Accelerating the Literacy of Educationally Disadvantaged Students After the Third Grade


by Dr. Stanley Pogrow. Published in the California English Teacher April 2002

Dr. Pogrow is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Arizona where he specializes in school reform and the application of technology.  He is the developer of the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) specialized program for accelerating the learning of Title I and LD students in grades 4-8.  Information about the HOTS program can be obtained at or by contacting the author stanpogrow@worldnet.att,net). 


There was lots of brave rhetoric in the 90's about how "we know what works", and "every child can succeed at high levels", and lots of new reform efforts.  However, as the decade came to a close, learning gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged had rewidened and the reading scores of the disadvantaged had actually declined.  The problem is that reform efforts continue to be dominated by several misconceptions that are so prevalent as to be accepted truisms.  While there may be some truth to these truisms for advantaged students, they are devastating to the disadvantaged.

One false truism is that it is sufficient to get all students off to a good start.  Supposedly, if we can get all students reading on grade level by the third grade that will solve the major problems.  However, there is no evidence that getting disadvantaged students off to a good start translates into success later on. (Pogrow, 2000).  It only produces small benefits which do not translate into success for most students.  We continue to see the typical pattern of disadvantaged students leveling off in the third grade and then declining thereafter, and learning gaps continue to widen.. 


Another false truism is that the best way to increase test performance is to increase the time spent on skill development/test prep activities.  However, the law of diminishing returns sets in quickly.  Indeed, one of the most widely use schoolwide reform programs, Success for All, provided 90 minutes daily of uninterrupted reading time with the result that only in the first grade did student make relative gains and students arrived in the sixth grade reading the equivalent of four years below grade level.  (For a critique of Success for All, see Pogrow 2002b.)


Another false truism is that problems in language and literacy development are problems in language and literacy development.  It is probably true for the earliest grade levels where disadvantaged students arrive in school without much literacy experience or skills.  Indeed, disadvantaged students do indeed respond to skill development in language and literacy at the earliest grade levels.  Relative progress then stalls around the third grade. 


A related false truism is that if you want to develop the thinking skills of disadvantaged students this should be done within the teaching of content. However, trying to do so is fraught with so many frustrations that most teachers of the disadvantaged, even skilled and caring ones, either cut back on these efforts, overstructure the "thinking" activities, or abandon the effort.  Just the simple act of trying to get past the "student stare" when you ask an open-ended question of disadvantaged students is a daunting task.  For a better understanding of the difficulty that even "good" teachers face in trying to conduct thinking in content teaching with the disadvantaged, go to my recent article on the online Gazette (  In reality, the conclusion that thinking development should be done in content is based largely on research with science majors at the graduate and undergraduate levels.  This has little to do with the average third grade low income inner city student.  


In other words, it seems that neither skill or thinking development work consistently after the third grade.  What is going on?  Can the language and literacy development of disadvantaged students after the third grade be accelerated to the extent that learning gaps are reduced on a consistent basis?


The answer is 'Yes'-but it is not easy.  One of the few national programs that has been successful in accelerating the literacy development of disadvantaged students after the third grade is the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) program (  22 years of research with this program has shown that the fundamental learning block after the third grade is that the curriculum becomes more integrative and requires greater ability to deal with ideas in more sophisticated ways.  Disadvantaged students have the intellectual ability to engage in such forms of thinking at high levels, but generally are unable to do so because of a lack of experience in interacting with adults around ideas in the home.  Thinking is like a language.  All cultures do it differently.  Without thinking development experiences and opportunities, the types of thinking schools expect are not there. 


