kitchen table math, the sequel: First use of the phrase "4th grade hump?"

Friday, October 23, 2009

First use of the phrase "4th grade hump?"

In the earliest mention of the phrase that I have yet found, it is called instead the “4th grade hump.” For a few years after that, it is called a hump, then it appears as the phrase “4th grade slump.” If you search Google books for the two phrases for various time periods, you find a number of interesting links. Also, over time, there are more and more hits for the phrase.

Here are the phrases, from Edward Dolch, the creater of the Dolch sight words, in his 1948 book, “Problems in Reading.” The first is on p. 56:

There is the famous 'fourth-grade hump,' the sudden difficulty of reading matter that strikes the children without warning. The difficulty keeps on climbing through grades V and VI.

This mention on page 251 also has a very interesting table:

Every word not on the list of 1,000 [most frequent words] was underlined and counted every time it appeared. Therefore a percentage of hard words means a percentage of the running words, that is, the total words read. We are aware that if a word appears a second time it is not now a hard word if it were learned the first time, but there was no way of allowing for this factor.....

The percentages of hard words for the books of each grade were averaged, and then the figures were rounded to the nearest whole number. The result shows the following:


Word Difficulty, According to Appearance on First 1,000 Words for

Children’s Reading as Found in Ten Series Of Readers



Hard Words (Not on List)

4% 6% 8% 12% 14% 16%

These figures show the well-known “fourth grade hump,” a difference between the third grade books and fourth grade books that is twice the difference between the other grades.

There were several interesting links to later use of the phrase “4th grade slump,” I’ll link to two of them:

  1. The Trouble With Boys by Peg Tyre, p. 142-143

(The whole thing is interesting, here’s an excerpt:)

Around fourth and fifth grade, another factor comes into play as well. Good readers take a leap forward as they move from learning to read to reading to learn. The curriculum demands it. It’s no longer enough to be able to “sound out” words. Children have to comprehend sentences and paragraphs from history and science books and make inferences from those texts. Kids who don’t make that jump fall into what experts have dubbed the “fourth-grade slump.” They are stuck trying to figure out how to decode the word everglades, for instance, while other kids are learning about the kinds of animals that live in those Florida swamps. It’s an important cognitive leap.

By every measure, the fourth-grade slump hits boys harder than it hits girls.

2. The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind by Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin, p. 143

As predicted by the theoretical model of reading used for our study (see Chapter 1), the students’ scores started to slump at about grade 4. For the below-average readers, the slump began early (in grade 4) and was intense. By grades 6 and 7, they were reading almost two years below grade level on all the reading tests. For the above-average readers, the slump began later (around grade 6) and was less intense. Many of the above-average readers were still reading on grade level or above in the sixth and seventh grades on some of the reading tests.The slump started earlier on some tests than on others.

The first to slip was vocabulary.

If you teach properly, with a good phonics method and less than a dozen sight words, there are few "hard words;" disadvantaged elementary children (including several 1st graders) taught with Webster's Speller were able to sound out what Dolch called "hard words," but Webster called "easy words of X syllables."

Here are some "easy words of 3 syllables, accented on the first and third"


and "easy words of 4 syllables, full accent on the first, and the half accent on the third"



SteveH said...

Tell me again why many educators don't like phonics. My view in math is that everything boils down to low expectations.

Cranberry said...

I believe E.D. Hirsch would link this drop in reading scores to a lack of background knowledge.

I remember the SRA cards. We could amuse ourselves with them, if we had finished our other work. The short reading passages were nonfiction. They added to my knowledge of the world, in short chunks.

Nikita said...

I adored the SRA cards. They were the one thing that kept me from being bored out of my mind in grade 4.


Anonymous said...

"I believe E.D. Hirsch would link this drop in reading scores to a lack of background knowledge."

I think you are correct. This probably is a linkage Hirsch would make.

Donald Hayes thinks it is because the US simplified its basal readers.

Of course, simplifying the readers tends to lead to less background knowledge ...

-Mark Roulo

ElizabethB said...

They had to simplify the readers because the children couldn't read as well when they weren't taught with phonics, the switch to whole word methods led to a big dumbing down of the textbooks, both for vocabulary and sentence structure.

ElizabethB said...

Mark--I just read your link, that's a great article, thanks.

Students today are capable of reading the McGuffey readers if taught with phonics. The 1879 versions are especially good, their phonetic markings are helpful.

