Reading Comprehension: There’s No Workaround for Knowledge

by Guest Blogger
April 13th, 2015

By Greg Ashman

Greg Ashman is a teacher in Australia. Supported by his school (but not necessarily representing its views), he has developed a love of educational research. Ashman is  now pursuing a PhD. This post originally appeared on his blog, Filling the Pail.

To mark the recent cricket world cup, I thought it might be a good idea to quote a section from a BBC report on the semi-final match between Australia and India:

“…Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.”

If you are reading this then you are probably an educated person. I suspect that you can decode all of the words in that quote with ease. However, I am uncertain as to whether you will have comprehended it. This will depend, I suggest, on how much you know about cricket.

What if you read through it slowly, asking yourself questions about the quote as you go along? If you struggled with the quote then try this. Does it help?

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Watching a match or reading about it, knowledge is essential to comprehension (cricket photo courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Strategies such as self-questioning do clearly lead to greater comprehension. There is little doubt about this. And interestingly, the most effective way to teach such strategies appears to be with explicit instruction, even if they do seems to resolve down to just two strategies; questioning and summarising. However, if you don’t know what an “off-break” is then you may still struggle with the cricket quote, regardless of how many times you stop to ask yourself questions.

This might not matter a great deal. I am sure that many people pass through life knowing little of cricket and caring even less. But what if the passage was about a political situation; one that affected the reader? Perhaps the reader, if well-informed, would want to use her democratic rights to protest. Yet when she reads the relevant report in the New York Times, on the BBC website or after following a Twitter link, she finds that she cannot comprehend the relevant texts because they are full of the equivalents of ‘off-breaks’ and ‘back-of-a-length’ bowling.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Instead of simply teaching comprehension strategies, we could also ensure that students leave school in possession of the bodies of knowledge that are likely to be needed to understand common sources of information; knowledge that is historical, political, scientific and literary. This is the argument of E. D. Hirsch. It is difficult to fault scientifically or logically; background knowledge clearly does aid comprehension.

Hirsch goes further. He argues that children from the most deprived backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to move schools frequently. These children will suffer if they end up learning about the Ancient Egyptians three times but never hear of Apartheid. And so this leads to the logic of a common curriculum, shared across schools; not a particularly radical notion in those countries with a national curriculum like the UK or Australia. Unfortunately, the idea has created the opportunity for people to misunderstand Hirsch. The charge is that he is trying to impose his view of a white, middle-class, male, European, Judeo-Christian culture on diverse groups of people.

This is far from Hirsch’s aim. He references the New York Times and asks what knowledge is required in order to comprehend it. So Hirsch takes an empirical line. If you have a beef with anyone for trying to define culture then you need to take it up with the New York Times or BBC journalists. Hirsch is not the guilty party.

But what of relevance?

Is it appropriate to teach children from diverse backgrounds about Shakespeare? He is dead, white, male and European. Perhaps a different playwright might be more contemporary and relevant? Perhaps. But if the newspapers are full of inferences and allusions that require a passing familiarity with Shakespeare then these students will be disadvantaged. And such knowledge may serve the revolutionary and the subversive well. As Sun Tzu advises us; know your enemies and know yourself.

However, I think I can sympathise with Hirsch’s critics. It seems unfair that the inequities of the past would define what we teach our students today. Teachers tend to be idealists, after all. Perhaps we can get around the requirement for background knowledge if we teach transferable comprehensions strategies. This way, when our students don’t understand a text they can apply one of these strategies and thus understand it. We would then be free to reset the clock and select content that best suited our personal views about what is most relevant to our students. We would be free from the tyranny of culture as it actually exists.

And reading comprehension strategies are promising in this regard. They clearly have some effect. There is strong evidence for this.

Although they also seem a bit dull. Would your students rather learn about the Ancient Egyptians or a strategy for asking themselves questions whilst reading prose? And what if reading scores don’t improve much? Then we’ll need more of this strategy instruction and less of other things; music or art or science.

This would be an error. It seems that instruction in reading comprehension strategies provides a boost but it is a limited one. A short course will do as much good as a long one and so these strategies probably shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the curriculum. Rather, they should be perhaps revisited from time-to-time in the context of something else; a unit on government, perhaps.

The reality is that we cannot develop a workaround for background knowledge. Perhaps we need to embrace this reality and start to celebrate the beauty that lies in knowing about our world. This might have the added benefit of raising reading comprehension levels.

 

No Progress on Accountability, No Hope for Equity

by Lisa Hansel
April 7th, 2015

I try not to give in to despair, but in reading recent recommendations for the reauthorization of ESEA, I see America wasting another 50 years on unproductive reforms.

James S. Coleman said schools matter a great deal for poor kids, but we focus on the factors outside of school mattering more. A Nation At Risk warned of rigor’s disappearance, but we continue to pursue content-light strategies instead of content-heavy subjects. High-performing nations demonstrate that a national core curriculum (that specifies knowledge, not mere skills) enables improvement in everything from teacher preparation to student learning and assessment, but we refuse to do the hard work of selecting a core of knowledge for all our students. Our last decade under No Child Left Behind has shown that reading tests without a definite curriculum are counterproductive, but here we go again.

