65 of 4th Graders are Below Proficiency Levels in Reading
Mar 01, 2022

65% of Students are Reading Below Grade Level

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Learning styles /
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Why are 65% of Students Falling Below Grade Level in Reading?

 According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2019, 31% of 4th graders tested at NAEP Basic, indicating only partial mastery of basic reading skills. Another 34% tested Below Basic. 26% tested NAEP Proficient and 9% tested at NAEP Advanced.

To sum, in 2019, 35% of children in the 4th grade possessed a solid mastery of reading. The remaining 65% of children were either lacking basic skills or were failing completely.

Notably, these scores are not outliers. We can see that reading scores have not varied much for the last four decades. In the chart below, yellow and orange identify children who are proficient in reading, while pink and purple identify children who are basic or below basic.

Testing for Reading Proficiency - 2019

Testing for Reading Proficiency 2019 Results

Significant Question: Who are the children in the 65% who are failing to achieve mastery?

Who are the Children Struggling with Reading?

If we have a crisis involving a significant majority of our children, it follows that we would want to learn more about them. Who are they? What are their obstacles to learning? 

Let's look at research on the brain and learning.

The chart just below shows the relationship between hemispheric dominance (left-brain dominant vs. right-brain dominant) as relates to the labels assigned to students. Labels include gifted and talented, "normal," remedial, high school redirect, and special education.

Seeing the data in graphic form is like a punch in the gut when you realize that there are specific reasons why certain students are excelling and others are failing. It is good to know where the problem lies, and the good news is that knowing the problem empowers us to take action to remedy the situation.

*Hemispheric Dominance Profiles & Educational Labeling

A Gestalt System of Teaching Reading

G - Gifted and talented: excel academically high SAT scores.

N - Normal: doing ok in regular classrooms.

R - Remedial: specific reading disabilities.

H - High school redirect: alternative high school.

X - Special education: emotionally handicapped,  learning disabilities, ADHD.

*Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. Neurophysiologist & Educator. Smart Moves, p. 183

Gestalt or right-brained processors focus on images, on the whole, on how details fit into the whole, on patterns, rhythm, emotion, and intuition. They see relationships between elements in the whole. The gestalt hemisphere begins rapid elaboration and rapid dendritic formation between the ages of 4-7. In essence, children ages 4-7 are developmentally right-brained learners.

Logic or left-brained processors focus on details, parts, processes and linear steps. They start with the pieces first. The logic hemisphere begins rapid development and rapid dendritic formation between ages 7-9. At this point in the development of the brain, about 35% of students become left-brained learners while the remaining 65% remain right-brain dominant processors.

For the 65% of children who are right-brain dominant processors, when we match our teaching approach to their wiring, learning is natural.

Right-Brained Processors and How They Learn

Again, let's consult brain science as we take a deeper dive into the way right-brained learners take in, process, and remember new information. Brain science informs us that children are *neurodiverse. They are wired in ways that range from far left (or fully auditory/sequential) to far right (or fully visual/spatial). The farther to the right on The Learning Spectrum, the more strongly visual and kinesthetic children are, and the harder they will find learning from a left-brained, sequential/auditory approach.

Learning Spectrum

*Neurodiversity speaks to the differences in how people take in, process, and remember new information. 

Rather than scrutinizing a child's wiring and comparing it to what we have always considered "smart," it would behoove us to spend that energy on making the necessary curriculum adjustments to enable right-brained children to thrive! If our neurodiverse children are taught effectively, the world will come to see their wiring difference as their strength!    

Significant question: If I have a right-brained child, how can I find out how they learn?

Right-Brained Learners are Visual & Kinesthetic Learners

The visual learner designation is an umbrella term for several kinds of learners. Within the group of visual children, are children with dyslexia, Down syndrome, autism, ADD and ADHD, children in Special Education, auditory processing disorder, and kinesthetic learners. In addition, English language learners benefit from a system that is heavily visual and kinesthetic.

What these children have in common is that they need images and movement in order to learn.