The original 1836 McGuffey series is actually worse--they were written during a period of whole word teaching from 1826 to 1876 are are dumbed down compared to the 1879 version. (Not the exact correct term for a past event, but you know what I mean.)

Ben Calvin said...

Loved the SRA cards. Part of why I liked 3rd and 4th grade way more than my earlier years.

Around fourth and fifth grade, another factor comes into play as well. Good readers take a leap forward as they move from learning to read to reading to learn.

I'm seeing this, fortunately on the good side. There's been a heavy emphasis on phonics on my son's class since Kinder, and it's suddenly starting to pay off in a big way in 4th grade.

Crimson Wife said...

My oldest can sound out just about any word that follows English phonetic rules (including advanced ones). Where she gets stuck is on comprehension. She could read "obduracy" just fine but ask her what it means, and she'd draw a blank.

I'm working on Latin & Greek word roots to help her build her vocabulary. I also read aloud to her from quality literature, with explanations of unfamiliar words when appropriate. But her progress in reading has definitely slowed way down since she hit a middle-school level.

ElizabethB said...

Crimson Wife-

You could also try having her read from the 4th and/or 5th grade Parker's readers, their reading selections have pronunciation and definitions of difficult words. The readers are linked at the bottom of my Webster's Speller page (linked in this post.)

The 4th and 5th grade readers are today's middle school/high school reading grade levels.

If you find that you especially like one or two of them, you can order an original from Alibris or abe books for a reasonable price if you don't mind a few markings and spots. I actually find the markings interesting, I try to get old books with writing in them, I love reading them and examining the penmanship, most people had very nice penmanship back then.

Independent George said...

Tell me again why many educators don't like phonics. My view in math is that everything boils down to low expectations.

The cynical side of me thinks it comes down to being what down to what Douglas Adams called an SEP: Someone Else's Problem. By the time anyone realizes that a kid hasn't learned anything in elementary school, he's in Jr. High, and it's someone else's problem.

What I don't get is why jr high/high school teachers think they're on the same side as the elementary teachers.

SteveH said...

"What I don't get is why jr high/high school teachers think they're on the same side as the elementary teachers."

Interesting point. In our school, those teachers must feel pretty odd. For one thing, they are in the same building as our 4th and 5th graders. Another is that they are required by state law to have certification in the areas they teach. When the 7th and 8th grade teachers start putting the screws to the kids to prepare them for high school, the lower grade teachers don't tell them not to do that.

It's like a big setup. K-6 teachers tell kids and parents that everything is fine. Trust the spiral. Trust differentiated instruction. Trust that kids will learn when they are ready. Trust the process. Then in 7th grade, it's do the work or flunk.

MichelleM said...

Sadly, my son is 3 months in to kindergarten and they haven't learned any phonics. They've learned some word wall words though!

Sara R said...

My youngest dd is in a similar spot, Michelle M. She's in 1st grade. Because she's my youngest, I've been able to spend more time in the classroom. I happened to overhear the "balanced literacy" teaching: "What is our strategy for this week? If you don't know the word, look at the picture!"

I taught my other children to read with phonics while homeschooling, so I really should have known better. I wasn't as diligent about phonics lessons as I should have been. I guess I believed that the "balanced literacy" did teach some phonics, or at least didn't teach anti-phonics (guessing).

A couple of months into the school year, and I find out that dd has been listening to her teacher. She is guess, and her phonics blending ability has decreased significantly.

So phonics lessons are now mandatory. Every day after school we read 10 minutes in the phonics book I used to teach the other kids, Phonics Pathways by Dolores Hiskes. She's supposed to read 20 minutes a day for school, so this counts as her homework as far as I'm concerned. She usually reads a page in 10 minutes. She'll probably be done with the book by the end of first grade. We've been diligent for about a month now and her reading ability and confidence have already increased a lot.

MichelleM, if I were you I'd do the same thing. Teaching phonics isn't complicated if you have the right materials. Unfortunately the schools don't (usually) do it, so you have to do it yourself. ElizabethB has a wealth of information on her website. Phonics Pathways is a simple book to use. It really helps for students to be strong readers before entering 1st grade, so the "balanced literacy" whole language instruction doesn't confuse the kids. If they can read independently, the phonetically confusing "predictable readers" won't harm them.

Sara R said...

Steve, the educators don't like phonics for the exact same reason they don't like drilling math facts. It's "drill and kill."