It was with high hopes that I began reading “Accountability and the Federal Role: A Third Way on ESEA.” A consensus document by Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and Paul T. Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, this third way makes important points about the need for assessment and accountability to stay focused on closing the achievement gap—and the need for flexibility in demonstrating student and school progress.

In particular, there are two points of agreement that I find very heartening:

Parents and the public need to know whether children are learning what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job….

Because a student’s level and pace of learning in any one year depend in part on what was learned previously and on the efforts of many professionals working together, the consequences of high and low performance should attach to whole schools, rather than to individual educators.

Here we have two essential points: there are specific things that children need to know and these specific things build year to year. I actually became hopeful that this consensus document would take the next logical step and call for a content-specific, grade-by-grade, well-rounded curriculum. That’s the only thing that would make it clear if “children are learning what they need” and that would enable professionals to work together to build knowledge across grades.

But my hopes were short lived. The consensus document retreated to politically safe, educationally useless ground: “Because what children need to know evolves with knowledge, technology, and economic demands, an accountability system must encourage high performance and continuous improvement.” Later they actually call for “rich subject matter assessments,” but then undermine the idea by ignoring curriculum and, once again, retreating: “Because science, technology, and the economy are constantly shifting, the measures and standards used to assess schools must be continuously updated to reflect new content and valued skills.”

I hear all the time that information is growing at a shocking rate, and that today’s knowledge will be out of date before students graduate. Obviously, students don’t need knowledge, they need to learn how to find knowledge.

Please people! “Information” is only growing with lightning speed if you count the cat videos being loaded onto YouTube. There is amazing research being done—but very little of it affects elementary and secondary education, or college, career, and citizenship. In a terrific new book, Urban Myths about Learning and Education, Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof tackle this silliness:

To name just a few things that we learned when we were children: the Pythagorean theorem still holds true…, as does the gravitational constant and the acceleration of a falling body on Earth…, there are still seven continents…, the Norman conquest of England took place in 1066, and a limerick has five lines and a sonnet fourteen. The fact is that much or most of what has passed for knowledge in previous generations is still valid and useful.

 

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According to Urban Myths, a former Google executive said, “Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes … of information created. We [now] create five exabytes every two days.” (Informational image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

 

What Darling-Hammond and Hill should have written is this: Because cognitive science shows that broad knowledge is essential to meet technology, economic, and citizenship demands, an accountability system must encourage a content-specific, well-rounded curriculum that inspires high performance and continuous improvement by testing what has been taught and thus providing data that teachers can actually use to inform instruction.

Darling-Hammond and Hill are thought leaders in the education arena. They know that skills depend on knowledge, and they know that there is a body of knowledge—from the Constitution to the Pythagorean theorem—that could form a core curriculum for the United States. In their third way, they are being politically realistic. And I am falling into despair.

Our kids don’t need more political pragmatism. They need excellence and equity. They need leaders to ensure that all children get an equal opportunity to learn “what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job.”

For yet more evidence that political pragmatism isn’t working, check out the latest NAEP report, which shows almost no meaningful growth in vocabulary. Vocabulary is a proxy for knowledge and critical to comprehension. As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary is the key to upward mobility. Cognitive science and common sense have given us a clear path forward: build knowledge and skills together with a content-specific, grade-by-grade, well-rounded curriculum. Let’s not waste another 50 years. It will be incredibly hard for Americans to agree on a core curriculum. But nothing else will work.

Reading Recovery Works—Now Let’s Make It Even Better

by Lisa Hansel
March 31st, 2015

Reading Recovery is an intensive intervention for first graders who are struggling to learn to read. Although its research base is not huge, well-controlled studies have found it highly effective. Newly published research shows that Reading Recovery is remaining effective even as it scales up. This is great news—and could mean that Reading Recovery will be adopted by thousands more schools.

To reap Reading Recovery’s benefits for first graders without lowering achievement in upper elementary and beyond, schools will need to be very careful about when they use it. Reading Recovery is a pull-out program: Providing one-on-one instruction is Reading Recovery’s strength—but if students are pulled out of history, science, art, or music, their short-term gains in reading ability could come at the expense of their long-term comprehension ability.

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Building young children’s knowledge of science, history, art, and music matters just as much early reading skills (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Let’s take a quick look at what Reading Recovery does. According to a CPRE report that is an earlier version of the new, peer-reviewed study (and that was well-vetted by the What Works Clearinghouse):

Reading Recovery is an intensive intervention targeting the lowest-achieving 15-20 percent of 1st-grade readers. It takes as its underlying principle the idea that individualized, short-term, highly responsive instruction delivered by an expert can disrupt the trajectory of low literacy achievement, produce accelerated gains, and enable students to catch up to their peers and sustain achievement at grade level into the future. Reading Recovery attends to phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension–the critical elements of literacy and reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel (2000).

In short, it has a strong research base. Even better, it has strong results. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, impact on reading ability was two-thirds of a standard deviation.

