Word Recognition Instruction Beyond 3rd Grade

You know phonics instruction is critical in learning to read. Your district or school has a program that teaches phonics in grades K-3, and you recently shifted to decodable texts and spelling instruction that aligns with phonics instruction. Your Tier 2 intervention is also strongly rooted in phonics, phonemic awareness, decodable texts, and spelling. In K-3, you see great gains in skills also evidenced by movement from below benchmark to at or above benchmark for significant numbers of students. But that what? What is happening to your 4th and 5th grade readers and beyond? Why do they seem to struggle again with reading after all the progress made in the early grades?!

After 3rd Grade

There are many reasons for the “4th grade slump” and the widening achievement gaps we too often see in the intermediate and middle school grades. To consider those different reasons, let’s return to the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986).

The Simple View of Reading demonstrates that skilled reading comprehension is the product of two distinct factors, Word Recognition (fluently decoding the words on the page) and Language Comprehension (understanding the meaning of the words/sentences). The changing emphasis of instruction in the upper grades is intended to indicate a shift toward more instructional minutes with students actually reading and writing (focused on Language Comprehension) and less practice with Word Recognition (phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency). However, in practice, this too often becomes all Language Comprehension instruction and zero Word Recognition instruction, even though Word Recognition is not fully developed in K-3. And the lack of continued development may be one factor contributing to waning achievement in the upper grades.

Signs Your Students Need Word Recognition Instruction

So how do you know if Word Recognition (WR) is a factor affecting your upper grade outcomes?

Here are 4 key signs to look for:

    • You assess Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) in Gr. 4-6, and the data indicate >20% of your students are below benchmark in ORF Accuracy and Fluency (aka correct words per minute).
    • When you listen to students read, or analyze their errors on ORF assessments, you note they accurately decode single syllable words, but struggle with multi-syllable (see different, glaciers, narrow in the sample to the right) and multi-morpheme words (see Nearly, covered, trapped narrow in the sample to the right).
    • If you collect and analyze diagnostic data, like a spelling inventory, you see large numbers of students have not mastered advanced phonics and spelling patterns (see large numbers of students coded in red in column B; large numbers of errors in advanced phonics concepts like long vowels, diphthongs, and inflectional suffixes).
    • And most importantly, if teachers consistently report that many students in Gr. 4 and up cannot accurately and fluency decode their grade level ELA and content area texts.

    Ok, I think my students need more WR, now what?

    If you have large numbers of students not reading fluently at grade level, start with Tier 1. Here’s how to begin:

    1. Find time. Unlike the lower grades, upper grade Tier 1 WR instruction is brief. Try to carve out 10-15 min. a day, usually in ELA instruction.

    2. Focus on the highest impact strategies.

    Must Do’s:

    Multi-syllable Word Reading Protocol – If you do nothing else, teach an explicit multi-syllable word reading protocol like this one from the IES Guide Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9. Teaching an explicit protocol like this is the single most effective practice to support readers to effectively decode multi-syllable words (IES Guide Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9, 2022).

    Intentional Fluency Practice – Include intentional fluency practice at least 3x weekly. See IES Guide Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9 Recommendation 2 for specific practices.

    1. The first instruction example is to employ practices like choral reading and repeated reading of grade level text, so all students gain multiple repetitions with support.

      2. Another recommended practice is to use Partner Reading. PaTTAN has wonderful guidance for using Partner Reading as a class-wide intervention 5-10 min. a few times a week, with student pairings and texts selected very intentionally based on data. See PaTTAN- Classwide Reading Intervention (Grades 2 – 5) [Part 1] for more information in a tutorial video and links to handouts.

      Should Do’s:

      If you have already established multi-syllable word reading routines and fluency supports, next try to add the following practices.

      Morphology Instruction – Explicit, intentional instruction in common morphemes will improve both students’ abilities to fluently decode multi-morpheme words AND their understanding of the meanings of those words! Check out the free resources below.

      The Mississippi Department of Education developed a free, open source program to teach advanced word study and morphology Advanced Word Study (Hicks & Kilgore, 2020).

      Morphology Matters (Van Cleave, 2019) is another free, open source resource that emphasizes morpheme matrices in a systematic scope and sequence.

      Morpheme Matrices (Frank, 2018) is another free, open source resource that emphasizes morpheme matrices in a systematic scope and sequence.

      Mini Matrix-Maker is a website that allows teachers to easily create their own morpheme matrices.

      Summary and Next Steps

      Now that you have some ideas about WR instruction in the upper grades, here are your next steps:

      1. Analyze your data to determine your specific needs for WR in the upper grades.
      2. Schedule the time for WR instruction, just 10-15 min. daily within ELA and across content areas.
      3. Start with the most essential practice – an explicit multi-syllable word reading protocol. Use it across content areas in all Tier 1 instruction to teach students HOW to decode long words in any text.
      4. Next, add in fluency practices like those outlined above.
      5. Finally, plan for and implement a more comprehensive morphology program or materials like those outlined above.

      With more robust WR support beyond Gr. 3, you will see improved reading fluency and comprehension in Gr. 4 and beyond!

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