Thinking skills are developed via ongoing conversations about ideas with adults.  That is how kids learn the fundamentals of how adults react to their efforts at representing ideas.  Yet, research (Hart & Risley, 1995) shows that home conversation declines dramatically by income level, even among caring parents.  As a result, much of the relative decline in the performance of disadvantaged students after the third grade is that they have not automated the kinds of fundamental thinking processes that are required for dealing with curricular issues after the third grade. The earlier skill based learning strategies that the students acquired stop working.    Indeed, in post grade 3 disadvantaged students are falling behind in most things so the problem of student performance in literacy is not a function unique to that content area but reflects a more general problem-their inability to process ideas and abstractions.  Indeed, students ability to process ideas, or to even get a grasp on what that means, is so limited that I refer to them as "students who do not understand understanding".


Thus, failure to develop reading and literacy skills at a sufficiently rapid pace after the third grade is not a learning problem related to reading content, but reflects the greater issue of the absence of an intuitive and automated sense of how to understand and process ideas.  At the same time, trying to help by using the traditional thinking in content approach with students who do not understand understanding is the equivalent of teaching content in a foreign language that student do not know.  What is needed instead is an effective and efficient strategy to first develop a sense of understanding before trying to do extensive thinking in content activities. 


Before discussing how to develop a sense of understanding, however, it must be emphasized that content skills development/test prep is also important, but not as the sole intervention.  Rather, continuing to accelerate the literacy development of disadvantaged students after the third grade requires simultaneously implementing skill development/test prep along with developing a sense of understanding.  Rather than increasing time spent on skill development/test prep, schools need to do a better job during the regular allocated time by increasing alignment and the quality and efficiency of instruction.  


Then additional time has to be made available to develop a sense of understanding.  How is this done?  This requires a program of specialized and intensive cognitive development for 1-2 years that engages students in sophisticated forms of conversation.  It is not critical to link the thinking activities to test content.  It is only critical that the intervention promote extensive student verbalization of increasingly complex and integrated ideas as part of thinking conversations.  Nor are occasional verbalizations sufficient to make up for the huge conversation deficit these students have.  Creating sufficient experience with verbal interactions to develop a sense of understanding requires an intensive and sustained intervention in relatively small groups of no more than 10-15 students.  Devoting sufficient supplemental time to general thinking activities not only increases the likelihood that disadvantaged students' gains in skill development will transfer across tests, but it also maximizes the performance of disadvantaged students on the primary test used for accountability.


The HOTS approach to developing a sense of understanding combines the use of Socratic dialogue and technology brought together by a curriculum based on principles of cognitive psychology and dramatic techniques, and intensive teacher training.  Rather than emphasizing thinking development theory, the teacher training is highly experiential.  Teachers learn new reflexes for talking and listening to students by teaching HOTS lessons to other teachers in the workshop who play the role of students.  Feedback from their "students" first makes teachers aware of their bad habits which provides the reality check that provides the foundation for becoming masterful Socratic dialoguers.  The curriculum is designed from the ground up to support interesting Socratic conversations and stimulate student interest.  (If students are not interested in the problems all the theory in the world will not develop their thinking ability as they will not invest thinking energy.)


The result is a highly creative and visual learning environment.  However, the technology is not used as a tool or to teach anything in particular.  Rather the computer serves as a metaphor for the types of binding life experiences that are the subject of family dinner table conversations.  That is, the computer provides a setting of common interest around which the classroom family bases conversations about ideas, plans and hopes for being successful in a desired activity, much as a family uses life experiences as a basis for having discussions around the dinner table (or wherever they occur these days).  It is the social event of these discussions and interactions that enables students to develop a sense of how to interact with and shape ideas-not the computer activity itself.  As the HOTS curriculum proceeds the degree of textual information that must be comprehended and analyzed on the computer and related texts (e.g., almanac, novel) to form needed ideas and strategies for being successful at the computer activities increases.  The most critical element in students' development is how the teacher probes their initial ideas and responses with follow-up questions .


As importantly, the conversations are designed to develop the key thinking skills that underlie all learning: Metacognition, generalization, inference from context, and information synthesis.  Generalization is done by organizing the curriculum around key linkage concepts that keep reappearing across more than 25 software environments, with discussions as to how the current use of the concept is the same or different as when last used.  For example, students analyze the similarities and differences of the traits of Bibbits & Gribbits, imaginary creatures, which leads them to do the same for identifying whales and characters in novels, which also leads them to do humor writing, i.e., the use of inconsistent traits.  


