

    Why do reading experts—an otherwise sensible-shoe, button-down lot not given to hyperbole—tend to use dire metaphors like "fourth-grade slump" and, more alarmingly, "eighth-grade cliff" to describe the current state of literacy in America's upper elementary and middle schools?

    Grasso answers her own question, noting that the public is just starting to realize how much decoding has been emphasized in elementary reading instruction, often at the expense of comprehension skills which will be essential in fourth grade and beyond.

Research and Policy Perspectives on the "Slump"

    Not surprisingly, researchers and policy makers from different disciplines have different takes on the root of the problem. American Educator, the journal of the National Education Association, recently devoted an entire issue to perspectives on the fourth-grade slump. E. D. Hirsch quite predictably attributes the problem to too little emphasis on a core of cultural knowledge in the elementary grades (http://www.coreknowledge.org/CKproto2/about/CommonKnowledge/V16iiJune2003/AE_SPRNG.pdf). But researchers Jeanne Chall and Vicki Jacobs explain in the same journal that the causes of the slump may be far more complex, with socio-economic roots (http://www.aft.org/american_educator/spring2003/chall.html).

    In the Journal of Educational Psychology, a team of researchers argue further that late emerging learning disabilities may be at the core of some students' reading struggles in fourth grade and beyond (http://www.ldonline.org/ld_indepth/research_digest/late_emerging_reading_disabilities.html).

Teacher Solutions: Successful Reading Instruction Beyond the Primary Grades

    So what is a teacher to do? While there may be a number of different perspectives on the roots of the problem, there are a few common principles teachers have used to successfully overcome the slump in their own classrooms. These principles include:

    1. Acknowledging the Different Needs of Readers in Grades 4–8

        Karen Szymusiak and Franki Sibberson, in Beyond Leveled Books, catalog the specific differences between a child who needs assistance with decoding skills, and a reader who is ready to tackle more complex comprehension skills. After defining these "transitional" readers, they provide a wide array of lessons, resources, and strategies designed to meet their needs.
        Dorothy Strickland, Kathy Ganske, and Joanne Monroe have identified some of the critical needs of readers during this "bridge period" to adolescence. They even developed a "Strategy Bank" with over twenty step-by-step practices for readers struggling in the upper elementary grades in their book Supporting Struggling Readers and Writers .

    2. Revamping Reading Instruction Beyond Third Grade

        Many of the "best practices" in literacy for grades K–3, including read-aloud, sustained silent reading, and shared reading, are also essential beyond third grade. But teachers are finding these practices only work well if they are tailored to the unique needs of older learners. In Reconsidering Read-Aloud, fourth-grade teacher Mary Lee Hahn presents strategies, activities, and guidance for making the most of read-aloud time.
        In Knowing How by Mary McMackin and Barbara Siegel, students in Barbara's fifth-grade classroom developed sophisticated reading and writing skills when the traditional research report assignment was redesigned to reflect the passions, interests and imagination of students. And in, On the Same Page Janet Allen demonstrates the importance of shared texts as an instructional tool for expanding the skills of readers beyond the primary grades.

    3. Teaching "Beyond" the Test

        Many teachers feel pressure to spend more time on rote drilling of skills for standardized tests as students move up through the grades. But this can have disastrous results when it comes to building reading skills that endure. Are They Really Reading? by middle school teacher Jodi Crum Marshall shows how an entire middle school improved their reading scores dramatically when they made changes to the schoolwide sustained silent reading program, including supplementing the program with writing. The program also sparked healthy discussions across the school as teachers set common goals, standards and expectations. Finally, in Better Answers, Ardith Cole helps teachers move beyond simplistic test prep, and into methods of teaching students to question and answer in ways that improve not only test scores, but their ability to read, write, and talk about issues in more complex ways.

    Perhaps it's encouraging that everyone is paying attention to a problem that has vexed teachers for decades. As Richard Vacca writes in this article from the Harvard Education Letter Research Online(http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/1999-ja/read.shtml):

    We're seduced by this notion that if we could just teach the basics by fourth grade, kids would be able to handle the complex demands of literacy that are required of middle and high school students, and that's just not going to happen. We have thirty years of statistics that show the problem isn't only with beginning literacy, yet we front-load everything and then the funding just stops.

    Teachers are already keenly aware of the needs of readers "beyond the basics"—hopefully some funding will follow as older readers garner more attention. But in the meantime, these books by teachers offer a wealth of research-based suggestions for tackling the slump.


    Many of the recommended Stenhouse titles for "Overcoming the Fourth-Grade Slump" also have free study guides on the web for use in professional development settings.