Why reading by fourth grade matters for student success

Posted by Roger Dickinson on 08 September 2020 7:10 PM CAT
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The implications for students reading below grade level by fourth grade are daunting. In a nation where far too many elementary school children are reading below grade level, 

Studies have shown that children who cannot read at grade level by the start of fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate on time than their grade-level peers — a startling statistic that shows the weight that early education carries for a child’s future success.




Reading by fourth grade is critical for student success

Students usually spend grades one through three learning the alphabet, letter sounds, word combinations, and other basic reading skills. However, once students enter fourth grade, their focus shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. And the basic reading skills become vital for continued learning in other subjects, like history, math, and science. Without these foundational skills, students are unable to keep up with their peers, and continue to fall farther and farther behind.For example, say Billy reaches fourth grade and is still working on sounding out words — not having mastered the skills of reading comprehension yet. During his math lesson, Billy’s teacher outlines a word problem: “Three-toed sloths have four legs. How many toes would 25 sloths have?” Billy feels immediately defeated because he can’t get beyond comprehension of the sentence to begin to solve the math problem. He then misses out on learning the math principles associated with this problem, while his peers gain an understanding of the subject matter.

The opportunity gap continues to widen

Researchers refer to the “Matthew Effect” to explain the effect when kids like Billy enter fourth grade reading at a lower grade level, and fall even further behind as the year progresses.

In educational settings, the Matthew Effect can be used to describe how students who possess strong foundational reading skills will continue to build upon that foundation and will learn at a fast rate. For struggling readers, however, basic reading skills become just one of many skills they have not yet mastered. This effect also gives rise to an skill gap between students who have mastered foundational skills and those who have not.

Adding to the effect, students who fall behind in reading often experience a drop in self confidence, making it even more difficult to keep practicing their skills. A struggling reader may not be as confident in decoding meaning and may become frustrated when he or she cannot comprehend the same material as a fellow classmate can. This could then lead to resistance to further learning and participation in school, thus amplifying the problem.

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