Tales of a Fourth Grade Slump: How to Help ELL Students Leap to Success

"I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating mostly consists of building enough bookshelves."

Anna Quindlen, author

Comprehension: A Challenge

I was recently reminded, through repeated failure, that literacy comprehension is very strongly linked to vocabulary and background knowledge. My husband and I, do-it-yourself types (i.e. not a lot of money to spend), did our own electrical work on our new room addition to our home. The state of Minnesota has electrical installation codes, with pamphlets readily available to explain them to amateurs like us who do our own work. We had to pass the electrical inspection to move forward with our project. I'll spare you the details, but we failed three times! Every time the kindly inspector explained to us what we'd done wrong, I ran to get the pamphlet to see if that is what it truly said. I couldn't believe I'd read it wrong. Here is an example of what I was trying to decipher:

35 NEC 410.8 Luminaires (lighting fixtures) installed in clothes closets shall have the following minimum clearances from the defined storage area (see below):

  • 12inch for surface incandescent fixtures
  • 6inch for recessed incandescent fixtures
  • 6inch for fluorescent fixtures

36 NEC 410.8 Storage space, as applied to an electrical installation in a closet, is the volume bounded by the sides and back closet walls and planes extending from the closet floor vertically to a height of 6' or the highest clothes-hanging rod and parallel to the walls at a horizontal distance of 24inch from the sides and back of the closet walls respectively, and continuing vertically to the closet ceiling parallel to the walls at a horizontal distance of 12inch or the shelf width, whichever is greater.

We did finally pass, but in the end I think the only thing I understood clearly in my first reading was the cost of each inspection visit. I am a very proficient reader and yet I found that when I encountered a number of vocabulary words strung together that I wasn't very familiar with, I didn't understand the task very well. In other words, I didn't comprehend very much. I am also not a contractor, and spend very little of my time measuring spaces or reading installation directions, so I didn't have a lot of background knowledge to comprehend the task. I do, however, use a closet quite often, so I know where and what kind of lighting I like — that turned out to be irrelevant when it was time to inspect my work. I needed a deeper understanding of the vocabulary words and the appropriate background knowledge to be successful in understanding the written electrical codes.

"The Fourth Grade Slump"

I reflected on how my experience was probably similar to what my students experience on state mandated tests. They think they know what they are going to do, they get the test and it's harder than they thought, and they are left with the anxiety of wondering how they could have better prepared themselves. A lot of literacy and math testing starts at 3rd grade, a time when readers are transitioning from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." Researchers recognize this as a time in a reader's development when they need extra support to make the transition to a fully proficient reader. Readers who are not able to make this transition fall victim to what has been referred to as "the fourth grade slump."

This process, based on Jeanne Chall's research, is described in the spring 2003, AFT article: Poor Children's Fourth Grade Slump.

Generally, Stages 1 and 2 (typically acquired in grades 1, 2, and 3) can be characterized as the time of "learning to read" – the time when simple, familiar texts can be read and the alphabetic principle is acquired …

Stages 3 to 5 can be characterized, roughly, as the "reading to learn" stages – when texts become more varied, complex, and challenging linguistically and cognitively. Beginning at Stage 3 (grades 4-8), students use reading as a tool for learning, as texts begin to contain new words and ideas beyond their own language and their knowledge of the world. Words and concepts in such material are beyond the everyday experience of children.

In order to read, understand, and learn from these more demanding texts, the readers must be fluent in recognizing words, and their vocabulary and knowledge need to expand, as does their ability to think critically and broadly. If children are unable to make the transition from Stage 2 to 3, their academic success is usually severely challenged.

The article states that, "…the most significant finding of the study for reading was that low-income children in grades 2 and 3 achieved as well as children in the normative population on all six subtests." However the research showed that in further testing the students as 4th through 7th graders, the first and biggest gap to appear was in word meaning. The students had increasing difficulty in comprehending more "abstract, academic, literary and less common words." In grade four the children were about a year behind grade norms and by 7th grade they were more than two years behind norms.

