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The Fourth Grade Slump: Understanding the "Big Picture" About The Science of Teaching Reading for English Language Learners

Categories: Education & Teaching, Educators, English Language Learners, General, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices, The Digital Age, The Great Reading Games, Whole Child Literacy


As discussions of the Science of Reading (SoR) and the Science of Teaching Reading (STR) have erupted in schools, educators are eager to learn how to apply key strategies with students in their classrooms, and gain a better understanding of “what works” with diverse learning populations. Dr. Peggy Semingson

Dr. Peggy Semingson, Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics and TESOL at The University of Texas at Arlington teaches practitioner-focused courses in TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Education, and recently gave a presentation about this topic in our Spotlight Learning Series.

Dr. Semingson has extensive background in elementary and bilingual education and holds a PhD in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in language and literacy. Her current research includes digital pedagogies, media based learning, struggling and developing readers, online general education, and remote and virtual ESL teaching and learning. 

You can listen to Dr. Semingson’ s full presentation on-demand to receive professional education certificates. Learn how to conceptualize (STR) in contexts that foster success for English Language Learners; value diverse linguistic experiences of students; and design language experiences that build on the framework of "learning to read" and "reading to learn.” 

SRT and Implications for Teachers with Diverse Learners 

Dr. Semingson: “Even when emergent and young readers are receiving solid evidence-based instruction, the idea of the fourth grade slump is pivotal. It is important for us to understand this shift and what we need to do in our intervention with students who struggle with upper grade texts.  

Jeanne Chall, a pioneer in literacy and seminal researcher on the developmental stages of reading, was among the first to delve into complex and widely debated ideas on how children learn to read, and how stressors like poverty impact their ability to do so. Chall’s idea is that students in grades K to two are learning to code letters and sound relationships. They are ‘glued to print.’ As they become automatic readers, they move into independent fluent reading. This is generally in the upper grades. Around third and fourth grade, if kids haven't picked up decoding skills, they're expending a lot of energy on decoding, rather than comprehension. They are not able to focus on the content or keep pace. This is a red herring for educators. 

English Language Learners Are Particularly Vulnerable Students 

Lack of vocabulary and background knowledge are key signs as well. We know that vocabulary and comprehension are two sides of the same coin. Even proficient readers can be held back, especially if they are English Language Learners. These students are particularly vulnerable. For them, a typical classroom curriculum is not enough. Using morphology or word parts to help them not only decode texts, but make sense of the text, is one key reason we must incorporate evidence-based approaches to the science of teaching reading. (STR)

High Stakes

Fourth grade is a time of “high stakes” when educators must be mindful about how vital reading instruction may still be necessary for many middle and upper grade ELLs, as text becomes increasingly more complex. Instructors should be thinking about diverse ways to support these students as they learn to read more complex texts and move into the “reading to learn,” stage. 

Language and context is crucial. Upper grade students who are at risk will likely continue to be at risk and their opportunities of ever catching up to grade level work will diminish. The key idea is to focus on both vocabulary and comprehension to see these students through to learning information well. Research also suggests that if we directly teach structure in terms of vocabulary like morphemes, prefixes, suffixes and root words, English learners can benefit greatly from those approaches, as well as teaching multiple meaning words. 

While students in primary grades are “learning to read,” students in upper grades are “reading to learn.” Using informative text across the literacy curriculum, high interest nonfiction texts during guided reading groups, or other access to texts for independent reading in and outside the classroom. Leverage technology like human-narrated audiobooks. They are a good resource to build skills in listening, comprehension, vocabulary, and background knowledge.

Listen to Dr. Semingson’ s full presentation for lots of other key signs and strategies to use with English Language Learners and students who struggle with reading. 

Learn more about the work of Literacy Pioneer Jeanne Chall.

Professional Learning and Community 

Learning Ally’s Professional Learning Services are designed to strengthen educator’s instructional capacity, so they can deliver a deeper, richer learning experience and promote better academic outcomes. 

Valerie Chernek writes about educational best practices through the use of technology and the science of reading in support of children and adolescents who struggle with learning differences.   


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