Picture books can help with fourth grade slump

(Adapted from “Picture Books Across the Curriculum: Meeting the Challenges of Intermediate-Grade Learners”  Dragon Lode, 33 (1), Fall 2014, 46-62.)

In this blog, and in more to come, specific lesson ideas are provided for using content picture books in the intermediate grades.  In her research, Jeanne Chall (1983) first drew attention to the fourth grade slump. “It is at this age that decoding skills are expected to be largely in place and it is at this age when these young children are increasingly expected to read and learn from expository texts” (McNamara, Ozuru, & Floyd, 2011, p. 246). As new content, complex vocabulary, critical reading, and various genres of writing are demanded of them, many students are struggling (Sanacore & Palumbo, 2009). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2013), nearly 60% of fourth grade readers are below basic skills in reading. Unless addressed, these deficiencies are compounded as students reach the intermediate grades. The problem, claims literacy expert Dorothy Strickland, is that “the emphasis on reading comprehension with respect to content has been neglected” (quoted in de León, 2002, unpaged). So, teaching content in engaging ways with materials that are readable for students of intermediate grades is critical.

The vocabulary intermediate students read and write is an important factor in comprehension during content studies. Swanborn and de Glopper’s (1999) meta-analysis of 20 studies that examine incidental word learning, suggests that students will only “learn about 15% of the unknown words they encounter” (p. 261) when reading. Balance that with the claims that intermediate students need to be learning 20 new words each day (Graves, 2006), and it becomes clear that students must read widely. Raising the percentage of words students learn will require them to read beyond textbooks. Teachers must discuss word meanings, use them in context, and encourage students to explore them further in their reading and writing. Trade books can be the ideal place to expand exposure to important vocabulary.

We start with Science.

While the month of April has “Earth Day,” we need to think year round about recycling and the garbage each person adds to landfills. Did you know each person makes about four pounds of trash per day? What happens to all that garbage? Our local landfills must deal with it, but some cities are running out of room!

Burying garbage was no longer legal in Islip, New York, so some businessmen struck a deal to send it to North Carolina. The Garbage Barge by Jonah Winter (2010) tells the tale of how Islip tried to send 3168 tons of garbage to another city. However, when Cap’m Duffy St. Pierre sailed the Break of Dawn into the harbor of Morehead City, North Carolina he is promptly turned away by the police. And so the 162-day saga began – sailing to New Orleans, Telchac Puerto (Mexico), Belize, Houston, Florida, and back to New York. Based on the true story of a garbage barge that could not find a place to unload, students are sure to be intrigued by the dilemma Cap’m Duffy faced. The “hand built” (p. 2) illustrations are unusual and eye-catching.

Show students the illustration at the opening of the book of Break of Dawn leaving the harbor. What do they see that could have been recycled? Which items might have been reused, rather than sent to the dump? Have students investigate how trash is handled in your town or city (many local garbage/trash companies have websites with educational resources). Do homes in your area separate recyclables from other trash?

Have students bring in two plastic bags. In one, place the recyclable items, in the other, place items that cannot be recycled. At the end of the day weigh both bags. How much weight did recycling save? Could there be alternatives to the items that ended up in the trash (for example, a banana peel is not recyclable, but could go in a compost pile). Extend this activity by having the students wash recyclable items and create illustrations similar to those in the book.

Connect the book to other content areas, such as Social Studies (mapping), Mathematics (charting the weight of the recycled trash versus non-recycled trash), and Language Arts (Readers Theater..there’s lots of good dialogue in the book).

Here is a suggested text set to expand the lesson.  These books connect to the topic, but also add other genres and level of reading difficulty.

Greenwald, S. (2010). Watch out, world – – Rosy Cole is going green. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Students will identify with Rosy’s trials and tribulations about a class project on saving energy. Detailed information is given about how to create a compost at the end of the book. (Fiction, Picture Book)

Latham, D. (2011). Garbage: Investigate what happens when you throw it out with 25 Projects. Illus. B. Hetland. White River Junction, VT: Nomad Press. Science projects abound in this guide. Questions discussed in Garbage Barge (Winter, 2010) can be explored with these 25 projects. (Nonfiction)

Miller, C. C. (2008). Garbage, waste, dumps, and you: The disgusting story behind what we leave behind. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press. This book explains what happens when garbage leaves our homes. The facts are sure to jump-start lots of discussion. (Nonfiction)

Torrey, M. (2009). The case of the gasping garbage (Doyle and Fossey, science detectives). Illus. B. J. Newman. New York: Sterling. What is gurgling in the family’s trashcan? This mystery is solved with science and fun. (Fiction, Picture Book)


Fresch, M.J. & Harkins, P. (2009). The Power of Picture Books: Using Content Area Literature in Middle School. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Winter, J. (2010). Here Comes the Garbage Barge! Illus. Red Nose Studio. New York, NY: Random House/Schwartz & Wade Books.