Nine- and 10-year-olds undergo “the fourth grade shift” when they stop learning to read and start reading to learn, but a new study says that may be too early.
“Most of what we know — or think we know — about how kids learn comes from classroom practice and behavioral psychology,” Anya Kamenetz wrote for NPR. “Now, neuroscientists are adding to and qualifying that store of knowledge by studying the brain itself.”
The study looked at what neuroscientists call “automatic word processing” in students ages 7 to 21. Researchers showed students strings of letters and symbols in four categories: words (fox); pseudo-words (“beh”); randomly arranged letters (egk) and meaningless symbols (@#%).
“The children in the study handled the first three categories roughly as well as the college students, meaning their brains responded at a speed that suggested their word processing was automatic,” Kamenetz said. “The difference came with the fourth category, meaningless symbols. As late as fifth grade, children needed to use their conscious minds to decide whether the symbols were a word.”
Donna Coch, lead researcher at Dartmouth College’s Reading Brains Lab, explained that previous research lead to unfounded pedagogy. Teachers of fourth and fifth graders assume that students learn the fundamentals of reading in kindergarten through third grade, thus fourth and fifth graders can put into practice those reading skills.
"Until now, we lacked neurological evidence about the supposed fourth-grade shift," Coch told Science 2.0. "The theory developed from behavioral evidence, and as a result of it, some teachers in fifth and sixth grade have not thought of themselves as reading instructors. Now we can see from brain waves that students in those grades are still learning to process words automatically; their neurological reading system is not yet adult-like."
The fourth grade shift was based on the hypothesis that automatic word processing occurs in 8-year-olds, but the new research shows that automatic word processing can begin as young as 7 and continues to 14 years old.
"This tells us that, at least through the fifth grade, even children who read well are letting stimuli into the neural word processing system that more mature readers do not," the research reads. "Their brains are processing strings of meaningless symbols as if they were words, perhaps in case they turn out to be real letters. In contrast, by college, students have learned not to process strings of meaningless symbols as words, saving their brains precious time and energy."
Coch advised in her research that teachers change their way of perceiving the fourth and fifth grade students’ abilities, saying that everything from increased patience to lesson plans need to be changed accordingly.
“Teachers need to be aware of these neural shortcomings, the researchers say,” Chris Weller wrote for Science Daily. “It isn’t enough that Johnny reads his book faster than the rest of the class. All that means is his fifth grade brain is getting better at being a fifth grade brain. Just because a student shows advanced reading ability, teachers shouldn’t quit teaching that skill. It still needs nurturing if it is ever to stay engrained for life.”