NAEP and the 4th Grade Fall Off

by Robert Pondiscio
April 7th, 2010

Dan Willingham sorts through NAEP data and points out that Chad Alderman is right that 4th grade reading scores look much better when the data are disaggregated by race.  But the bigger story is the lack of progress among all groups in 8th and 12th grade reading.  If 4th grade scores are improving, he asks, why are the gains evaporating just four years later?

“Fourth grade scores have been improving because we’ve gotten better at teaching kids how to decode–that is, how to translate letters into sounds. In the fourth grade some kids are good decoders and some are not, so differences in reading scores are largely differences in decoding.”

In the later grades, reading comprehension is largely a function of background knowledge, not as one NAEP board member said, that we’re not asking kids to read enough. “In fact, Americans are reading more text than they ever have before,” Willingham writes at the Wash Post’s Answer Sheet blog.  ”And kids in lower elementary already spend half their time on language arts, and less than ten percent of their time on social studies and science, combined.”  There’s the rub.

The belief that kids will be better readers if we simply get them to read more is rooted in the belief that reading comprehension is a transferable skill that, once mastered, applies to any text. That’s true of decoding, but not of comprehension.  What’s needed is a substantial knowledge base. Knowledge of the content they are likely to encounter when reading the sorts of materials we expect them to read confidently: newspapers, magazines, and serious books.

“Until we start paying more attention to content, expect flat reading scores,” Willingham concludes.

This is as good a time as any to remind those who haven’t seen it to check out Willingham’s YouTube video, Teaching Content is Teaching Reading, which has been viewed over 32,000 times.  I recommended it recently to a friend in California who is a first-year teacher.  She said she’d already seen it in her ed school classes. 

Slowly, slowly…


  1. I thought Dan Willingham’s article (and the brief statistical analysis included) were good–and important. We seldom get more than one-number, year-to-year, group-to-group comparisons, from which people jump to unsubstantiated conclusions. Dan helped enlarge the conversation considerably.

    I’m generally in favor of setting aside time in the secondary school day for reading. After all, absorbing knowledge, making meaning of text, is part of our mission as educators. Reading certainly offers more value than a lot of other activities, which we wouldn’t hesitate to spend time on.

    The value of a “drop everything and read” program is entirely dependent on the way it’s approached, however. If teachers just see it as 30 minutes where they can catch up on paperwork while the kids are quiet, and don’t encourage (or insist on) reading for content *or* reading literature for pleasure, then it becomes just another assignment, instead of a pleasurable and productive respite.

    I do believe teachers should model the joy of reading–don’t we all (the, umm, brain trust) think reading is a pleasurable experience? If not, we’re in deep trouble in trying to build an academic climate. We can help students select reading material that will be interesting and move them forward, without being overly critical of their choices. I brought in old Rolling Stone magazines for my HS band students’ silent reading time. They were in tatters after a month, and new infusions of music magazines and books were eagerly snatched up.

    BTW, I have been reading National Board portfolios for the past month. This year, I have over a dozen “Early/Middle Childhood Literacy” candidates. So I just read multiple analyses of how K-2 teachers and reading teachers teach comprehension. In every single entry, these teachers were bent on using both expository informational text and good literature to teach reading–love of reading, content knowledge building, making personal connections to text, using the knowledge gained in multiple forms of literacy (speaking, writing, as well as different reading genres).

    That experience, and Robert’s story, make me very hopeful.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — April 7, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

  2. AJ, There is a world of difference between being “forced” and being “encouraged”. Students should absolutely be “encouraged” to read as much complex literature as possible (The Far Side, while being quite funny, does not qualify.) Sometimes, it isn’t until a student is proficient at a task/activity that that task/activity becomes enjoyable. But shouldn’t teachers encourage the students to put in that effort to get them to that proficient place?

    Case in point, skiing wasn’t really fun for me until I could turn without falling. But as soon as I learned that skill, there was nothing that was more fun. Sometimes persistence matters. And reading for pleasure seems one of those tasks/activities that it might take a bit of effort to get to a place that is enjoyable/fun, but is more than worth the effort.