To me this demonstrates the seriousness of the work needed to assist students in avoiding the "fourth grade slump." If we as educators aren't able to bridge this gap at fourth grade, many students are doomed to continue falling farther and farther behind in each grade level. ELL students have an advantage and a disadvantage when it comes to addressing the "fourth grade slump." The advantage is that they are still learning English and acquiring new vocabulary at a rapid rate, the disadvantage is that they are still learning English and although they are acquiring new vocabulary at a rapid rate, they are still behind their native English speaking peers. Researchers Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier have proven that it takes ELL students 15 months of academic progress in order to make the nine months of progress needed at each grade level. This means that ELL students, with excellent instruction and self-motivation, will experience accelerated learning and may also avoid the "fourth grade slump."

Practical Steps to Overcome "The Fourth Grade Slump"

So, what are some practical steps we can take to assist students in this quest? I've already identified two key contributors to the problem, vocabulary knowledge and background knowledge, so basically any educational activity that addresses these issues is a step in the right direction. Here are some activities that I recommend:

1. Increase background knowledge

Students work in small groups to share what they know about the reading topic. They fill in a K/W/L chart (What do I Know? What do I Want to know? What did I Learn?) or a simple "circle chart."

If the students are going to read a story about a tornado, they write "tornado" in a small circle and then draw a larger circle around it. In the larger circle they write everything they know about tornadoes — words like, "scary, fast, twirling, destroys houses, loud, Kansas, kills people." Then outside the circle they write "how they know" these things.

The information from the circle map is shared as a class and written on a large chart paper. The teacher gives the students a summary of the story they will read and see if it matches with some of the items they've shared.

2. Increase vocabulary skills

There are two main areas to focus on with vocabulary – increasing the amount and increasing the depth. As I mentioned earlier, ELL students are constantly learning new vocabulary, but the more a teacher can do to explicitly teach important vocabulary and to demonstrate vocabulary learning skills, the more the ELL student will benefit.

Some ideas for expanding vocabulary include helping students to identify synonyms for words, asking them to read a new vocabulary word in context and "describe it in their own words," and teaching them prefixes, suffixes and roots of words. For example, if a student reads the word, "disabled," the teacher helps the student break it down into parts to understand it — "dis" meaning "not," "able" meaning "can" or "having ability" and "ed," describing something. The student should be able to see from the context that "disabled" means, "not having the ability."

Helping students deepen their understanding of words involves demonstrating the different ways a word can be used and the different meanings it may take. For example, "The disabled person." means something different from, (yet similar to) "She disabled the bomb." Another word that can be found in a variety of contexts is the word, "mean." For example, "I mean it." "The mean of the numbers is 42." "This means I did well." "The family doesn't have the means to pay for a vacation." "That boy is mean!" A student can create their own dictionary and write example sentences in their own words to define new words and the variety of examples they encounter.

3. Increase the ability to predict

A fluent reader is often "predicting" text without even knowing it. If I read a recipe and part of it is smudged, I read, "Put 2 ___ of flour in the bowl." I know that we measure with cups and teaspoons and that a teaspoon is too little for the recipe, so I predict that the missing word is "cups."

Students can build this ability as well through analyzing text and "cloze passage" exercises. When a student comes across a word they are not sure of, instruct them to reflect on the sentence and what is happening in the story to see if they can "construct" a meaning. For example, if the student reads, "The girl held the delicate flower very carefully." and they are not sure what "delicate" means, they may be able to analyze the text and see that delicate is something special and probably breakable.

A cloze passage activity is basically a "fill in the blanks" exercise. I used to take excerpts from books, copy them, and white out every 7th word (more or less). The students would try to write in the correct word. I liked to use passages we had already read in class as reinforcement for the students' learning.

4. Teach a variety of texts

In the early grades, a lot of the text is fiction. Students are reading many entertaining stories written in simple language. One of the jumps at fourth grade is "reading to learn." This means students must take a non-fiction text and begin to make sense of it in order to teach themselves. Without experience in understanding how different text is organized, students struggle in comprehending an overwhelming amount of information.

