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