READING CHALLENGES: Why are students stalled at Grade 4?

Since joining  the Section 23 team in 2011, I’ve noticed  that many of our Senior students, who struggle with reading, seem to have stalled at a grade 4 reading level. Why is this?

A variety of Reading Diagnostic assessments indicate that the majority of our struggling readers have acquired foundational literacy competencies that would suggest they should not be struggling. However, there appear to be gaps in the strategic reading instruction they need to advance their reading skills to the next level. Biancarosa (2012) states: No matter how successful early instruction in reading is, it cannot fully prepare students for the literacy demands that evolve after 3rd grade.

teen 2

123RF Royalty free image.

Foundational Competencies students are demonstrating:

  • Alphabet knowledge – LN/LS letter names and letter sounds
  • Phonemic awareness – Phonemes are the smallest units that make up spoken language; they combine to form syllables and words.
  • Knowledge of high frequency words, “and”, “the”, “as” and “it”.
  • Ability to decode commonly used multi-syllabic words such as  beautiful, different, experiment, invented, attendance, etc.

Competencies students are lacking:

The following 3 competencies seem to be emerging as contributing factors for the grade 4 stall. *Research has indicated these competencies are crucial for reading proficiency as students move through the education system and encounter longer, dense, complex texts with more syntactically complex sentence structure and less structural devices to assist with comprehension (Biancarosa 2012) :

  1. Reading fluency – automaticity in reading unfamiliar, multisyllabic, content-specific vocabulary and complex syntax.  “The average fourth grader encounters 10,000 new words each year, and most of these words have two or more syllables (in Toste et al 2017).” Students are reading less and relying more on social media to communicate and get information.  As a result, along with reading rates, daily exposure to complex content and vocabulary has declined.
  2. Prosody – Prosody in reading refers to reading orally with appropriate expression and phrasing that reflects the meaning of text. Research has demonstrated a strong correlation between prosodic oral reading and silent reading comprehension. Proficient readers read with expression; less proficient readers often lack expression in their oral reading (Razinski 2017).
  3. Reading Stamina – the ability to stay focused while reading and comprehending longer and more complex texts. As students are reading less print at home, reading in school may be the only reading they do over the course of a day. Therefore, if students  are not given time in school to read they may not be able to develop this crucial skill.


They can’t do it alone. An extensive body of reading research concludes that explicit reading instruction needs to be intentional, intensive and consistent (Razinski, 2017) – daily if possible, or several times a week. The following strategies are highly recommended.


123RF Royalty free image.


  • expand complex vocabulary – daily work with high utility words (trending words are a good start, such as reconciliation, complicit, cultural appropriation, global annihilation, misogynist, collusion, bombastic, systemic, alleged etc.)
  • teach morphology – common word patterns; high utility roots & affixes
  • pre-teach – complex, content- specific vocabulary, terms and phrases; create subject specific word walls.
  • talk to students as though they’re grad-students – avoid using simple language in daily interactions with your students; make an effort to use complex vocabulary


  • model fluent reading – particularly of complex content. The reader listens to a text read fluently (preferably audio book or ebook with a professional reader) while following along with their own copy of the text.
  • provide opportunities for repeated reading/ rehearsal/ performance – poetry, plays, reader’s theatre, choir, lyrics and students’ own writing

Black teen.JPG

Alamy Royalty free image.


  • provide opportunities for students to talk about what they are reading with other students, or respond to the reading through meaningful assignments such as art, sketchnotes, music, drama, poety, spoken word,  comics, video, etc.
  • use mentor texts -model deconstruction of mentor texts and teach students strategies for understanding complex text (see LSDK)


  • wide reading – daily opportunities for uninterrupted independent reading of self-selected texts and also classroom texts.

Many Secondary teachers have expressed their frustration when teaching students who have significant reading challenges. They feel ill-equipped to support students with reading deficits, while also teaching credit courses. Teachers also have a tendency to suspend the teaching of complex content and critical thinking skills and may feel obliged to teach basic literacy skills; this is a critical error which compounds the problem: Remediation for struggling readers often squeezes out content-area reading and learning, thus giving these students fewer opportunities to learn advanced literacy skills in other academic subjects (Greenleaf et al., 2011; Haycock, 2001). If our adolescents are to meet 21st century expectations for reading, all students must have opportunities to learn specialized reading habits and skills. In short, struggling readers who need basic skills instruction should receive it plus instruction in adolescent literacy (Biancarosa 2012).

Reading challenges cannot be ignored. According to Biancarosa: Without explicit instruction in how to cope with the evolving complexity of texts, too many adolescents fall behind in their reading development and their ability to learn from texts suffers. If reading continues to decline at the current rate, then it is likely that the number of students with reading deficits will continue to increase. If these deficits are not addressed, they will plague students throughout their academic lives and beyond.

*Research Describing Struggling Readers


Over the past two decades, researchers have explored
the nature of students who struggle in reading, using
the framework of the NRP. Valencia and Buly (2004;
Buly & Valencia, 2002) studied 108 fourth-grade students
who had scored at the “below proficiency” level
in reading according to the test thresholds of the
state in which they reside. The students were given
a variety of reading and language assessments to determine
relative strengths and weaknesses in their
reading and language processing. The authors were
able to categorize students by their performance and
found that only about 18% of “below proficiency”
readers exhibited reasonably good levels of word
identification and fluency (word recognition automaticity).
The remaining 82% of “below proficiency”
students manifested difficulty in word identification
and/or reading fluency (Razinski 2017).


TDSS teachers, please contact me if you would like to receive full text of these articles.

  • Biancarosa, Gina. “Adolescent Literacy: More Than Remediation.”      Educational Leadership, vol. 69, no. 6, Mar. 2012, pp. 22-27.
  • Bourque, Paula. “Building Stamina for Struggling Readers and Writers.” Educational Leadership, vol. 74, no. 5. Feb. 2017.
  • Rasinski, Timothy V. “Readers Who Struggle: Why Many Struggle and a Modest Proposal for Improving Their Reading.” Reading Teacher, vol. 70, no. 5, Mar/Apr2017, pp. 519-524. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/trtr.1533.
  • Rasinski, Timothy V.  “is Reading Fluency a Key for Successful High School Reading?” Journal of  Adolescent and Adult Literacy. vol. 48, no. 1, Sept 2005.pp. 22-27.
  • Toste, Jessica R. et al. “Reading Big Words: Instructional Practices to
    Promote Multisyllabic Word Reading Fluency.” Intervention in School and Clinic 2017, Vol. 52(5) 270–278


Additional Resources:






Additional reading:

  1. How Kids’ and Teens’ Reading Rates are Falling, and What You Can Do to Help Kids Read More
  2. Why kids lose interest in reading as they get older
  3. Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?
  4. Sharp decline in children reading for pleasure, survey finds
  5. How can we stop the decline in kids reading for pleasure?  
  6. Study: The Number of Teens Reading for Fun Keeps Declining




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s