Study: Fourth-grade reading shift theory disproved

By admin
14 August 2014

A recent study by a Dartmouth College professor in the USA shows young children don’t fully develop automatic word-processing skills until after Grade 5, which contradicts the fourth-grade reading shift theory.

In previous years it was thought children could automatically distinguish between real words and meaningless ones by the time they were in Grade 4. This phenomenon is known as the fourth-grade shift theory, which is why teachers are trained to focus on teaching children to read at around this time. Because it’s thought they’ll be able to tell the difference between letters strung together that make a word and meaningless letters next to each other.

Automatic word processing is the brain’s ability to determine whether a group of symbols constitutes a word within milliseconds, without the brain’s owner realising the process is taking place.

A recent study conducted by Donna Coch, associate professor of education at Dartmouth College in the US, shows children process meaningless words in the same manner as they do real ones. So children automatically pick up words regardless of meaning. Professor Coch tested a group of Grade 3, 4 and 5 students as well as university students and found the children in the lower grades could tell which words were real or not in a written test but when tested on how their brains reacted on seeing the words, the results showed their brains didn’t show a change when processing the meaningless letters. It was only when it came to the varsity students that the recordings changed and it showed they recorded meaningless letters and words differently.

This experiment proved young children use more time and energy processing meaningless words in the hopes they might prove to be real words later. This study also proves young children don’t fully develop automatic word-processing skills until after Grade 5, which contradicts the fourth-grade reading shift theory.

So teachers should still be teaching their students how to read even in Grade 5 and a child who’s not fully grasped the skill of reading isn’t “slow”, their brain is still learning to read.

-Londiwe Dlomo

Sources: eurekalert.org, time.com, npr.org

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