The bottom line is that developing a sense of understanding requires a sophisticated curriculum combined with teachers trained to probe student answers and ideas for understanding.  Most of all it requires talented teachers.


Research with the HOTS program indicates that it takes 1-2 years of about 40 minutes of such daily discussion activities in groups of 10-13 students to develop a sense of understanding.  In addition, close to 80% of Title I students and most Learning Disabled students benefit from such an approach.  There are simple tests to determine which students are most likely to benefit.  In addition, while highly mobile students will not benefit from such a specialized service, most high poverty schools have a large core of relatively stable students who will benefit.  (For a more detailed discussion of research findings around the use of the HOTS learning environment, see Pogrow 1995.)  in addition, the use of this type of concentrated specialized service can and should be supplemented by the use of basic questioning techniques throughout the curriculum, and used by all teachers to create a community of reflection.


Increasing student' skill base in combination with developing a sense of understanding insures that acquired skills are used in a more integrative and flexible fashion, and also accelerates the acquisition of skills.  HOTS research has shown that the dual approach generates 3 times the gains in reading comprehension as compared to a sole focus on skill development.  Close to 15% of HOTS students make honor role within one year.  Our most recent research (Darmer,1995) has shown that HOTS students make substantial simultaneous progress on 16 different measures of academic and cognitive development while comparison students decline.  This growth ranges from traditional measures such as reading test scores and GPA, to non-traditional measures of metacognition, writing, and transfer to novel problem solving.  This suggests that developing a sense of understanding transfers simultaneously to a wide variety of gains, including test scores, as the innate ability of students is unleashed and they are able to benefit subsequently from thinking-in-content activities the same as anyone else.


Current reforms and instincts for helping the disadvantaged are wasteful and counterproductive.  There is a more effective approach available for accelerating the literacy development of disadvantaged students after the third grade.   I have outlined the beginnings of a more precise theory of how to accelerate the learning of disadvantaged students after the third grade.  It involves a more sophisticated and specialized approach to literacy development that depends on the proper sequencing and integration of: a) skills and thinking development, and b) general thinking and thinking in content development.  


If we are willing to: a) let go of long held beliefs and instincts, b) stop trying to beat each other up in reading wars, c) focus on learning from each other, and d) see problems in language and literacy development in a broader context-we can dramatically improve the performance of disadvantaged students after the third grade and reduce learning gaps.  The key is to develop a separate strategy for disadvantaged students (as compared to advantaged) and specifically for the post grade three period.  The strategy needs to have separate interventions to develop specific reading skills and another that develops a general sense of understanding.   Developing a sense of understanding is not easy, but it is doable for the majority of disadvantaged students.  Most importantly, there is nothing else that comes close to not only accelerating the academic development of disadvantaged students, but that also develops their social confidence, .  If we finally get reform right we can do so much better for our disadvantaged students.




Darmer, M.  Developing Transfer and Metacognition in Educationally Disadvantaged Students:  Effects of the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) Program. Unpublished dissertation, University of Arizona, 1995.


Hart, B. & Risley, T.  Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young Children.  Paul Brookes, 1995.


Pogrow, S.  "Systematically Using Powerful Learning Environments to Accelerate the Learning of Disadvantaged Students in Grades 4-8."  In Instructional design Theories and Models Vol. II: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. Charles reigluth (ed) Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999, pp. 319-340.


Pogrow, S.  "Beyond the 'Good Start' Mentality." Education Week, April 19, 2000, pp. 44.


Pogrow, S.  Avoiding the Stares When Intellectually Challenging Disadvantaged Students: Lessons from the HOTS Programs, Gazette,, January 2002a.


Pogrow, S.  "Success for All is a Failure."  Phi Delta Kappan. February 2002b, pp. 463-468.

back to top