If a teacher instructs students in how a science text is read effectively, the student will be more focused and more likely to understand what they are reading. The teacher demonstrates how every few paragraphs there is a heading that tells what information will be covered, or points out that words in bold are key vocabulary words. The teacher shows how he or she would read a science text to get the information they need. They may pose a question out loud, such as, "I wonder if frogs shiver?" Then looking in the chapter, the teacher says, "Hmmm. I guess if I want to know if they shiver I need to know more about their body and how they stay warm. I see this section heading says, 'Frogs are cold-blooded creatures.' That may be a good place to look." The teacher can practice this type of text exploration out loud and then ask the students to practice it as well.

5. Develop oral language skills

Okay, this is getting simpler. Just talk. Give the ELL students lots of opportunities to interact in meaningful ways — in pairs or small groups, and with native English speakers if possible. Increase wait time when asking questions and listen carefully while the student responds. Paraphrase what you heard if you are not sure what they meant. Make sure the student knows that what they think and say is important and valued. The more they talk, the more English language skills they develop, and the more they will be able to understand what they read.

6. Set up an audio books library

Many ELL students do not have the opportunity to have someone read to them in English at home. Part of developing a love of literature and increasing English skills is getting a lot of quality input. An audio book lending library can be very helpful. Students take the book and tape (or CD) home and may listen to it many times if they like. When I taught elementary ESL we also included mini-cassette players with headphones in the Ziploc so students would have the equipment they needed to make use of the materials. We did not have a lot of money for our library, so the teachers all took a few books and read the stories slowly and clearly into tape recorders to make our own materials.

7. Help them find that Home Run book!

Educational researcher, Stephen Krashen has done research regarding what motivates students to become better readers. The basic, very common sense premise is that we get better at things we do a lot, and we tend to do things we enjoy more than things we don't. A "Home Run" book is the first book that really excites a child. The book that makes them "want more." Students acquiring English may need more guidance to find this book because of unfamiliarity with the language and possibly with the types of books available. If your library has books in the student's first language this is a very good place to start.

ELL students get very excited when they see a book written in their language and know it is a story they will understand and can share with their family. It may also be useful to show beginning English speakers where they can find books with lots of pictures such as – comics, science books, or sports magazines. If the material is something the student finds interesting, they will spend more time deciphering what words they can while looking at the pictures. The bottom line is that if you can help a child discover the right kind of book and love reading, then they will do lots of it and eventually become an excellent reader.

I'm glad I found my "home run" book (The Boxcar Children) at an early age. I don't really remember much of the storyline, but I do know that it lead to many more home run books and a lifetime enjoyment of reading. It is my wish that every child finds a "home run" book, develops the love of reading and learning, and leaps beyond the "fourth grade slump" to become an academic success.

New York Public Library: E-books & Audiobooks Collection

This website allows New York Public Library users to browse the system's free online collection of audiobooks, e-books, video, and more. While users must have a NYPL card to access the database, it offers a helpful example of the kinds of resources that more libraries are using. Audiobooks are also available in Spanish.

Vocabulary Activity: Prediction and Confirmation

An activity for vocabulary prediction and confirmation featured on the Florida Center for Instructional Technology website.

Online Etymology Dictionary

A large searchable database of all kinds of prefixes, suffixes and word roots.


About.com: The Best Sites for Free Audio Books

About.com offers a list of websites that have free audio books for download, as well as brief descriptions of each website and what is available.



You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

More by this author


I found this article very helpful, even though my third graders are testing all in english, it makes me realize that they need to stay in the biligual program. Last year, I exited some of my students from bilingual and know that it was to soon. Thank you for having this site.

The last article is very good for teaching english, but it`s very important to take into account in the classroom there are different kind of students,some of them don`t like english . they have much reasons. sometimes teachers are bored or they use the same activities in every class. I need to help for changing this idea. I need to know many activities to work in group or in individual way. Thank you for allowing my comments in this site.

Could you please advise on where to find resources and teacher's manuals to instruct a 4th grade bilingual class? I don't have any resources/instructional manuals/guides/materials in Spanish. I am in most need of materials on teaching writing narrative and expository text in Spanish. Ayudenme! Thanks for any leads!

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.