Elementary school teachers are about to get re-schooled in one of the tenets of reading development: that fourth grade marks the turning point between learning to read and reading to learn. A new study in Developmental Science by Dartmouth Associate Professor of Education Donna Coch has revealed that the transition to mature reading skills isn’t as clear-cut as many educators have been taught.
According to the “reading-shift” theory that has dominated teacher education in recent years, students experience a significant transition toward reading automaticity in fourth grade. This shift supposedly gives fourth graders the adult-like ability to read to learn. But Coch’s study, which uses brainwaves to measure the automaticity of different types of processing, doesn’t support the timing behind the theory. Instead, it shows that some aspects of reading automaticity are established before fourth grade while others are still developing past fifth grade.
Specifically, Cook found that phonological processing (“the ability to discriminate and detect differences in phonemes and speech sounds”) and semantic processing (encoding a word’s meaning and making connections between the word and other words with similar meanings) are well established by third grade. However, the brainwave measure of fifth graders’ orthographic processing (using the visual look of a string of letters to quickly understand whether or not those letters make up a word) still resembled that of younger readers more than college students.
If reading automaticity takes years to fully develop, and if we don’t know when the process is complete for most learners (the study did not look at students between 5th grade and college age), what do these results mean for educators and learners?
The takeaway, according to Coch, is that teachers should have realistic expectations of their students’ abilities and not expect them to be reading with full word automaticity in fourth and fifth grade. What makes more sense, says Coch, is for fourth and fifth grade teachers to begin thinking of themselves as reading teachers. That may be a shift for many, but it fits well with the Common Core trend of incorporating reading tasks in subjects beyond ELA. Is your school taking this research into account and changing its approach to teaching upper grade learners?