There is a misconception regarding what it means to be a visual learner. Sometimes “visual learning” is conflated with “learning from what one sees.” If that were the case, all sighted children would be visual learners, and, well, that is just not true.

Significant Question: What does it mean to be a visual learner?

Visual Learners are Picture-Thinkers

Visual learners actually THINK in pictures. They see vivid images of what they are thinking or hearing, often even creating elaborate mental videos. If they read successfully, they make mental images and videos in their heads of what they read on the page. Grandin T. (2009)

Two Visual Learners

Visual learners take in information via images which they "snap and store" in visual memory. The more strongly visual they are, the more critical it becomes to provide visuals to ensure the reception of new information into visual memory. 

In the following situations, limited learning will result:

  • If visual learners hear spoken words and are unable to create mental images.
  • If they are working with abstract symbols (letters, numbers, words), and  can’t make a visual image of the meaning of those symbols.
  • If they are asked to pay attention, listen, study, review, repeat, memorize. Their brains are not wired to accommodate those demands.
  • When learning new material in school, if images are not utilized as a means of organizing the content they are learning.

Significant Question: What kind of system should we use if we want to reach all children on The Learning Spectrum?

To Successfully Teach Reading, We Must Embrace Brain Science

We all agree that the reason we teach reading is that we want all our children to become fluent readers. This is our north star as parents and educators.

We are blessed by having access to reliable, original research conducted by brilliant scholars in the field of the brain, learning, and its application to education. We need to identify the mismatch between what we know about how children learn and the systems we use to teach them. 

"...it is necessary to use both hemispheres of the brain to be maximally proficient at anything.

"Because both hemispheres are activated, cognitive function is heightened and ease of learning increases." Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. Smart Moves, p. 81

The traditional approach to teaching reading is a purely auditory/sequential system and it reaches only the 35% of children who are most strongly auditory/sequential, or left-brained dominant processors.

In this graphic, you can see on the left the three modalities which correspond to the primary types of memory: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. The children who are working too hard to learn are mostly visual and kinesthetic children who represent 65% of school aged children.

Modalities: Processing Styles: Testing for Reading Proficiency
Auditory Modality

I learn by hearing and speaking.

I like small steps in a sequence.

Most highly represented in gifted & talented & normal.
Visual Modality

I learn by seeing into images.

I snap and store images in visual memory.

Highest representation in special 
education & remedial.
Kinesthetic Modality

I learn through movement and hands-on work.

I store learning in visual & body memory

The percentage of children who master reading persists across the decades, but it is because they are able to process abstract symbols and learn via oral instruction, repetition, review, and memorization.

Significant Question: What does a scientific system for teaching reading look like?

A Sequential System of Teaching Reading vs a Gestalt System

The traditional approach to teaching reading, an approach that is widely considered to be THE right way to teach, is a sequential system of teaching reading which is perfectly matched to sequential students. This is what a sequential system of teaching reading looks like:

A Sequential System of Teaching Reading

Within this system, one begins with the smallest unit of study (the names of the letters) and progresses through several more steps in which more details are taught, until one reaches the whole word. This works just fine for 35% of children because this approach matches their wiring. Meanwhile, visual and kinesthetic children (right-brained learners) are getting lost in the detail because they can't answer "What is this for?" "What am I going to do with this?" "How can I relate these pieces to each other?" This is how we are losing our children.

A Gestalt System of Teaching Reading

A Gestalt System will work for both the 35% and the 65%, will contain the same critical elements of content and skills acquisition, but will be organized in such a way that visual and kinesthetic learners will be able to successfully receive content in a way they can use and remember. The gestalt approach begins with letter symbols and their sounds, then goes to teaching from a whole word base. For every word taught, these skills are taught simultaneously:

Highest frequency words form the foundation of a gestalt system

We teach the same content that traditional educators believe in, but we organize the material for gestalt learners. The result of using a gestalt system is that children will have the privilege of learning in ways that match their wiring, and there will be a sharp decline in the numbers of children who are lacking essential reading skills.

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