Are We Sure We Know How to Teach Reading?

As I pointed out last week, we know a fair amount about how students learn to read, but much less about how to deliver reading instruction. That’s an important distinction and has implications for how we think about fixing the problem.

To wit, Matt Barnum gets at this question in the middle of this Chalkbeat interview with Natalie Wexler about her new book, The Knowledge Gap. In full disclosure, I have not read Wexler’s book yet, but one portion of their conversation gets at the problem I highlighted above:

[Barnum] In your book you say, “There aren’t yet any reliable studies showing that [a coherent knowledge-rich] curriculum will outperform either a skills-focused curriculum or a content-focused one that lacks coherence,” but “it’s reasonable to assume that’s the case.” The fact that there aren’t any reliable studies about this seems like a really big caveat at the heart of your book.

[Wexler] There is evidence that focusing on content can boost kids’ reading comprehension scores. They’re not randomized controlled studies, but there is some evidence of that. What is harder to find evidence of is that you need a curriculum that builds logically from one grade to the next. And that’s hard to get because kids move around, especially in lower income levels, and there aren’t that many schools implementing that kind of a curriculum.

One that comes to mind — there’s a curriculum called Bookworms, and there was a study of a school district that implemented that curriculum. After just one year of implementation, schools implementing that curriculum did better than demographically similar schools in the districts that weren’t implementing that curriculum.

This is an important distinction. There’s a large and convincing body of evidence that students read better when they have content knowledge about the subject. It’s not enough to just teach students generic “reading skills,” because reading is context-dependent. Similarly, there’s also a large body of evidence on the gaps in content knowledge across students, and that those gaps contribute to gaps in reading.

However, these findings do not necessarily translate into practice. We do not yet have a large body of evidence on whether we can take the findings about content knowledge and implement them in schools. That is, can we create a coherent, content-rich curriculum, implement it at scale, and produce better readers? I’ll need to read Wexler’s book to see if she has an answer. But this question strikes me as a harder one to resolve, and from what I’ve seen so far, we’re not there yet.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

One Reply to “Are We Sure We Know How to Teach Reading?”

  1. This is a tiny idea pretending to a be a big idea. You can learn about the world from reading. You don’t have to learn about everything about the world first, so that you can then read about it. These things are in a feedback loop with each other.

    There is desperation among education theorists to avoid direct approaches, avoid phonics, and avoid learning vocabulary. It’s madness. In the example in the Atlantic excerpt, a student doesn’t know what Brazil is, which is fine. That is why we read about Brazil. However, a student that can’t read the word “conclusions” should not be asked to “draw conclusions” about Brazil, this is an example of a student being given work at the wrong level and poor instruction.

    Another student supposedly doesn’t know the word “before” or “behind”- not how to read it, but is supposedly unfamiliar with the concepts and spoken words “before” and “behind”. These are not “knowledge gap” problems solvable by a series of books about Mesopotamia. As a voracious reader one often only encounters words in reading that one has never heard spoken. We are probably all familiar with the phenomenon of pronouncing a word incorrectly because, despite having read it many times, we’ve never heard it spoken, or have heard it pronounced, but associate the pronounced word with a different lexeme.

    We have already have something very similar to what Wexler is talking about. The readings done in social studies and science classes do very similar things to what she says, and this is often where some of the more advanced skills are actually developed. If all we are talking about here is integrating reading skills practice into the social studies and science curricula, great! But this is not an abandonment of skills, it is recognizing that reading skills are key to progress in those subjects.

    However, we will never get there if the basic fundamentals are not mastered. This is why we have separate reading classes focused on what she derides as skills. This is why the content in the very beginning reading classes is often simple fiction about subjects to which students can easily relate. It’s harder to learn two things at the same time.

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