Reading Recovery does more for struggling first graders than many people believed possible. But it can’t do everything. As a short-term intervention, it can’t meaningfully increase students’ general knowledge. As a result, it can’t address a key factor for reading ability in later grades.

To be clear, I don’t think Reading Recovery should be responsible for increasing knowledge of the world. It’s a targeted program that’s getting a great deal from a relatively small amount of instructional time (about 30 minutes a day for 12–20 weeks). So my point is not that Reading Recovery should change—it’s that schools using Reading Recovery need to be very strategic about when to deliver the intervention. What will the student miss? Is there any way to not miss anything, to deliver Reading Recovery before or after school? Or perhaps during silent reading time, which these low-achieving first graders may only minimally benefit from?

It may seem that there’s nothing more important in first grade than developing basic reading skills. But in fact, research indicates that building general knowledge is just as important—possibly even more important. In a 2010 study by David Grissmer et al., general knowledge at kindergarten entry was a better predictor of fifth-grade reading ability than early reading skills. General knowledge also predicted later science and math achievement:

[The] general knowledge test measured the child’s early comprehension of physical and social science facts. Whereas the early math and reading tests focused mainly on procedural knowledge, the general knowledge test focused mainly on declarative knowledge (i.e., elementary knowledge or comprehension of the external world). General knowledge was the strongest predictor of later reading and science and, along with earlier math, was a strong predictor of later math…. Paradoxically, higher long-term achievement in math and reading may require reduced direct emphasis on math and reading and more time and stronger curricula outside math and reading.

This is a powerful finding: Kindergartners’ general knowledge is critical to their reading, science, and math achievement at the end of elementary school. So, building students’ knowledge—as much as possible and as early as possible—is critical too.

Educators do not have to choose between building children’s knowledge and skills. There is time for both, if everyone values both. Sadly, the importance of building knowledge in the early grades is still unrecognized by many schools. As Ruth Wattenberg has explained, “When elementary teachers were asked during what time period struggling students received extra instruction in ELA or math, 60 percent said that they were pulled from social studies class; 55 percent said from science class.”

Pull outs from science, social studies, art, and music must stop. Along with great literature, these subjects are what make up general knowledge. They are inherently interesting and absolutely essential. As Reading Recovery continues to spread, it would do well to help schools see that when they do their interventions matters just as much as which interventions they choose.

 

What’s Working?

by Lisa Hansel
March 24th, 2015

Slowly, steadily building the knowledge and capacity of administrators and teachers—that’s what’s working in school systems around the world. As explained in a report by Geoff Masters, a leading researcher in Australia, the educational systems that are improving have invested in educator capacity, while those that are not improving (or are declining) have been tinkering with accountability and incentives (as US policymakers have been, with poor results for reading).

Before those who oppose accountability and market-based reforms declare victory, they’ll need to take a careful look at what Masters means by building capacity. The sad fact is, very few school systems, and few very reformers, in the US are doing the things Masters identifies as essential to increasing student achievement. What he describes is not your typical professional development—it’s a more fundamental commitment to quality and equity:

In some countries, reform efforts tend to have been focused first on building the capacity of school leaders and classroom teachers to deliver high quality teaching and learning, and on ensuring that excellent teaching and leadership are distributed throughout the school system. In other countries, including a number of English-speaking countries, greater reliance has been placed on using systems of accountability and incentives to drive improvement….

Table 1 Two general approaches to school reform
[Reformatted for blog]
________________________________________

Belief
Improvement will occur if schools are given incentives to improve (rewards, sanctions, having to compete for students).
Strategies
- stronger performance cultures
- better measures of outcomes
- personal accountability for improvement
- performance pay linked to test scores
- greater public transparency
- financial rewards for school improvement
- sanctions for failure to improve
- increased competition for students
- greater autonomy to compete
- more parental choice

Belief
Improvement will occur by building the capacity of teachers and school leaders and by ensuring high quality practice throughout the system.
Strategies
- attract more able people into teaching
- train approximately the number of teachers required
- place a high priority on building teachers’ content and pedagogical content knowledge
- develop school leaders’ capacities to build and lead cultures of continual improvement in teaching and learning
- ensure that high-quality teaching and leadership are equitably distributed across all schools
________________________________________

There has been growing recognition that more effective than setting ambitious targets for improved student performance, or attaching money or other consequences to student test results, is to work directly on developing the teaching and leadership practices that result in improved student outcomes….

Systematic studies of what school leaders do to achieve whole-school improvement reveal a high degree of consistency in the priorities set by leaders of turn-around schools. These priorities are summarised in the National School Improvement Tool (Masters, 2012) and can be thought of as a set of micro-strategies for whole-school reform. They include:

- setting an explicit school improvement agenda;
- systematically monitoring progress in achieving desired improvements;
- establishing and sustaining a culture of support and high expectations;
- targeting the use of school resources to address student needs;
- encouraging teachers to work as a team to improve teaching and learning;
- establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum;
- sustaining a strong focus on addressing individual learning needs;
- implementing effective pedagogical practices including diagnostic practices; and
- using local community resources to better meet student needs.