SteveH said...

"drill and kill."

After all of these years, I keep trying to find a shread of understanding in what they are doing. My son got Wall Words and balanced reading. Does anyone remember the fad about "onset and rime"? He got that. It's kind of like phonics for educators who don't want to admit that they are completely wrong.

I didn't pay too much attention because my son knew how to read before he ever got to school. One of his favorite videos was Mrs. Phipps and Snoothy. We also had the Junior Phonics Game.

The school tested him for reading in Kindergarten but they didn't want to tell us that he was tested, let alone tell us the results. (as if we didn't know) This was our first exposure to the school doing things behind the backs of parents. When we found out and asked, the Kindergarten teacher went into preemptive strike mode to tell us that some kids can read encyclopedias, but they don't know what they are reading. Was our son tested for comprehension? No. What about learning to read and then reading to learn. Their logic is vacuous. They just want parents to go away. I know that some parents are just plain weird, but that's how all parents are treated if they get too close. Parents are supposed to be supportive at all times. One parent even abdicated all thought and took the position that "they are the experts".

palisadesk said...

(Part 1)
I've been interested in this "fourth grade hump/slump" for a number of years and have read all I can find on the topic, plus conducting my own investigations as opportunity afforded itself. Both terms are apposite: what constitutes a "hump" for some is a "slump" for others, and in either case can have long-range consequences.

However, although I have seen cogent arguments for the cause, I believe all of them are erroneous, considered seriatim.

1) Decoding/phonics: this is a huge component for many students, but by no means all. In some schools more than others, and some jurisdictions more than others, children are simply not given adequate instruction in how the alphabetic code works in English reading and spelling. While some manage to infer the basic correspondences and how to manipulate phonemes and graphemes, many children do not, and continue to use ineffective "strategies" like picture clues, "part-word assembling" (hat tip to Diane McGuinness for that phrase), look-at-first-letter-and guess, etc. This mix will get most children through primary level reading but fails to enable them to jump to the large number of more complex words required by content area reading in fourth grade and beyond.

2) Background knowledge: I read and admired Hirsch's The Knowledge Deficit, and believe he has succinctly summarized a major problem affecting students across the spectrum of reading ability. It doubtless contributes to the "reading comprehension" issues of students in the upper elementary grades and beyond. However, it cannot be held up as the single major cause, either. I have seen many middle-school students whose background knowledge is extensive but whose reading skills are severely delayed.

palisadesk said...

(Part 2)
3) Vocabulary. Closely linked to, but not identical with, the above. Often poverty of vocabulary is not simply a matter of word knowledge -- that is definitions and meanings, but of flexibility. An example, from a seventh-grade text: a sentence similar to "Magellan's fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Atlantic." A student was stumped by the word "rounded." She knew what "round" meant, in terms of shape, and also in terms of "singing rounds." But she could not get the concept of "round" as a verb meaning "go around." For those who aren't teachers (or parents of children with language issues), this may seem far-fetched -- but getting "stuck" in one meaning or usage of a word and being unable to come at it from another angle is a common problem for children with difficulty comprehending language (not necessarily IQ-related, either).

4) Language comprehension/ This is the other pillar of the "Simple View of Reading" (Gough and Tunmer). The ceiling on reading comprehension is the reader's oral language comprehension; in theory, if he can decode it, and he could understand it if spoken, he should be able to read it with understanding.

This is true in the earliest stages but becomes less true over time, as written language departs significantly in style, substance and terminology from spoken language. Academic language, in particular, uses words almost never spoken aloud even by educated adults. Good readers add many new words to their vocabulary that they have never heard spoken. They also learn to handle syntax and genres that never appear in conversation. The processing of print is simply different, at higher levels, than the processing of aural/oral language. Some children need explicit instruction in elements of written language at higher levels.

5) Fluency. This area is getting increasing attention, but is not well understood by most teachers or parents. What constitutes fluent reading depends very much on the situation (type of text, purpose for reading), but it requires a solid base of accurate decoding and vocabulary knowledge. Some readers do need targeted work on increasing speed and prosody; both are correlated with comprehension, and reading that is too slow -- 25% the normal rate, for instance -- is likely to hamper comprehension in the reader of complex and lengthy passages. Very slow reading rate also makes it nearly impossible for a student to keep up with the reading demands in class or complete homework in a timely manner.

palisadesk said...

