For the first few years of school, struggling readers can usually get by. The material is simple, the lessons are repeated often, and intensive remedial help is common.
But for some of those pupils, reading ability starts a dramatic downhill slide right around 4th grade. While good readers are sponges for new words and grammar rules, slower readers are left further and further behind. Some never catch up.
Researchers have called the phenomenon the “4th grade slump,” because it tends to occur when reading instruction shifts from basic decoding and word recognition to development of fluency and comprehension.
But questions remain. If there is a slump, what is causing it? And can children at risk of “slumping” be identified much earlier than they typically are, and their problems eased or eliminated?
The National Institutes of Health has awarded $30 million over the next five years to research centers devoted to studying the issue, along with other questions related to reading disabilities. The four centers will delve into the learning process in children and adolescents to find out what goes wrong for some young readers, and determine ways to address the problems when they develop.
The centers conducting the research are based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Florida State University, the University of Houston, and Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, a research and education facility that focuses on children with developmental disabilities.
Though the focus of each center’s study differs, the goal for all is to come up with interventions that can be used in the classroom.
The project is being funded through and overseen by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a branch of the NIH that has long played an influential part in research on reading.
James H.Wendorf, the executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a New York City-based advocacy organization, said he welcomed the research. “NICHD produces the scientific bedrock for reading instruction and reading interventions,” he said. “School personnel are clamoring for information on how to teach efficiently and effectively.”
Knowledge Base Lags
Part of the drive behind the federal grants is great interest in “response to intervention,” a teaching framework promoted in the 2004 version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said Peggy McCardle, the chief of the child-development and -behavior branch of the NICHD.
In RTI, teachers provide increasingly strong educational interventions for students struggling in a particular subject. The hope is that by catching and addressing academic problems early, the difficulties will not persist.
RTI also has been billed as a way of identifying students with learning disabilities, because children who do not respond to interventions may have other deficits.
With funding from the federal government, the four centers of the Learning Disabilities Research Consortium are working on classifying learning disabilities and improving understanding of interventions for children with reading problems.
• University of Colorado at Boulder
Researchers are addressing the identification, characterization, and remediation of reading disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Studying twins and other siblings from elementary through high school, they are examining the role of genetic and environmental influences in reading disabilities and ADHD. Partners include the University of Denver and the University of Nebraska.
• Florida State University
The center, in Tallahassee, is comparing approaches for defining, classifying, and preventing learning disabilities affecting decoding, reading comprehension, spelling, and written composition. Researchers are also analyzing the response-to-intervention (RTI) approach, and investigating the prevalence of learning disabilities among struggling readers. The focus is pre-K-5. Yale University is a research partner.
• Kennedy Krieger Institute
Focused on grades 3-8, the Baltimore-based center will study the neurobiology and behavior of children with reading disabilities, and the impact of disabilities such as ADHD on reading in the middle grades. It will also study the value of RTI in identifying children with reading disabilities. Partners include the Educational Testing Service, Haskins Laboratories, and the University of Maryland.
• University of Houston
Researchers at the Texas university are developing interventions to prevent learning disabilities in young pupils and to remediate such disabilities in older students, while investigating the neurobiology of learning disabilities and how the brain’s response changes with intervention. Partners include the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
SOURCE: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
But in such situations, “practice is way ahead of the research,” Mr. Wendorf said. Educators are already starting RTI models in their schools, and some of those efforts have shown success but not been scientifically tested, he said.
Ms. McCardle agreed: “Everyone’s out there rushing to figure out how to do [RTI], but without a very strong research base.”
The research centers are trying to figure out “what’s the best way to do this, on a very practical level,” she said. “We’re trying to understand even more what’s going on in the brain.”
The Kennedy Krieger Institute is the center specifically assigned to dig into the “slump” as part of its multiple research areas.
The term “4th grade slump” is attributed to the late Jeanne S. Chall, a professor and educational psychologist at Harvard University’s graduate school of education who was one of the nation’s foremost experts on reading.
Ms. Chall and her fellow researchers found that the slump was worse among poor children, and they suggested that was because such children typically were not exposed to a vocabulary-rich environment. She recommended that educators expose young readers to a variety of rich, engaging texts that would teach vocabulary along with decoding skills.
Still, some children continue through school with reading problems. And, 30 years of research has not provided all the answers, educators say.
Researchers do know what happens around 4th grade that makes reading difficult for students who are weak in the subject.
“When you’re younger, you’re learning to read. When you’re older, you have to be comprehending very well what you’re reading,” said Laurie E. Cutting, the associate director of the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for the Study of Reading Development. “It really becomes a tool for learning, not a tool that you are learning.”
Early reading instruction focuses on decoding skills, or associating letters with spoken words. And it is possible that for some children, Ms. Cutting said, the slump could simply reflect reading problems not addressed early enough. Yet neuroimaging scans have shown that fluent reading involves other processes in the brain.
“The evidence so far seems to suggest there is something going on beyond decoding problems,” Ms. Cutting said.
Need for Help Persists
The reading-development center will use a variety of methods to examine reading in older children, including using magnetic-resonance-imaging, or MRI, scans, to see if there are telltale brain patterns that predict how children will respond to certain remedial efforts.
In addition, the center is examining possible connections between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and reading comprehension, and will try to determine the prevalence of different types of reading disabilities, based on the knowledge it gains from its research efforts.
“The research in this area of learning disabilities is minimal, and the need for answers is urgent,” Ms. Cutting said.
Timothy Shanahan, the director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Literacy, said that reading is such a complex task that dealing with one difficulty may only unveil others.
“These kids may have double deficits, or multiple deficits,” said Mr. Shanahan, a former president of the International Reading Association. “If you clear up the decoding problem, it becomes obvious there are other problems, too.”
Another hypothesis, Mr. Shanahan said, is that the slump in students’ reading ability occurs because teachers start to assume pupils “get it.”
“These may be kids who were in need of reading help. In 2nd grade, that kid is going to get extra help with his reading. In 4th and 5th grade, they’re not getting that help,” he said.
That pattern, he said, is one reason why educators need to continue to develop good interventions for older students. “It is critical that these older kids not get lost,” Mr. Shanahan said.
It seems likely that the interventions for older students with reading problems will differ from those for younger students struggling to read, Ms. Cutting said.
“There’s certainly enough evidence to show that at certain stages, reading difficulties can be ameliorated,” she said. “When you get into the older grades, that may not be as clear-cut.”
Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week