Reading down this list, these strategies seem like common sense—which makes it all the more frustrating that they are not common practices.

The only suggestion I’ll make is to put “establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum” at the top of the list. Almost all of the other strategies require a shared curriculum as their foundation—you can’t set expectations, monitor progress, address needs, or work as a team without a grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject map of the specific content and skills students must master.

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Without a detailed map of what students are supposed to learn, how can we know if they are ahead or behind, much less how to help them? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Thanks to Marc Tucker for drawing attention to this report. I admire Tucker—if we’d been listening to him for the past few decades, we’d have one of the world’s best, most equitable school systems. So, when Tucker wrote that Masters has “written a paper you need to read,” I started reading (you should too).

 

 

 

 

 

Raising Readers—Not Test Takers

by Lisa Hansel
March 18th, 2015

In recent months, Teach Plus had over 1,000 teachers review sample items from PARCC, one of the two testing consortia trying to create assessments aligned to the Common Core standards.

I say “trying” because in reading, the task is pretty much impossible. The standards specify things students should be able to do, but they contain almost no content. Thankfully, they do call for content-rich curriculum and explain that comprehension depends on broad knowledge, but they don’t provide the content-specificity needed to guide instruction or assessment.

Thousands of different curricula and assessments could be aligned to the standards, which would be fine if teachers were trusted to develop both. But teachers are not allowed to create the assessments—at least the ones that count. So it is entirely possible for a teacher to develop an “aligned” curriculum that does not prepare students for the content that shows up on the “aligned” assessment.

The result is an unfair assessment.

Test developers acknowledge as much, creating guidelines for item development that minimize knowledge as a source of “bias.”

Well, the 1,000 teachers who just reviewed PARCC think the stripping of knowledge did not go far enough:

Nearly all participants found that the PARCC passages were better quality than the passages in state tests, as they are previously published pieces (indicating that they are complex and demonstrate expertise in nonfiction). However, there was some concern students did not have “background knowledge, nor the vocabulary to understand” vocabulary within the texts. Their comments suggest that to assess students as accurately as possible, some portions may need to be edited for diverse learners, or those with limited background knowledge of certain content areas.

I understand why teachers would call for reducing the prior knowledge demands of the test—they are stuck in this crazy world of being measured with content that no one told them to teach. But let’s be honest: reducing the knowledge demand makes the test a little fairer; it does not make the education students are getting any better.

The knowledge bias can’t be avoided with tests that are not explicitly aligned to the curriculum. Without a curriculum that specifies what has been taught—and therefore what it is fair to expect students to know—test writers are reduced to a narrow band of banal topics (but even “Jenny goes to the market” demands some prior, unequally distributed knowledge).

The less the knowledge bias, the less the test reflects real-world comprehension. Outside testlandia, comprehension is not isolated from knowledge. An adult who can’t comprehend a newspaper is not considered literate. Broad knowledge is inherent in literacy. If we care about reading, as opposed to testing, we shouldn’t be creating tests that minimize knowledge demands. We should be developing a coherent instruction, assessment, and accountability system that builds broad knowledge and is fair because it tests what is taught.

Clearly, our nation’s policymakers need a crash course in reading. Once they understand that there is no such thing as general comprehension ability, maybe they’ll stop trying to hold schools accountable for developing it.

Fortunately, a great crash course is now available: Daniel Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. If policymakers read between the lines, they’ll see an awful lot they can do too.

As with Willingham’s previous books, this one is engaging, easy to read, and super informative. Here’s just a taste:

Most parents want their children to be solid general readers. They aren’t worried about their kids reading professional journals for butterfly collectors, but they expect their kids to be able to read the New York Times, National Geographic, or other materials written for the thoughtful layperson. A writer for the New York Times will not assume deep knowledge about postage stamps, or African geography, or Elizabethan playwrights— but she will assume some knowledge about each. To be a good general reader, your child needs knowledge of the world that’s a million miles wide and an inch deep—wide enough to recognize the titles The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, for example, but not that the former may have inspired the latter. Enough to know that rare stamps can be very valuable, but not the going price of the rare Inverted Jenny stamp of 1918.

If being a “good reader” actually means “knowing a little bit about a lot of stuff,” then reading tests don’t work quite the way most people think they do. Reading tests purport to measure a student’s ability to read, and “ability to read” sounds like a general skill. Once I know your ability to read, I ought to be able (roughly) to predict your comprehension of any text I hand you. But I’ve just said that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much you happen to know about the topic of the text , because that determines your ability to make up for the information the writer felt free to omit. Perhaps, then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.

There is reason to think that’s true. In one study, researchers measured the reading ability of eleventh graders with a standard reading test and also administered tests of what they called “cultural literacy”—students’ knowledge of mainstream culture. There were tests of the names of artists, entertainers, military leaders, musicians, philosophers, and scientists, as well as separate tests of factual knowledge of science, history, and literature. The researchers found robust correlations between scores on the reading test and scores on the various cultural literacy tests—correlations between 0.55 and 0.90.

