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Learning Shifts From Basics to Analysis

Students Face Reading Challenges, Greater Workload

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page A05

Fifth in an occasional series about the grades that provide the building blocks of a child's education

Lia Carfagno thumbed through her history textbook seeking facts about Abraham Lincoln while telling her research partner about his assassination: "He was watching a movie."


Andrew McShea, right, works on a project with Valerio Zevallos at Evergreen Mill Elementary. Both 9-year-olds are in Bruce Blakeney's fourth-grade class. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

_____From The Post_____
Inside Fourth Grade
_____Building Blocks Series_____
In Third Grade, the Pressure to Perform Is On (The Washington Post, Feb 22, 2005)
A Sophisticated Approach (The Washington Post, Jan 18, 2005)
Reading More Into First Grade (The Washington Post, Nov 30, 2004)
Jumping Into the Rigors of Learning (The Washington Post, Oct 26, 2004)

"He was watching a play," Jessica Saleck countered as the 9-year-old girls labored over a "road map" they were creating -- with pictures and text -- to show the causes of the Civil War in Bruce Blakeney's fourth-grade class at Loudoun County's Evergreen Mill Elementary School.

Lia noted that when Lincoln was elected president, the South saw him as a threat to slavery. "No, not the South," Jessica said, prompting Lia to explain why it was, in fact, the South.

Finally, Jessica started writing: "Aberham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Lincoln was against the spread of slavery into the Western territories." She stopped and said, "We need to put it in our words. This is from the book. We have to think about this."

Think they did as they used the analytical and independent research skills demanded in fourth grade, when students are no longer learning basics but expected to apply them and think critically, said Blakeney and colleague Katie Wilson. Fourth-graders have left behind the primary years and entered an intermediate stage seen as a transition to middle school.

"It's the time when students start to read to learn rather than learn to read," said Nancy Moga, principal of Callaghan Elementary School in Covington, Va.

It is distinct from third grade, when "you get to have more fun," said Laura Collins, Evergreen Mill's lead fourth-grade teacher. And, she added, the year prepares students for the more structured fifth grade. Required reading is more complicated in fourth grade, with students encountering words not used in everyday conversation, and tests are harder, too.

A hallmark of the grade is that students are taught to start asking why things happen. Aberfare Abdirizak, 9, said that he had learned some facts about the Civil War before but that now his class was learning what caused it.

Fourth-graders often get letter grades for the first time, and they do more homework. At Evergreen Mill, students can get an hour's worth a night -- up from 30 minutes in third grade -- and, said 9-year-old Danielle Scoggin, "it's harder."

Teachers say their charges start to change socially and physically, as hormones begin to awaken, said Collins, who has also taught third and fifth grades.

"Yeah, I argue with my parents more," 10-year-old Carter Brown said.

"Sometimes I sort of have an attitude," said Kelsy Duncan, 10. "But my brother has a big one. He's 12."

"I feel more grown up," said Valeria Zevallos, 9.

Classrooms also take on a more sophisticated air. In lower grades, the walls often are covered with the alphabet in block letters, or cursive in third grade. Posters explaining the basics of math and reading sometimes are displayed. And student work is shown prominently. But by fourth grade, the changes can be dramatic.

In Blakeney's class, one wall displays a collection of pictures showing a range of human achievement that includes John Lennon and Yoko Ono, under the label "Dreamers," along with Albert Einstein, Jim Henson, Mahatma Gandhi, Pablo Picasso and others.

And, in an era in which standardized tests are more important than ever because of the federal No Child Left Behind law, classroom tests are given not only to assess a student's knowledge but also to teach children how to take standardized tests. Wilson teaches strategies, such as eliminating the two most obvious wrong answers. An example from a recent test:

"What did Patrick Henry speak out against?"

A) Homework on Fridays

B) Pokemon cards in school

C) English rule over colonists

D) Taxation without representation

But as students are asked to raise the level of their work, many who have not developed an age-appropriate vocabulary run into problems, educators say. Many are poor and early on did not have enough opportunities to experience language in different forms, they say.

After studies began to show that test scores for many lower-income students dropped in fourth grade -- when children are asked to comprehend longer reading passages -- a name was given to the trend: the fourth-grade reading slump.

The strongest decline was in word meaning, with low-income fourth-graders in a key study found to be about a year behind grade norms, reading researchers Jeanne S. Chall and Vicki A. Jacobs wrote in 2003 in American Education magazine.

Few schools try to address the problem, educators say and some teachers say they don't see it in their classrooms. But there are strategies to tackle it, said Sadia White, principal of Harriet Tubman Elementary School in the District, including having fourth-grade teachers reinforce basic reading skills. She also said book clubs for children are valuable.

Compounding the problem is a phenomenon also seen in earlier grades: the "push down" of curriculum, in which students are required to learn material once the province of higher grades. Kindergartners, who used to spent their days playing, are learning how to read, and first-graders are expected to know how.

In New York state, for example, fourth-graders must take a writing test at the end of the first semester that several years ago was given at the end of fifth grade, said Bonnie Tryon, principal at Golding Elementary School in Cobleskill, N.Y.

And many fourth-graders are assigned books aimed at older readers. At Lafayette Elementary School in the District, fourth-graders read the Newbery Award-winning "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred D. Taylor, which is marketed as a book for "young adults."

The book "requires an emotional maturity that is rare in fourth-graders," said Jan Johnson, manager of youth services at the Princeton Public Library in Princeton, N.J.

Deb McNeish, principal of Rumford School in Concord, N.H., said many children who are asked to read above their grade levels may be able to identify words but "will not be able to understand the inferential meaning within the stories."

"Challenging children at the appropriate level is effective," Tryon said. "The only thing you get by raising standards so high for children who either haven't had the experiences or aren't developmentally ready is to make them feel like a failure."

At Evergreen Mill, Principal Mary Morris said she wants students to be taken up the learning ladder step by step, so they don't fall behind.

Such was the case with a fourth-grade project about planets. Students said they knew about the Milky Way but had an assignment that kicked the learning up a notch. They had to research planets, create a costume, and write and deliver a speech.

"We got to research a lot by ourselves," said young Carter, with Kelsy chiming in: "Sometimes Miss Collins would give us the opportunity to go to the Internet to research. We sure couldn't do that in third grade."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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