(Part 3)
The decoding hypothesis is challenged by the landmark Clackmannanshire study in the UK, where children were taught a rigorous synthetic phonics program and the entire cohort (from about 12 schools) did exceptionally well, right through Primary 7. There was no "fourth grade slump."

But -- they did notice that about 10% of the students, despite having had a thorough phonics foundation, had difficulty, making the leap to more advanced reading, and they developed a module entitled "Phonics Revisited" for students in Year 4 which focused on advanced phonics (vowel digraphs, syllabication, multi-syllable word decoding) and application to more difficulty text. This was, by all accounts, effective. It is also supportive of my own observations -- that a significant minority of students, even those who have firm basic decoding skills, stall at the multi-syllable word level and need explicit help getting over that particular "hump" (Catherine mentioned that C. appeared to be one of those kids -- she got him going again using Megawords). Lacking such instruction, these students won't surmount the "hump." They have adequate basic phonics skills, but need to learn to apply them to longer words.

Other children, who are top performers in first and second grade, because they decode well, start to sink when the vocabulary extends beyond their limited knowledge. Once pictures fail to communicate the meaning, they are hard pressed to follow either a narrative or an informational passage. In my low-SES school, I've seen kids with superlative decoding skills flounder when asked to tell what happened on a page with no pictures that they read perfectly. Some of the words they did not know included basics like hill, porch, leap, gaze.

Others will be stymied by use of the passive voice ("Janice was fooled by Rita"), interpreting the recipient as the doer, or will have trouble disentangling events when the time order is inverted in the sentence (Jayden walks the dog after doing his homework) They can't track pronoun references beyond one sentence. If you say, "Bob went to a meeting. He will be here later," the child will understand that "he" is "Bob." But if you insert another sentence in the middle -- "The team is getting ready for a big match," there is a good chance the child will be confused about who "he" is in the third sentence. Many kids who can understand single sentences have difficulty with paragraphs because there are multiple factors to juggle.

The farther along you go, the more complex the reading task becomes, and the more variables there are to consider. The various causes interact with each other, and solving just one won't solve the situation. The problem is not insoluble: all the components needed are matters that lend themselves to instruction, but as long as reading is viewed as a holistic proves that unfolds more or less "naturally" (as opposed to a complex set of learned skills and behavior, more like playing the cello or driving a car), many children will hit the wall at this "fourth grade hump/slump" because the required instruction will not be forthcoming. Low-income students are most likely to suffer long-term consequences, because their parents generally lack the resources to take appropriate action.

SteveH said...

So, is the fourth grade slump a complex educational or developmental issue, or is it just that schools waste the 6+ hours a day of school? Is the hump a child problem or a teacher problem? How about calling it a 4th grade school slump?

palisadesk said...

Is the hump a child problem or a teacher problem? How about calling it a 4th grade school slump

It is an instructional problem. I've helped homeschoolers whose children had the same problem. They were in a position, however, to solve the problem, once we identified where the child needed help. Some children will experience difficulties regardless of quality of instruction (or where that instruction takes place).

In schools the problem may not be identified, or it may be misunderstood or misidentified. Schools may not have the expertise or the resources to address the problem. Mine certainly doesn't. I have the resources I need because I bought them all myself with my own (after-tax) money. Most teachers can't do that.

And, some children's need for repetition and intensive instruction is such that a school setting would probably be unable to provide it, no matter how competent or willing the staff. These children are a minority but they do exist.

MichelleM said...

Thanks Sara R.

We did Hooked on Phonics Pre K and finished HoP Kindergarten in July. So he's reading at least at a kindergarten level, as far as I'm concerned. He knew the "100 words" list he's supposed to know by sight by the end of K. He's able to read most level 1 and level 2 readers these days.

I tried to start HoP First Grade with him and it's to hard. It jumped right into blends without much instruction. So Phonics Pathways is actually what I want to pick up to work with him. And I've looked at ElizabethB's page, I need to print out her game.

My son is learning more about spelling/reading rules from Electric Company these days. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Palisadesk. That overview you offered should be read by every elementary teacher and probably all K-12 teachers.

As NCTQ identified, we don't teach phonics because most teachers were never taught about the phonetic nature of the English language.

You can specialize in Paolo Freire and be certified. No one insists that teachers must know Chall's work or Marilyn Jager Adams to be licensed to teach elementary.

In fact I believe few ed schools even mention their work or what the National Reading Panel Report actually determined.

What an avoidable national tragedy.