Last week, I was at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, helping roll out the new National Assessment scores (NAEP). I was on a panel with Marilyn Adams, Ian Rowe, Sue Pimentel, and Daniel Willingham. Yet again, our kids made few advances in reading.
Dan, when asked what could be done to break out of these doldrums, explained the importance increasing what our kids know about the world. Atlantic summarized his point: “whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills.”
Research has long shown the importance of knowledge in comprehension. If a reader knows much about a topic, his/her reading comprehension rises.
Studies of what American kids (and adults) know about science, geography, economics, technology, and history suggest that Professor Willingham has a point. Our kids simply don’t know enough. (There are great inequities in knowledge distribution, just as there is great inequality in reading attainment.)
Observations of preschool and primary grade classrooms reveal a rather limited amount of attention to building world knowledge in these early years.
No one has argued more strenuously than I for devoting scads of time to reading and writing instruction. But even I agree that content knowledge is important in reading and that time is also needed to develop such knowledge. Unfortunately, time for reading instruction all too often comes at the expense of content learning.
What can be done to turn this around? Here are 10 suggestions. I wonder which ones will be most controversial in your schools.
1. Make sure reading texts present high-quality content (including excellent literature, as well as informational texts that explore our natural and social worlds).
It is often asserted that, “It doesn’t matter what they read, just that they read.”
As a student, father, grandparent, citizen, scientist, member of the human race… I couldn’t disagree more. It’s like claiming, “It doesn’t matter what they eat, just that they eat.”
Just as a steady diet of potato chips, ice cream, and soda pop is not nutritious (God knows I’ve tried it), reading forgettable drivel is nothing but empty calories. Nothing wrong with the occasional guilty pleasure, but for heaven’s sake it matters what our kids read.
Whether you teach from a textbook (core program) or an assembly of little books from the bookroom it is critical that kids read literature worth knowing, along with substantive content drawn from the sciences, the arts, social studies, and so on.
Quality and content considerations are important, too, when one is stocking a classroom library.
Teaching kids to read with texts rich in content distracts from reading nary a jot, but offers kids a chance to explore spiders, forensic science, or how and why different languages punctuate or capitalize.
2. Set content learning goals along with the reading goals for reading lessons.
No matter how rich the texts may be, they won’t much increase knowledge—unless teachers emphasize the content.
Decades ago the late Michael Pressley used to fume over the wrongheadedness of so much reading strategy instruction. For those who don’t know, Michael was a grand supporter of strategy teaching. But, for him, such teaching had to provide more than strategy practice. A strategy lesson wasn’t sound unless the kids were learning the content of the texts that the strategies were practiced upon.
I’ve long argued that core reading programs should pose both reading objectives (e.g., students will learn to identify a main idea) and content ones (e.g., how does soap make you clean, what role does loyalty play in human relations).
Make sure your kids learn from what they read—even during the reading class.
3. Read multiple texts on a topic.
I’m a proponent of having students (second-grade readers and up) reading more complex—and, yes, even more difficult—texts. To make that work, teachers need to scaffold kids’ reading.
One effective scaffold is to have kids reading multiple texts on a single topic. As they learn information from one text, that can serve as a useful support for making sense of another.
There are wonderful schemes out there for creating text and media sets that can provide this kind of support, for integrating science and literacy through multiple texts, and for project-based learning.
Such approaches build both reading ability and world knowledge.
4. Include content texts in your read aloud work.
Let’s leave no rock unturned.
Even if teachers buy what I’m saying about presenting richer content within reading texts, this idea seems to evaporate if we are talking about teacher read alouds or kids’ oral reading fluency practice.
But these activities provide worthwhile content learning opportunities, too—even with young children.
Teachers often go out of their way to have kids practice oral reading fluency with poetry. But there is no reason why this can’t be done well with a social studies or math book--I’ve seen big benefits from such practice.
5. Break the reading block.
Many schools have a set “reading block.” They’ve scheduled a specific 90-minutes when teachers must teach reading. God forbid if the reading gets out.
