"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."
New York, July 21 - Teachers often think that fourth grade is when students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. Not any more.

After analysing brain waves, a new study has found that fourth-graders do not experience a change in automatic word processing -- a crucial component of the reading shift theory.

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 realising the process is taking place.

It means that teachers at all levels of elementary school must think of themselves as reading instructors, said Donna Coch, an associate professor of education at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

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, Coch, also a principal investigator for Dartmouth's reading brains lab, explained.

To test how automatic word processing develops, Coch placed electrode caps on the heads of third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders as well as college students.

She had them view a screen that displayed a mix of real English words (such as bed), pseudo-words (such as bema), strings of letters (such as mbe), and strings of meaningless symbols one at a time.

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.

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 study appeared in the journal Developmental Science.


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