Input, literacy and the 4th grade slump

A focus on input is the key to all language learning success in my view. We can see this in many different situations. One is what happens in schools. Here is a study that talks about how long it takes for one group of immigrant school children to learn English. One paragraph explains

“In one study, Thomas & Collier researched a group of Asian and Hispanic students from an affluent suburban school district receiving 1-3 hours second language support per day in a well-regarded ESL program . These students were generally exited from ESL in the first two years. All of the students researched were at or above grade level in native language literacy. Here are the results for students in this study.

  • Those students who were between 8-11 years old and had 2-3 years of native language education took 5-7 years to test at grade level in English. These were the lucky ones.
  • Students with little or no formal schooling who arrived before the age of eight, took 7-10 years to reach grade level norms in English language literacy.
  • Students who were below grade level in native language literacy also took 7-10 years to reach the 50th percentile. Many of these students never reached grade level norms.

This data holds true regardless of the home language, country of origin, and socioeconomic status. (Thomas & Collier, 1997).”

Now that begs the question as to what is meant by “grade level norms”. It is generally recognized that for a large number of students, reading skills, and therefore scholastic results, plunge after the 4th grade. As in this study, the tendency for educators is to use the “teacher speak”?? they learned at university to try to explain this.

“Studies show that 40 percent of late emerging reading disabilities are actually cases in which the disability was simply not diagnosed.

Professionals believe late emerging reading difficulties could be due to the thinking processes that are required to read and comprehend the more complex sentences and literature that is introduced in late elementary school. Earlier instances of reading disabilities are detected through letter and word recognition. It is easy for many children to memorize the alphabet and words without fully understanding the act of reading or comprehending the meaning of the words, phrases and sentences they are reading.

This switch from recognition to comprehension is what causes many children problems. The complex comprehension and critical thinking skills that are required for the fourth grade and beyond can cause a child with a late emerging reading disability sever difficulties. Parents should consult with their family physician or other trained professional before any diagnosis is made.”

Here is another article that identifies the problem as being mainly one facing children of low income families.

“Teachers have often reported a fourth-grade slump in literacy development, particularly for low-income children, at the critical transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This study uses Chall’s stages of reading development to take a closer look. “

If you read the article you will see Chall’s stages described, but no explanation of why lower income children do poorly.

“In sum, the low-income population in our sample achieved as well in literacy and language as a normative population through the third grade. Beginning with the fourth grade, however, they exhibited signs of a slump. First and strongest to decelerate was word meaning. The slowest to decelerate were reading comprehension and oral reading.”

I cannot find the article now, but this mystery was explained quite a while ago. Poor children hear fewer words as children, since their parents typically use less rich vocabulary at home. This means they are at a disadvantage when it comes to reading since more of the words they encounter when reading are new to them. This discourages them from reading and so they read less. The more words you already know, the more you can pick up incidentally. Vocabulary acquisition, so important to language success, is a matter of the rich get richer. The more new words have to do with abstract concepts, the more the poor readers fall behind. There is no amount of teaching “critical thinking” that can rectify this, only massive input.

And teachers should just let the kids read. My grandson reads a lot, difficult books. He hates it when the teacher asks him to explain the book. He got a negative comment on his report card because he did not always properly explain “connections” or something in his reading. I mean, teacher, get off his back and let him read, for Pete’s sake.

So, getting back to our ESL group. Get them an iPod, let them listen, let them read, and they will catch up faster. Put them in an ESL remedial class and they will take 7-10 years or whatever to catch up (to whom?).

The same is true for adult learners. You can talk yourself to low level fluency. You need lots of input to build up your vocabulary so that you can deal with a wide range of subjects, and then you will be able to talk yourself to an even higher level of fluency.

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