Schools Fight Fourth-Grade Reading Slump; Duval County Tries New Strategies to Lift Student Comprehension Skills

Article excerpt

Byline: Laura Diamond, Times-Union staff writer

A.J. Tablada enjoys reading -- most of the time.

The Duval County fourth-grader doesn't like it when authors jump between the past and present. When that happens, he closes the book and pushes it away. A.J. says it makes it too hard to keep track of when the action took place.

"It makes me angry, because I just don't understand what is going on," the Kernan Trail Elementary School student said.

A.J.'s situation isn't unique. Educators are finding many students struggle with reading once they enter fourth grade and encounter more complex material.

The most problematic area is reading comprehension, the ability to understand the text and relate it to what one already knows. If not addressed, the problem will worsen as students get older and jeopardize their chance for success in school and life.

It has a name -- fourth-grade slump -- and researchers estimate it affects 40 percent of all 9-year-olds, meaning they lack basic reading skills.

What it doesn't have is a clear solution, despite sometimes-serious consequences.

Students who can't comprehend won't be able to learn material from their math, science and social studies textbooks. Students who can't comprehend will fail the reading section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, an exam they must pass to receive a high school diploma.

Teachers fear students with weak reading comprehension skills won't become proficient readers as adults. Adults need this skill to hold a job, participate in the democratic process, and aid in their own child's education.

Duval County schools Superintendent John Fryer has called reading comprehension the foundation for success in school. But many students lack the skills. On last year's FCAT, only three in 10 in Duval County high school students passed the reading section.

"We have a reading crisis in Duval County," Fryer said. "If we want these students to be productive members of society, we must find a way to improve their comprehension skills."

The problem started before Fryer came to Duval County five years ago. Much of the problem is attributed to poor teaching strategies and students being moved to the next grade level before mastering expected skills.

For many years, educators believed it was the responsibility of first- and second-grade teachers to teach reading. If students didn't learn the skill then, schools just surrounded them with literature, hoping that naturally would make them good readers.

Moving away from this concept, Fryer introduced programs to improve comprehension. One important skill is fluency, the ability to read fast and accurately. To accomplish this, Fryer challenges all students to read at least 25 books a year. Few students reach this goal, but teachers say most children are reading more, which has improved fluency.

The school system also has spent the past four years training all teachers on reading strategies.

"Look at our test scores and you will see improvement, especially in the elementary schools," Fryer said. "Still, this is not a problem unique to us. I don't have all the answers yet, and neither does anyone else."

Tracing the problem's roots to fourth-grade, Duval County is emphasizing elementary schools.

Teacher Gail Wiggins taught A.J. and his classmates to understand a story by thinking about elements -- things such as character, conflict, plot and the passage of time. She explained that in some books the story occurs chronologically, while in others the author will jump between the present, past and future.

Wiggins told students to mark their books with sticky notes whenever an author mentions a passage of time.

The pages in A.J.'s books were covered with a rainbow of sticky notes. A.J. noticed that, in one case, the author jumped 13 days in just two pages; while spending an entire chapter on one day. …