    Joy of reading is great. But sometimes sustained effort is needed to become proficient enough to truely enjoy reading. Also, there can be an immense retrospective joy in being able to master a difficult task/activity that should not be ignored.

    Reading for personal enjoyment develops a wide range of abilities, including vocabulary, grammar, background knowledge and implict knowledge in textual structures and character traits only present in narrative writing. Elements of language that are difficult to replicate in a formal educational setting.

    All that being said, reading “The Far Side” is not equivalent to reading “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Shouldn’t we be able to prioritize and differentiate the two texts?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — April 8, 2010 @ 2:19 am

  3. When I was in high school, I would have enjoyed this time. I loved to read, but I hated literary analysis (still do).
    Would it have made me a better reader, probably not.

    I was recently looking at the course catalog for an area high school. They now include nonfiction reading as the junior level LA course for advanced students. I wish this was an option for every student. I would rather see this as an improvement to high school LA than thirty minutes of free reading.

    Then again, I really hated literary analysis (AP Lit was the worst hour of my day).

    Comment by Genevieve — April 8, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  4. Forgive my narrow-mindedness on this issue but here goes: I read on average seven to eight hours a day, almost all of it non-fiction, informational. While I’m sure there are novels out there I would probably enjoy tremendously, for me it’s strictly a matter of preference and time management. I simply have too much I try to get to to have time for the other.

    Remember, I asked for your up front forgiveness.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 9, 2010 @ 8:12 am

  5. @Paul I’m with you, Brother Hoss. I used to read a steady diet of fiction, but now I’ve read exactly two novels in the last 15 years.

    @AJ, @Erin Forgive me speaking heresy, but everytime I hear teachers talk about a “lifelong love of reading” as a primary goal, I wonder why. I love reading as much as the next guy, but this raises reading to nearly a fetish. Do we concern ourselves with developing a lifelong love of math? Science? PE? There’s nothing intrinsically special about moving one’s eyes across a page. It’s a means to an end. The pleasure of reading comes from what it enables us to do, to experience, to learn. It seems axiomatic to me that at a certain level, without the ability to read and understand, education comes to a dead stop (there’s only so much rich information available to the non-reader). In sum, well-educated people are readers of necessity; poorly educated people will never be. Trying to convince kids to love reading so that they will become better educated is like trying to get someone to love the water so they’ll learn how to swim. Educate children well and they’ll discover the joy of reading all by themselves.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 9, 2010 @ 8:27 am

  6. @Robert, I concur. One of the perspectives that Prof. Hirsch has spoken about is the use of story in teaching. Everybody enjoys stories. I don’t think that we have to develop a “lifelong love of reading” because I think that enjoying good stories is something that already exists. And certainly if there are a few people out there that do not enjoy stories (haven’t met any but they could exist), forcing them to read seems grossly counterproductive.

    So what is the difference between going to a movie and reading a book? Certainly, if decoding skills are incomplete or understanding complex academic language/vocabulary is difficult, the movie is going to be tremendously more enjoyable than the book. I have been assuming that that term “lifelong love of reading” is more focused on enabling students to aquire the foundational abilities (decoding, complex academic language, background knowledge) that make it easy to read good books. Have you seen that term used in other contexts?

    Tapping into that love of storytelling can be quite useful in developing the complex academic language needed to be sucessful in school/college. There is tremendous amount of academic language (grammar, vocabulary, sentence complexity, implicit cultural ideas, etc.) that is only present in narrative texts. The bulk of what students learn about grammar, vocabulary and conditional/comparison logical sentence structures comes from reading narrative texts. So given their importance in understanding complex language, the use of stories in schooling is essential.

    Informational texts are exceptionally complex (by design) and so distant from conversational language that is can be challenging for students to learn those same concepts/ideas that are more easily learned in the context of story telling.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — April 9, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

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