If we are to increase reading ability, policymakers will have to accept that it takes many years to develop the breadth of knowledge needed for tests that are not based on a specific curriculum. We shouldn’t be stripping the knowledge demands out of our tests; we should be stripping the unreasonable mandates from our accountability policies. If we all focused on raising readers, we would spend far less time on testing and far more on building broad knowledge.

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Young reader, building knowledge and comprehension, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Even TFA Isn’t Boosting Reading Comprehension

by Lisa Hansel
March 10th, 2015

Teach for America (TFA) aims to increase student achievement by increasing the quality of teaching. Concerned with the short-term commitment TFA asks its recruits to make, I’ve never been sure what to make of TFA. Seeking teachers who were themselves strong students and focusing on outcomes, it has the potential to elevate the teaching profession. But by recruiting for a two-year stint, it also questions teaching as a career.

With these grumblings in the back of my mind, I’m always interested in research on TFA. If there were clear evidence that it did, or did not, work, my dilemma would be resolved. Well, even with a very rigorous new study by Mathematica Policy Research, my dilemma lives on. Comparing 66 TFA teachers with 90 non-TFA (mostly traditionally prepared) teachers in 36 schools serving preschool through fifth grade, only one significant difference was found: TFA teachers in preschool through second grade were more effective in reading. They added about 1.3 months of learning.

That’s important—it indicates that the TFA teachers are doing a better job on foundational reading skills. But what’s also important is that there was no difference in third through fifth grade. Even more important, there was plenty of room for improvement: on average, these preschool through fifth grade students’ were at the 34th percentile.

Why isn’t reading comprehension budging? The Mathematica study can’t answer, but readers of the Core Knowledge blog certainly can. Until elementary schools—and all types of teacher preparation programs—get serious about systematically building knowledge and vocabulary, reading comprehension will remain far too low.

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Books on the brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

Fortunately, more and more educators, administrators, and professors are coming to understand the nature of comprehension. A recent paper by Donald L. Compton, Amanda C. Miller, Amy M. Elleman, and Laura M. Steacy makes me think knowledge is starting to get its due (thanks to Aaron Grossman for sending it to me).

With a strong-but-brief review of the research on comprehension, the paper is well worth reading. So, I’m just offering some highlights (and hoping TFA’s Wendy Kopp is reading):

Much of the instructional research on reading comprehension has focused on strategy instruction as a means to engage students with text and help them monitor their comprehension…. This focus is warranted as evidenced by the effectiveness of strategy instruction especially for struggling readers…. However, it is unclear whether increased comprehension can be attributed to learning specific strategies. In their review of strategy instruction, Rosenshine and Meister (1994) noted that it did not matter which strategies were combined; as long as multiple strategies were used, students’ comprehension increased. In fact, it may not be the strategies themselves that engender changes in comprehension, but possibly some other factors that strategy instruction fosters, such as deeper engagement with the text and awareness of the need to monitor comprehension.

Our intent here is not to argue against the positive role strategy instruction may play in increasing engagement with text but instead to highlight unforeseen consequences associated with this type of instruction. We propose that strategy instruction may result in low-level text representations that embody only what is explicitly expressed in a text…. Deep level understanding of a text, on the other hand, goes beyond the text in nontrivial ways, requiring the construction of meaning through inference making, not just passive absorption of information….

Reading comprehension occurs as the reader builds a mental representation of the text…. The majority of comprehension theorists suggest that there are at least two levels of representation: a text-based representation and a situation model…. The text representation conveys the underlying meaning of the text’s explicit information…. The situation model involves the intertwining of the reader’s background knowledge with the text-based representation to form a deep representation of the text. Thus, the situation model is a more meaningful representation that goes beyond the text-based information…. We maintain that failure to construct situation models during reading is an acute symptom associated with reading comprehension disability.

A number of studies have reported that individual differences in background knowledge significantly influence the building of a representative situation model…. Readers who possess high levels of knowledge consistently exhibit better comprehension and retention than readers with low levels of knowledge….

[One study] examined the contribution of knowledge to comprehension processes by asking good and poor fifth-grade readers to read or listen to passages and answer questions. Results indicated that having some knowledge about a passage’s topic, which poor readers had less of, was positively associated with the likelihood of correctly answering questions about that passage. In addition, general knowledge and vocabulary knowledge remained significantly associated with correct responses even while controlling for passage specific knowledge. (Again, poor readers possessed less general knowledge and vocabulary knowledge compared to good readers.) Finally, regardless of passage-specific background knowledge, questions about information stated literally in the text were easier to answer than questions that required inference. Results suggest that multiple forms of knowledge, both passage specific and general, are likely required to form coherent and high-quality representations of text.

Teaching for Retention

by Lisa Hansel
March 2nd, 2015

In my last post, I described conversations with three teachers that revealed their different views about what teaching is.

The most persuasive was a teacher who focuses on retention—and thinks teachers are making a mistake when they change topics as soon as they see that students have comprehended the topic at hand.

