Reading in Middle Childhood
Just as in language development, much of the foundation for reading has been laid prior to preschool, during preschool, and in the early elementary grades (K–3). Identifying letters and matching letters with individual sounds, knowing what a word is, and interpreting spaces and punctuation are the earliest building blocks for reading skills. By third grade, children engage in rapid word recognition (made easier by increased vocabularies) and are capable of self-monitoring their reading comprehension (Howes, 2003).
In the United States, fourth grade is considered a critical point in the elementary school experience. Grade 4 is the year in which the linguistic, cognitive, and conceptual demands of reading increase substantially. These greater demands emerge largely as a result of the increased reliance on textbooks as the main instructional tool. There are also greater expectations for independent reading and writing; more unfamiliar, specialized, and technical vocabulary; more complex syntax in textbooks; increased requirements for inferencing, or drawing conclusions from existing information; and using prior knowledge to “figure things out.” It is also the point at which children who had been previously successful begin to experience reading difficulties, perhaps because of these increased demands (Allington & Johnston, 2002). Fourth grade has been described as a transitional year in which reading shifts from learning to read to reading to learn (Chall, 1983; Ely, 1997).
For some children, their developing cognition prepares them to deal with increased demands on their intellectual competencies. For example, increases in selective attention and speed of processing, which occur with age and practice, allow for more rapid decoding and word recognition (Beers, 2003). These two processes are critical for the development of reading skills and comprehension.
Increases in short-term capacity allow for greater verbal memory. Increases in knowledge base, or available schemata, facilitate the use of old or familiar knowledge to make sense of new knowledge. For example, children who exhibit good reading comprehension skills display extensive background knowledge of the world, a wide vocabulary, and a familiarity with the semantic and syntactic structure of the English language (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Practice in strategy use comes in handy as children initially use conscious strategies to understand and use text, which then become more automatic (Burns, Griffin, & Snow, 1999). An increase in metacognitive skills is reflected in children’s increased awareness of what they know and don’t know, or what they comprehend or don’t comprehend, from their reading.
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