What Is My Child’s Reading Level? Part II: The Fourth Grade Transition

In the course of the school year, many parents find themselves facing a report that is not only disturbing, but unexpected. One mother described her experience as follows:

“Last month, at back to school night, I was shocked when the teacher reported that my son, who is in fifth grade, is reading at third grade level. Up to that point, nothing in his record suggested there might be a problem. I dug out his earlier report cards and found no mention of any difficulties. At every marking period, all his grades in reading indicated Grade Level Satisfactory. That said to me that he was right where he should have been. What’s happened? When did things change?”

In posing this question, the mother has raised an issue that is critical issue to reading success–the importance of the fourth grade transition. Prior to fourth grade, reading instruction is characterized as “learning to read” while subsequent to fourth grade, reading instruction is characterized as”“reading to learn.” In other words, pre-fourth grade, the effort is on getting children to “break the code” and learn how to take the letters they see on a page and turn them into words. From her report, it seems that her son was by all accounts doing well in this realm. By contrast, post-fourth grade, it is assumed that the child knows how to decipher words, and the focus now shifts to understanding complex material aimed at increasing a child’s knowledge and thinking.
The shift is enormous and covers a wide gamut of skills involving increased vocabulary, complex sentence structure and unfamiliar concepts, For example, in a curriculum on US government after the Revolutionary War, a fourth grader may be faced with the following:

By 1786, it was becoming obvious that changes were needed. People were in debt, a few states were printing money that was all but worthless, and in the midst of this disorder some people could see that America would fall apart if it didn’t have a sound central government with power to act for all the states.

For many children, this jump into complex language can prove overwhelming. Even when the children can decipher every word, they may still be unable to comprehend the message. To determine if this shift is responsible for a reported decline in performance, you might find it useful to carry out a brief assessment along the following lines:

1. use a book that your child is expected to read in his or her class
2. take a page that your child has not read

3. ask your child to read a full page—watch for errors, hesitations, self-corrections, etc. Determine the accuracy with which your child is reading the material (e.g., if there are 300 words and your child made 15 errors, the accuracy rate is 95%.). If the accuracy rate is less than 90%, it is likely that there is an excessive number of words that are causing difficulty for your child

4. after the page has been read, you read aloud a paragraph and ask your child to say what the message of that paragraph is. (In other words, at this point, your child has only to listen and so there is no pressure on decoding). Repeat this for another two paragraphs. If your child can readily extract and impart the message, then it is likely that he or she has no problem understanding the content; on the other hand, if your child cannot easily do that, then comprehension problems are probably playing a significant role in limiting reading performance.

In combination, step 3 and 4 above yield powerful information about your child’s reading performance. Step 3 reveals the accuracy of decoding (deciphering) skills while step 4 reveals the quality of understanding. By integrating these measures, you can begin to pinpoint where the key difficulties may reside—are they in decoding, are they in comprehension or are they in both? Once you have made this determination, you can then return to the teacher and begin to address what the school is doing to deal with these issues. When this happens, the teacher’s report no longer serves as a frightening marker of failure, but rather a stimulus that enables you to get your child the help needed to move past the obstacles that are interfering with progress.

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