As we spoke, I thought about what happens to me as I listen to NPR. Even when I find a story really interesting, I’m only able to remember it well if it is on a topic I already know well. Most of the time, the stories are on things I only know a bit about. If I try to retell them, the details are fuzzy; I mix up the key people and events and can’t convey much. It’s an odd feeling—I fully comprehended the story at the time, but I don’t realize how little of it I’ve retained until I try to tell a friend about it.

To really learn the story, I’d have to comprehend it, then study it—quiz myself, practice those details that make the story coherent, and quiz myself again. I’d also need to revisit the material periodically—hopefully adding to it, but at a minimum refreshing my memory. That’s the type of learning that would enable future learning, including deeper comprehension each time new details are added to the web of knowledge growing in my long-term memory.

The retention-focused teacher I spoke with was very intentional about her instructional time. She argued that if a topic was worthy of mentioning, it was worthy of fully teaching—teaching so students could confidently talk about their new knowledge. She saw the school year as far too short, and each class as a precious resource to be fiercely protected. She saw instruction aimed at coverage and even comprehension—anything less than retention—as a waste of time. And, she accepted that her approach meant that she taught fewer topics, and thus had to carefully decide which topics merited class time.

One great benefit of this careful weighing of topics was that she had gotten really thoughtful about embedding skill development in serious academic content. While some of her colleagues taught skills with “fun” content, she eschewed that as inefficient. For example, she taught grammar with sentences that refreshed students’ memories on key content they were learning in science and social studies—no grammar lessons with sentences about basketball or cartoons in her classes.

Reflecting on our conversation, my mind returned to Daniel Willingham’s article on familiarity vs. recollection. Along with that article, he has several useful tips for ensuring that students don’t mistake their familiarity for real learning. His tips focus on “jostling students away from a reliance on familiarity and partial access as indices of their knowledge, and encouraging (or requiring) them to test just how much knowledge they recall and understand.” He recommends, for example, that teachers “Make it clear to students that the standard of ‘knowing’ is the ‘ability to explain to others,’ not ‘understanding when explained by others.’”

This pretty well sums up what the retention-focused teacher I spoke with learned over many years of teaching. So it raises a question for another day: why didn’t she learn about the dangers of familiarity (or mere comprehension) and the necessity of recollection in her preparation program or in ongoing professional development?

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Writing is a great way for students to explain, solidify, and gauge what they have learned. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Nothing in Common

by Lisa Hansel
February 24th, 2015

According to a recent survey, fifty-five percent of Americans believe that the Common Core standards address “sex education, evolution, global warming and the American Revolution.” Pro or con, left-leaning or right-leaning, misperceptions were widespread. Sadly, the problem isn’t merely lack of information—it’s misinformation: there were more mistaken beliefs about what’s in the Common Core among those who say they are informed about the standards than those who say they are not.

I’m tempted to dismiss these results as yet another sad-but-funny commentary on American politics. We’ve got more passion than reason, but perhaps that’s the human condition.

And yet, I can’t dismiss them. I think they are a symptom of a systemic problem in education: We talk past each other. Pretty much nothing in education is well defined. Take “standards” and “curriculum.” Some people use them as synonyms; others (like me) see a huge gulf between the two (e.g., ELA standards rarely specify what to teach). We’ve got lots of jargon, but very little to help us understand each other. Coleridge captured our predicament: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a few opportunities to push past that jargon in long, detailed conversations with educators. Educators are so busy that such conversations are rare; I feel fortunate to have spent hours speaking with educators in California, Texas, and Georgia. Speaking with them essentially back to back, one thing became clear: each one had a different concept of what teaching is. They all used the same jargon, but fundamentally, what they meant by “teaching” was very different—and had very different implications for their students.

For one teacher, to “teach” a topic or skill just meant to cover it. She hadn’t considered the impact on the students. (I think this notion of teaching is pretty unusual these days—it has been many years since I last encountered it.)

Another teacher focused on students’ comprehension. He had “taught” only if his students understood all the essential concepts in the lesson. My best guess is that this notion of teaching is fairly widespread. If students don’t even grasp the lesson, most teachers will rethink their approach and try again. That sounds pretty good, but is it enough? Is comprehension the same thing as learning? Unfortunately, no.

Only one teacher conceived of “teaching” as a variety of activities that are intentionally designed for students to get something new into their long-term memories. This, to me, should be the definition of teaching. Likewise, the definition of learning should be adding something to your long-term memory.

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Is it really useful to have many different ideas of what teaching is? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Even though plenty of teachers will say long-term retention is a goal, much of the instruction I’ve seen seems designed mainly for comprehension, not retention. Wanting to be sure students understand a text, for example, a teacher will lead a really interesting, well-planned, text-based discussion. So far, so good. But then, seeing that the students got it, the teacher moves on. New text, new topic, new concept to comprehend.

