Conquering the ‘Fourth Grade Slump’

Conquering the ‘Fourth Grade Slump’

According to a new report released by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), only 82% of year 10 students reached the international baseline level for reading in 2015, compared with 86% of students in 2006.

However, reports also show that many primary school students are struggling to read and write at a proficient level. 

In her role as Academic Leader: Curriculum, Katharyn Cullen is driving innovative and leading-edge teaching practice in Seymour College’s Junior School.

Cullen says that to effectively change students’ literacy results in Australia, a paradigm shift has to be made in Junior Primary education.

“That is, an approach must be implemented that is scientifically accurate, built on excellent pedagogical practice, caters for an individual’s learning style and survives the tests of critical thinking and sustainability,” Cullen told The Educator.

Cullen’s focus is on facilitating active learning and driving student engagement by catering to a diverse range of learners in creative and divergent ways.

“I believe in ‘flipping’ Blooms Taxonomy and putting emphasis on the higher order thinking skills of creating, evaluating, applying and analysing. This underpins my approach to literacy,” she said.

An example of this, says Cullen, is “using disruptive technologies in innovative ways”.

“In Year 4, students were studying the novel Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr. As they read the novel, students built Nim’s Island in 3D gathering and using raw materials, much like Nim in the text. This was a great way to assess their inferential comprehension,” she explained.

“Furthermore, rich vocabulary, which the students were exposed to throughout the novel, was taught explicitly, through the use of word webs and within a context.”

Getting students excited about English

Cullen said students are to be taught spelling by their teachers at school, not sent home with a ‘word list’ or ‘word sort’ to rote learn independently.

“I am dedicated to getting students excited about the English language and so, who better to study than Roald Dahl? The BFG is a wonderful example of an author playing with the English language,” she said.

“Roald Dahl is successful because of this wordplay and, by using The BFG as a springboard, teachers can have rich conversations around word structure and linguistics.”

Seymour College’s Junior School students have used the app ‘HP reveal’ to trigger ‘auras’ based on the ‘gobblefunk’ their peers encounter in the text. The app allows students to create augmented reality experiences for others, all based on their own ability to unpack the English Language.

As one 10-year-old student noted: “Everyone thinks that David Walliams is the Roald Dahl of our time, but I don’t think he has quite the same understanding of linguistics.”

Conquering the ‘Fourth Grade Slump’

Cullen has also recently developed a series of videos to flip the classroom and add additional support to the Junior School’s EAL students at home.

The series is called, ‘The Linguistic Lens’ and can be used by teachers in the classroom to introduce their lessons, or by parents, to revise (or extend) their child’s understanding of English orthography, phonology and morphology.

“Research supports direct, explicit instruction and so I aim to improve teachers’ knowledge of language and linguistics by modelling best practice across the school,” she said.

“As a result of this, teachers have confidence in their own knowledge of linguistics and can adequately teach higher order thinking about language and vocabulary.”

Cullen said it is critical to teach students about the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology from their early years of schooling.

“Teachers can do this by approaching literacy instruction through a linguistic lens. Students thrive when taught to ‘study’ words, seeing them as pieces in a puzzle,” she said.

“I also believe that to conquer the universally acknowledged ‘Fourth Grade Slump’, students need to be taught reading, spelling and the craft of writing, explicitly. Many students are taught to decode well in the younger years, but then in upper primary, reading isn’t taught explicitly.”

Cullen said there seems to be an “instructional paradox” in schools, as texts become more complex, instructional support becomes less frequent.

“A critical part of my role is collaborating with teachers to design lessons which allow for high-impact teaching,” she said.

“Furthermore, my wish is that all students understand and are able to articulate the ‘why’ behind the spelling errors they make. An effective way to do this is by using the International Phonetic Alphabet as a tool in the classroom. We should not be handing over the teaching of reading and spelling to programs.”

‘A systematic and sustainable approach to learning’

Cullen sees a “systematic bias” towards phonological instruction in Australia, which she said is a part of the broader problem.

“Phonemic awareness is an undisputed predictor of early literacy success and we know that it is the ability to hear, articulate and manipulate the 44 sounds in the English language,” she said.

“However, students need to be given tools to identify the various spelling choices that can represent those sounds in a systematic and sustainable approach to learning.”

Cullen believes the introduction of the 44 phonemes of English should not be taught in a “contrived continuum of linear learning”.

“They should be taught in an authentic and meaningful context. Too many students’ written work fails to correlate with their oral language,” she said.

“Teachers need to be equipped with the knowledge of language and linguistics so that they can allow all students to reach their potential.”

Cullen said this can only happen through the interrelation of phonology, morphology, etymology and orthography.

“Unfortunately, as Dr Peter Bowers writes, ‘few researchers or educators have deep experience with instruction and the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology, especially in the younger years. That lack of experience makes it difficult for many to imagine what such instruction even looks like in the early years’,” she said.

“I have seen this kind of instruction every day, for the last seven years and I can confidently say, when we raise our expectations of our learners, they have the freedom to flourish and reach their potential.”