Sam enters kindergarten eager to learn how to read. He enjoys sounding out words and can make his way through his early readers. Sam has some struggles as he makes his way through 1st and 2nd grade, when the reading becomes more complicated and there are more expectations. His teacher acknowledges that he is somewhat behind, but tells his parents not to worry, he will catch-up. By the time Sam finishes 3rd grade he is frustrated and has learned how to avoid reading unless absolutely necessary.
Sound familiar? This scenario is not limited to parents of children with hearing loss, but as you will see some of the same areas that our children struggle with (fluency and vocabulary) also play a part in the this critical transition period. The end of 3rd grade marks a big change in the academic life of your child.
What’s the change?
Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin (1990) were the first to recognize the “slump” that tends to occur when students move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Traditionally, 4th grade was when this critical transition occurred. But, today’s increased academic expectations and the reality of standardized testing, has meant that many student begin to experience this slump in 3rd grade.
Children that have been moving along at an okay pace are suddenly left behind when this shift occurs. Boys in particular are at risk for these struggles simply because their reading and writing skills are slower to develop and are often still solidifying when they begin third grade.
Where Does This Slump Come From?
Chall et al (1990) suggested the slump might be related to students struggling to shift from reading relatively easy, familiar words and passages to using their reading skills to acquire new knowledge from increasingly difficult words and texts.
Students need to begin negotiating the “language of content” as they move into the higher elementary grades. This is the specialized language of math, science, and social studies – that is more abstract, complex, and precise than either everyday language, or the story language used in fiction.
Researchers have identified three main culprits that help to explain why the slump occurs. These culprits are:
Lack of reading fluency
In the early grades reading is often centered on reading for pleasure. Your child chooses books in the classroom that interest them and the focus is usually on fiction or simple non-fiction texts. When the texts are straight forward your child might sound like a strong reader, but when the words and ideas become more complicated that is when struggles arise.
Here is where the vocabulary stuff I talked about last week rears its head again. Researcher Keith Stanovich (1986) has termed it the “Matthew Effect” where the educationally rich get richer and the educationally poor get poorer (Suskind, 2015). Students with strong vocabularies have an easier time reading and find it more enjoyable so they read more and develop even larger vocabularies. On the other hand, students with weak vocabularies begin to struggle with reading and find it less enjoyable. They read less and have a more difficult time developing the vocabulary they need to become strong readers and learners.
A strong language program also needs to be a strong knowledge program. Unfortunately, in many classrooms it is assumed that students have had exposure to many of the concepts and ideas that are discussed.
As your child moves through school, assignments begin to require background knowledge and there is a need for familiarity with more abstract, technical, and literary words that are found in higher level texts. Students are expected to summarize plots, infer what the author is trying to say, and predict what might happen next. Non-fiction also begins to play a larger role in the classroom with history, science, and current event reading becoming part of the curriculum.
So, what can I do as a parent?
Observe your child. If you see your child struggling with more difficult texts at home then see that as a red flag and talk to her classroom teacher. But, don’t be lulled into thinking things will be okay if the teacher says, “Don’t worry, she’ll catch up.” If your daughter is struggling she needs some extra help, whether that comes from the classroom teacher, or from an outside reading tutor.
It’s also important to recognize that it is never too late to start. Yes, research shows that the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical for language, but the brain doesn’t stop developing at age three.
I have already talked about the importance of reading fluency and vocabulary development for children with hearing loss. So if you are looking for tips and strategies you can click here (for fluency) and here (for vocabulary).
I also have some additional tips below to help parents support their kids at home. None of these strategies involve sitting around with flash cards or engaging in reading drills with your child. The intent is not to add more of a burden to the things that your child must already do, but instead find ways to expand upon the activities that you are already doing together.
Read together: Yup, this is my number one go-to tip. I believe it’s so important that I will repeat it again, this time with a twist. Most children are familiar with story language when they begin school, but are not as familiar with the structures of non-fiction. Read lots of non-fiction. Start with topics that your child is interested in, and then branch out from there.
Reading visual cues: Charts, diagrams, and graphs are often found in non-fiction and scientific texts. The purpose of these visual supports is to organize and summarize the information presented in the text, the problem is that readers often ignore these supports and try to make sense of the text on their own. Help your child learn how to read various charts and graphs, and have him take a look at these visual cues first so he has a better idea of what the text might be about.
Experience counts: Your child learns best when she gains experience in situations where words are applied. This way she begins to use images and actions and tie the word into her memory, which will help her build a better understanding of the word. Talking about new vocabulary you come across when reading a book together, or doing simple science experiments at home, or even baking together will help your daughter expand her word understanding. It can also be fun to use different forms of media to help round out her knowledge. There is a YouTube video for almost any concept, and Khan Academy not only reinforces math and science learning, but also has great videos to help explain concepts.
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Chall, J., Jacobs, V., & Burns, L. (1990) The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind. Harvard University Press.
Suskind, D. (2015). Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain. Dutton.
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