The teacher I spoke with who focuses on long-term memory argued that most teachers move on way too soon (usually because they feel like they have to). Comprehension is important, but not sufficient to support future learning. She had realized this after many years in the classroom, but there’s actually a body of research on it. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham has written about the difference between familiarity and recollection; it seems to me that familiarity is what you get is you teach for comprehension but move on before ensuring retention. Here’s Willingham in American Educator:

Psychologists distinguish between familiarity and recollection. Familiarity is the knowledge of having seen or otherwise experienced some stimulus before, but having little information associated with it in your memory. Recollection, on the other hand, is characterized by richer associations. For example, a young student might be familiar with George Washington (he knows he was a President and maybe that there’s a holiday named after him), whereas an older student could probably recollect a substantial narrative about him….

Although familiarity and recollection are different, an insidious effect of familiarity is that it can give you the feeling that you know something when you really don’t.

This “insidious effect” is something all teachers and students should know about. I’ll take a closer look at teaching for retention in my next post.

While I deeply appreciate the time all of these teachers gave me, my only regret is that we could not all speak at once. I’d love to hear how the “coverage” and “comprehension” teachers would react to the “retention” teacher. Perhaps, if teachers were given time to collaborate within and across schools (just as other professionals have time to engage each other), then eventually the education field would have common understandings and a shared path to improvement.

A Plea for Traditional and Multicultural Education—Our Children Deserve Both

by Guest Blogger
February 5th, 2015

By Joy C. Dingle

Joy C. Dingle is an independent K–16 education consultant in the Washington, DC, area. She can be reached at jd.achieving.equality@gmail.com

Recently, a colleague and I had a fascinating conversation about education and exactly what a meaningful, well-balanced US education should include.  My adopted city of Washington, DC, and our nation are having this conversation also.  It is about time we did.  There is no surprise that a lot of people have diverse views about what our children should be learning.

Eventually our conversation led to the topic of “dead white men.”  Do they really matter?

Let’s be honest.  Many times terms such as “founding fathers” and “great thinkers” are used  as code.  For some people, these terms are a shorthand way of saying that only Caucasian men have shaped history, philosophy, and the “things that really matter” in our society.  In the past, neither historians nor curriculum writers saw a need to explore others’ lives and contributions. Some still believe that white men—particularly if they are affluent, Christian, and heterosexual—are ultimately superior in intellect to others.  Everyone else and their ideas, experiences, culture, and humanity are insignificant, optional, or superfluous.  Nothing could be further from the truth; as educators and citizens, we have a responsibility to speak out whenever such terms are used in untrue and demeaning ways.

For the past few decades, who and what historians should study and schools should teach has been a matter of debate. Unfortunately, the subject is often presented as a stark either/or of embracing or rejecting the canon and the roots of Western Civilization in ancient Greece and Rome.

Multicultural education and “dead white men” are not mutually exclusive ideas.  Really it’s a matter of background and context.  Christopher Columbus is one example.  Whether our children learn that he “discovered” America or that he symbolizes a larger system of imperialist oppression and exploitation—or both—they need to know who he was.  To exclude him from the curriculum is a mistake, just as it is a mistake to exclude women and people of color.  We need the background and context of Columbus to understand more about everything from the plight of our native peoples to why many are deeply offended by the words and images used to describe professional sports teams.

As soon as they can grasp the fundamental concepts of government, our young people should learn all about the Bill of Rights.  Today’s painful but necessary dialogue about gun control and police brutality is underpinned by the history and context of the Second Amendment.  We have left these public problems at our children’s feet.  At the very least, we should educate them, and be brave enough to start the story from the beginning.  Whether we interpret the constitution strictly or broadly, school kids need to know the events and sentiments that led to the “right to bear arms.”  This is the only way to have a productive dialogue about what that right means today.  We owe this dialogue to the memory of young people lost to gun violence, whether they lived in Columbine, Newtown, Sanford, or Ferguson.

Our literary canon need not be limited to William Shakespeare, Stephen Crane, and Joseph Conrad—and our curriculum need not exclude them.  When our young people read these authors, they can appreciate the works of Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Junot Díaz as equals and realize that inclusion of these rich voices and perspectives is part of what makes literature so important to our society.   Comparing and contrasting the views of “dead white men” to others’ makes all of us think more critically about the world around us.

The protagonist of Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name is Aminita Diallo.  As a young child, she is kidnapped from her village (in modern day Nigeria) and enslaved.  Much of her survival and success is due to her insistence on keeping her birth name, her memories of her homeland, and her spirituality.  Captured and killed by the same slave traders, Aminita’s parents instilled a deep respect for education in their daughter.  She speaks her father’s native tongue of Fulfude, her mother’s’ native tongue of Bamanankan, and writes and speaks Arabic.  On board the ship that takes her to South Carolina, she learns English and eventually becomes fully fluent in the language once she reaches young adulthood—something commonly forbidden during that time.  Aminita’s mastery of multiple languages and understanding of multiple cultures facilitates her ability to free herself and eventually write her story in her own terms.  She never abandons her identity as she fights to acquire the knowledge critical to her survival.  The survival of America’s young people is equally dependent upon a broad, deep, and diverse education.

