Now we know more about children who get off to a good start in learning to read but begin to fall behind in later grades

Described as the “fourth-grade slump” by a researcher in 1983, there is relatively little known about those children who start out as apparently adequate or good readers, but begin to struggle in later grades.

Now, in one of the largest and most extensive studies on the problem to date, Hugh Catts and his colleagues have found that more school-aged children than previously thought — 13 percent—have late-emerging reading problems, that these problems usually appear between the second and fourth grades—and persist thereafter.

Nearly half of the late-emerging poor readers had a history of language impairments in kindergarten, but language problems alone were not sufficient to identify which children would experience a fourth-grade slump, said Catts.

The study followed 493 children from kindergarten through tenth grade. The children were classified as good or poor readers on the basis of word reading or reading comprehension scores at second, fourth, eighth and tenth grades. Four reading classes were identified at each grade: good readers, poor readers with deficits in word reading, poor readers with deficits in comprehension or poor readers with deficits in both areas.

They then analyzed whether children stayed in the same class or changed classes over time. They found that about 32 percent of the children had reading problems at some point across grades. The majority of these children had difficulties in second grade that persisted across grades. But approximately 13 percent had late- emerging reading problems.

Catts and colleagues have begun a new longitudinal study designed to determine which factors can predict reading disabilities—including late-emerging reading problems.

“Until more is known,” Catts said, “educators need to be aware of this group of children and be prepared to assist children who initially appear to be reading well but begin to encounter difficulties.”

Funding: National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

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