I’m not a big supporter of reading blocks (a subject for another time), but every good designer learns there is art in “breaking the border.” The best teachers find ways of taking reading over the reading block border.
Most reading skills can be taught as well with a science book as with the assortment of texts relegated to the reading block.
Sadly, many schools, in an effort to enhance reading, curtail the arts and sciences.
Instead of dropping your music program or elbowing social studies out of the curriculum, it makes more sense to bring text into those subjects. Not for the kind of round robin reading that so often is reading’s “place” in such classes (no wonder they get dropped), but for real reading.
Ask yourself, if I want kids to know about timbre in music, how can text best support this learning? What should kids read in addition to the ear training I’m going to provide? How should they read those texts? (A paragraph at a time aloud in a group of 25? I don’t think so).
The time devoted to learning how to read about timbre should count as much as the time used to read a story about a boy who looks like a mouse—just because we go out of our way to ask “inferencing” questions about one of these texts doesn’t distinguish.
6. Try not to pull kids out of science, social studies, or the arts for interventions.
If you read this recommendation, be sure to read the one that follows, too.
When kids are falling behind in reading we often pull them out of class for extra tuition in reading. Yep, RtI intervention time.
Some schools protect content teaching by expanding the reading block to include intervention time, which means that Johnny or Janey get their extra phonics then, rather than instead of social studies. Some clever interventionists even rotate their instructional times so that kids don’t always lose out on the same content (limiting the damage). My favorite schools have even found ways to provide interventions beyond school days and school years, so that the subject content can be protected--hooray.
I get it. School days are complicated, and reading is important. If we let kids fall back in reading they will eventually lose out in science, history, and math anyway. In many situations there is no other way than to pull kids out of those knowledge building classes.
Nevertheless, you need to do whatever you can to protect content instruction. It matters.
7. When it is necessary to pull kids out of content courses for reading interventions (and sometimes it is), build that content into the IEP.
I rarely see an IEP (or more informal learning plan) that provides any intention of replacing the content learning that the intervention is going to countermand.
Let’s say you have a struggling reader whose intervention is going to take the place of his social studies class.
What about the social studies content? Can any of the reading work be done with the social studies book (in class or in the intervention)? Can/will mom or dad help? Do we have any afterschool options there? What can be done with our audio and video resources to sneak this content back into this student’s learning?
Let’s be as diligent about that part of the problem as we are about the reading deficit.
8. Write about content.
Remember recommendations 2 and 4? Writing, too, belongs in content area classes. Having kids write about content that they have read about increases content learning. ‘Nuf said.
9. Establish content clubs—even in elementary schools.
High school academic clubs are common: French club, Red Cross, United Nations, Debate, etc. Those clubs give kids a great chance for increasing knowledge beyond the school day. (Such clubs are most available to our most advantaged and knowledgeable students and are less prevalent in economically depressed communities; something I hope foundations and community groups will try to address.)
Wouldn’t it be great to have such clubs in the elementary schools, too?
In fact, some elementary schools do this, something I recently learned from Tyler, my kindergarten grandson. He is a proud member of the science club and is learning all kinds of cool things about science in this multi-age club (getting to work with the older kids is a real attraction for Tyler).
Again, look for opportunities for expanding kids’ academic knowledge.
10. Use technology to break the borders of content classes.
I’m not a tech geek, but I’m a big fan of Caitlin Tucker… and she manages to be very techy without being geeky at all. Just as I put in a pitch for reading within content classes, she argues the importance of discussion in learning content.
She’s not wrong, but where will all this reading and discussion time come from?
One solution is to use tech platforms like Schoology to expand class discussions about content beyond the classroom. Caitlin provides some sage advice on how to blend online and in-class content discussions.
Again, an example of expanding the opportunity to build knowledge—without undermining reading instruction at all.
Good readers know a lot about their world. Let’s not let reading instruction be the enemy of knowledge.
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