WASHINGTON -- Lia Carfagno thumbed through her history textbook seeking facts about Abraham Lincoln while telling her research partner about his assassination: "He was watching a movie."
"He was watching a play," Jessica Saleck countered as the 9-year-old girls labored over a "road map" they were creating -- with pictures and text -- to show the causes of the Civil War in Bruce Blakeney's fourth-grade class at Loudoun County, Va.'s Evergreen Mill Elementary School.
Lia noted that when Lincoln was elected president, the South saw him as a threat to slavery. "No, not the South," Jessica said, prompting Lia to explain why it was, in fact, the South.
Finally, Jessica started writing: "Aberham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Lincoln was against the spread of slavery into the Western territories." She stopped and said, "We need to put it in our words. This is from the book. We have to think about this."
Think they did as they used the analytical and independent research skills demanded in fourth grade, when pupils are no longer learning basics but expected to apply them and think critically, said Blakeney and colleague Katie Wilson. Fourth-graders have left behind the primary years and entered an intermediate stage seen as a transition to middle school.
"It's the time when students start to read to learn rather than learn to read," said Nancy Moga, principal of Callaghan Elementary School in Covington, Va.
Third to fourth grade
It is distinct from third grade, when "you get to have more fun," said Laura Collins, Evergreen Mill's lead fourth-grade teacher. And, she added, the year prepares pupils for the more structured fifth grade. Required reading is more complicated in fourth grade, with pupils encountering words not used in everyday conversation, and tests are harder, too.
A hallmark of the grade is that pupils are taught to start asking why things happen. Aberfare Abdirizak said that he had learned some facts about the Civil War before but that now his class was learning what caused it.
Fourth-graders often get letter grades for the first time, and they do more homework. At Evergreen Mill, pupils can get an hour's worth a night -- up from 30 minutes in third grade -- and, said Danielle Scoggin, "it's harder."
Teachers say their charges start to change socially and physically, as hormones begin to awaken, said Collins, who also has taught third and fifth grades.
"Yeah, I argue with my parents more," Carter Brown said.
"Sometimes I sort of have an attitude," said Kelsy Duncan, 10. "But my brother has a big one. He's 12."
"I feel more grown up," said Valeria Zevallos.
Difficult for some pupils
But as pupils are asked to raise the level of their work, many who have not developed an age-appropriate vocabulary run into problems, educators say. Many are poor and early on did not have enough opportunities to experience language in different forms, they say.
After studies began to show that test scores for many lower-income pupils dropped in fourth grade -- when children are asked to comprehend longer reading passages -- a name was given to the trend: the fourth-grade reading slump.
The strongest decline was in word meaning, with low-income fourth-graders in a key study found to be about a year behind grade norms, reading researchers Jeanne Chall and Vicki Jacobs wrote in 2003 in American Education magazine.
Few schools try to address the problem, educators say and some teachers say they don't see it in their classrooms. But there are strategies to tackle it, said Sadia White, principal of Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C., including having fourth-grade teachers reinforce basic reading skills. She also said book clubs for children are valuable.