Brain waves show learning to read does not end in 4th grade, contrary to popular theory

July 21, 2014, Dartmouth College
Credit: Marina Shemesh/public domain

Teachers-in-training have long been taught that fourth grade is when students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. But a new Dartmouth study in the journal Developmental Science tested the theory by analyzing brain waves and found that fourth-graders do not experience a change in automatic word processing, a crucial component of the reading shift theory. Instead, some types of word processing become automatic before fourth grade, while others don't switch until after fifth.

The findings mean that teachers at all levels of elementary school must think of themselves as reading instructors, said the study's author, Associate Professor of Education Donna Coch.

"Until now, we lacked neurological evidence about the supposed fourth-grade shift," said Coch, also principal investigator for Dartmouth's Reading Brains Lab. "The theory developed from behavioral evidence, and as a result of it, some teachers in fifth and sixth grade have not thought of themselves as reading instructors. Now we can see from brain waves that students in those grades are still learning to process words automatically; their neurological reading system is not yet adult-like."

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 realizing the process is taking place.

To test how automatic word processing develops, Coch placed electrode caps on the heads of third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, as well as . She had her test subjects view a screen that displayed a mix of real English words (such as "bed"), pseudo-words (such as "bem"), strings of letters (such as "mbe"), and strings of meaningless symbols one at a time. The setup allowed her to see how the subjects' brains reacted to each kind of stimulus within milliseconds. In other words, she could watch their automatic word processing.

Next, Coch gave the participants a written test, in which they were asked to circle the real words in a list that also contained pseudo-words, strings of letters, and strings of meaningless symbols. This task was designed to test the participants' conscious word processing, a much slower procedure.

Interestingly, most of the 96 participants got a nearly perfect score on the written test, showing that their conscious brains knew the difference between words and non-words.

However, the electrode cap revealed that only the college students processed meaningless symbols differently than real words. The third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders' brains reacted to the meaningless symbols the same way they reacted to common English words.

"This tells us that, at least through the fifth grade, even children who read well are letting stimuli into the neural word processing system that more mature readers do not," Coch said. "Their brains are processing strings of meaningless symbols as if they were words, perhaps in case they turn out to be real letters. In contrast, by college, students have learned not to process strings of meaningless symbols as words, saving their brains precious time and energy."

The phenomenon is evidence that young readers do not fully develop automatic word processing skills until after fifth grade, which contradicts the fourth-grade reading shift theory.

The also showed that the third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders processed real , psuedowords, and letter strings similarly to college students, suggesting that some automatic begins before the fourth grade, and even before the third grade, also contradicting the reading shift theory.

"There is value to the theory of the fourth grade shift in that it highlights how reading skills and abilities develop at different times," Coch said. "But the neural data suggest that teachers should not expect their fourth-graders, or even their fifth-graders, to be completely automatic, adult-like readers."

Explore further: Hear Jane read: Researcher gives new meaning to semantics

Related Stories

Hear Jane read: Researcher gives new meaning to semantics

July 15, 2014
For years a key way of diagnosing dyslexia has been how well a person reads aloud. Similarly, the reading skills of adult readers also have been assessed by having them read words aloud. "The idea is that the more you read ...

Brain's involvement in processing depends on language's graphic symbols

March 21, 2012
Readers whose mother tongue is Arabic have more challenges reading in Arabic than native Hebrew or English speakers have reading their native languages, because the two halves of the brain divide the labor differently when ...

Chinese-English bilinguals are 'automatic' translators

August 2, 2011
New research into how the bilingual brain processes two very different languages has revealed that bilinguals' native language directly influences their comprehension of their second language.

Understanding 'attention deficit' in dyslexics could help improve reading

July 3, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—A new study from researchers in our Department of Psychology has revealed that understanding attention deficits in adults with dyslexia may help develop new techniques for reading and writing.

Naming tests: A study on dyslexic versus average children

December 18, 2013
In an article by Zoccolotti, De Luca, Lami et al, published in Child Neuropsychology, Rapid Automized Naming (RAN) tests were conducted on 43 average children and 25 with developmental dyslexia. The task involved naming ...

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.