Book and film titles, news articles, and even television commercials allude to historical people, events, and texts all the time.  Imagine what our children miss when we do not take the time to teach them these events and texts.  To understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a deeper level, our young people need to know the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of the US Constitution, passages from the Bible, and the words of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  It would be foolish to leave these documents and their interpretations out of our children’s curriculum simply because they were constructed by those who do not reflect the current diversity of our nation.  Dr. King’s speech is about far more than a dream.  It is about correcting past mistakes and honoring our democratic principles.  Let’s not leave our young people without the tools to continue his vision and fight injustice.

Like it or not, the power structure of our nation is predominately white and male.  Many (including this post’s author) believe the power structure needs to change.   We can envision a nation that embraces all its citizens fully and grows stronger through the sharing of power and from the inclusion of multiple perspectives.  Yet we cannot fix our imbalanced system without understanding how and why it operates the way it does. Both not teaching dead white males and only teaching them amounts to under-educating our children—and that certainly won’t support this endeavor.  We don’t have to embrace “dead white men” and their ideas, but we better know who they are and what they represent. That way, we can take the best of what they have to offer, critically analyze the worst, and build new understandings by learning about others’ contributions.

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Teaching broad knowledge, including multicultural and traditional knowledge, opens doors (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Want to Build Knowledge, Skills, and Grit? Assign History Research Papers

by Guest Blogger
January 28th, 2015

By Samantha Wesner

Samantha Wesner is the managing editor of The Concord Review, which publishes high school students’ research papers.

As a junior in high school taking American history, my class had two options for the final project: a PowerPoint presentation or an extended research essay. To many it was a no-brainer; the PowerPoint was definitely going to involve more pictures, fewer hours of work, and less solitude. But some of us went for the research paper, whether because we were naturally drawn to writing, seeking a new challenge, or presentation-averse (as I was). 

The daunting task loomed. The essay length: fifteen to twenty pages. The topic I had chosen: The Spanish-American War of 1898. I was a slow writer, and the longest paper I had written before was a five-page English paper on Kurt Vonnegut. The English department had seen to it that I had plenty of practice writing shorter papers. But this new assignment was a leap forward rather than a step. I might have been better off with Will Fitzhugh’s “Page Per Year” plan: With each year, I would have written a paper to correspond with my grade—one page for first grade, nine pages for ninth grade, and so on.

I scoured the textbook for the few paragraphs it offered on the subject. And then what? I would have stopped there if I hadn’t known that other students had done it. Those of us writing a paper were given examples, plus guidance on paragraph structure, quoting, balancing primary and secondary sources, and footnoting. We toured the library and some online resources to get us started. With this essential how-to knowledge in hand, the assignment inched toward the realm of the possible in my mind.

Stacks of library books, reams of notes, and a twenty-page paper later, I had written what I now consider to be the capstone of my high school education. Years later, I remember 1898 better than the great majority of what I learned in high school. To this day, I really do “remember the Maine”; I have a lasting understanding of turn-of-the-century American imperialism, the power and danger of a jingoist press, the histories of complex relationships between the U.S. and the Philippines and Cuba, and Teddy Roosevelt’s unusual path to national prominence. My initial, vague interest blossomed into a fascination that I did not expect when I first set out. I felt a sense of pride as I tucked the stack of paper neatly into a binder to be handed in. Happy to be done, but even happier to have done it, I felt as if I had summited a peak that had seemed ineffably large from below. And I had certainly needed a big push.

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Wreck of the U.S.S. Maine by William Henry Jackson.

Perusing class syllabi my first semester in college, I came upon a description of a final assignment in a history class that looked interesting: a fifteen- to twenty-page research paper. “I can do that,” I thought, “I’ve done it before.”

I didn’t know how lucky I was to be in the small minority of college freshmen who had learned how to write a research paper in high school. Most American high school students graduate without ever being encouraged to explore a topic in such depth, and yet this is exactly the kind of work they will encounter in college, especially in the humanities. In an era in which the president is invested in making college an opportunity all can afford, it’s only fitting that all should be afforded the proper preparation.

We do a disservice to students when we don’t ask them to do challenging work that will hold them in good stead in college and beyond. True, hard-working teachers, some of whom have over 150 students to teach, often simply do not have the time to grade this kind of assignment. In a perfect world, there would be time and resources to spare for extensive feedback to every student. But a research paper that receives even a little feedback is better than no research paper at all. The former still immeasurably deepens a student’s knowledge, skill set, self-discipline, and confidence.

I have my high school history teacher to thank for the confidence with which I approached my first college research paper. I ended up majoring in history and was comfortable writing a senior thesis of more than one hundred pages. Now, with The Concord Review, I have the wonderful task of recognizing student achievement. And yet, I’m painfully aware that The Concord Review’s young authors are the exceptions—those high schoolers who have written extensive history research papers. Those published go on to great things; many attend top colleges and four have been named Rhodes Scholars. Without a doubt, these are bright students. But how many bright students in the public school system have brilliant papers within them? If they aren’t afforded that first push, we may never find out.