Literacy Creep

by Robert Pondiscio
January 11th, 2010

An article in last week’s Education Week looks at the increasingly common practice of reading aloud to middle and high school students.  In discussing the practice with Mary Ann Zehr (I’m quoted briefly in the piece) I made the point that while there is certainly nothing wrong with reading out loud to teenagers, it is symptomatic of what I call “literacy creep” — the tendency of elementary school-style instructional techniques to find their way deeper into K-12 education across all content areas.  

Reading aloud can be engaging for students of any age.  Poetry and drama, for example, are written to be heard, not read.   The danger comes when we use read-alouds as a crutch, to make up for students’ inability to read independently ignoring the root causes.   Zehr quotes one middle school teacher who reads The Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar Fraction Book to her 7th and 8th grade math students.  That particular book is one that Scholastic markets for children from PreK to 3rd grade.  It’s hard to imagine such a basic picture book engaging middle schoolers.  The clear implication is that the students’ reading and math ability is nowhere near where it ought to be, thus a read aloud is making a virtue of necessity.

It’s unfair to pick on an isolated example, no matter how egregious.  But there is a clear move afoot to make explicit literacy instruction something that doesn’t end in elementary school, or ever.   The recent Carnegie Foundation Report, Time to Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success calls quite clearly for “explicit instruction in reading and writing all the way through grade 12.”  The report bases its recommendation for continued literacy instruction on the observation that “promising early performance and gains in reading achievement seem to dissipate as students move into and through the middle grades.”  Is that due to discontinued reading instruction?  A more likely culprit is the failure to impart a broad body of content knowledge to students in the elementary grades, a point E.D. Hirsch has written and lectured about repeatedly for decades. 

Calls for reading instruction to continue all the way through high school tend to ignore the fact that reading fluency increases with “domain knowledge.”  When you read about a familiar subject you make rapid connections between your prior knowledge and the new information the author wants to communicate.  It is not hard to imagine how metacognition, the “thinking about your thinking” that is encouraged in reading strategy instruction in beginning readers, may work against comprehension of complicated texts.  You can’t think about the content of an advanced text while monitoring your comprehension.  By comparison when you read with background knowledge, all of your mental resources are focused on making connections between the new material and what you already know.  You’re free to to draw inferences, and consider the implications of the new information.  Hirsch has used the metaphor of a snowball to describe how knowledge builds on knowledge:

The words that children hear in school are like so many snowflakes falling on the school ground. Disadvantaged children may hear the words, but they do not pick up the meanings, whereas children who have already accumulated a covering of knowledge and vocabulary will be picking up knowledge rapidly. As their academic snowball grows, so does their ability to accumulate still more knowledge — in strong contrast to disadvantaged students whose initially meager learning abilities get smaller and smaller by comparison, humiliating them still further and destroying their motivation. This continual widening of the learning gap cannot be halted unless schools make a systematic effort to build up the specific background knowledge that disadvantaged children need.

Rather than make the connection between prior knowledge and comprehension, the Carnegie report instead focuses on the physical attributes of print: texts become longer, word and sentence complexity increases, graphic representations become more important, the report notes.  

Not only do textual demands increase as young people move through the grades, but the types of text used begins to vary widely across content areas. Each content area in middle and high school demands a different approach to reading, writing, and thinking. Texts read in history class are different from those read in biology, which in turn are substantially different from novels, poems, or essays read in English language arts (ELA). As a result, reading comprehension and writing demands differ across the content areas including ELA.

Surely this is an overstatement. Yes, reading a science text is fundamentally different than reading a history text or a novel.  One is about science, the other history and the third a work of fiction.  Once you have the ability to decode and understand most of the words, the difference maker is background knowledge. If we have shortchanged children’s foundational knowledge in the content areas as elementary school students, we should not be surprised that they struggle to make sense of more advanced content readings in high school.  The answer surely cannot be to treat science, history, math and literature texts and strange beasts that require different sets of muscles to wrestle with. 

It seems obvious that a commitment to building background knowledge, and a national commitment to a shared body of knowledge across academic disciplines would be far more efficacious than insisting that the act of reading a science text is somehow fundamentally different act than reading a history text.  It is like suggesting that driving to the grocery store is fundamentally different than driving to school, or that a different kind of vehicle is required.

“Content area teachers must be prepared to support the literacy skills of students who have mastered basic reading skills but who struggle with the more sophisticated demands of reading within the content areas,” the Carnegie report argues.   To a hammer everything is a nail. And to advocates of skills-driven instruction, there are only skills.  In short, we are all literacy teachers now.  No more reading to learn.  There is only learning to read.   Instead of bringing literacy instruction to the content areas, it makes far more sense to bring content into literacy instruction from the very start of schooling.

Failure to acknowledge the critical role of background knowledge in comprehension can only lead – is only leading – to an endless process of scaffolding and backfilling, including reading aloud to high school students.  The best that can be said of enshrining such basic techniques of emerging literacy instruction at all points from K to 12 is that it’s making a virtue of necessity.   We would be far better served if we committed ourselves to ensuring that children leave elementary school with the background knowledge they need for fluency in the content areas, rather than sentence them to what feels like perpetual remediation.


  1. Robert,

    Not to get off the topic on your well written piece from above but has Don Hirsch ever considered putting together a parallel series on “What Your One (Two, Three, Four) Year Old Needs To Know” to get toddlers better prepared for their initial odyssey into kindergarten, first and second grade? Wouldn’t it be something to see all kids entering K, 1 & 2 READY to learn what the teacher is about to present.

    How about getting him on it and why he’s at it, let’s make sure it’s comprehensively disseminated to every exiting mother in every maternity ward in every hospital across the country. And let’s make it “Required Reading” while we’re at it.

    Come on! Talk about a common sense approach to eliminating the achievement gap. Heck, isn’t this at least remotely congruent to what Geoffrey Canada ($500K/year?) is attempting to do in Harlem? Why not make it available to everyone, nationwide? My guess is the expertise is already sitting there at the Core Knowledge Foundation. This is a no brainah. It would certainly eliminate much of the need for scaffolding and back-filling at the secondary level.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 11, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

  2. Ask and you shall receive, Paul…

    Of course, getting kids ready for school does nothing to address the lack of content in elementary education once they arrive.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 11, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

  3. That’s fantastic!

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 11, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  4. Well, once we extend this to college and beyond it’ll be much easier to deliver talking point actionables to news consumers.

    Additionally, they won’t have any of that pesky content knowledge to conflict with the truth messages we provide.

    Though, and we’ll talk about this next meeting; we might wish to make sure our talking point providers don’t have too much content knowledge either, and instead focus a tremendous amount of time on classroom management and pedagogical techniques. That should keep them pretty busy.

    Comment by John Lamb — January 11, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

  5. Robert,

    Nice commentary. Why the Carnegie report focused on high school seems a little strange, considering that the issues that they were illuminating are probably more applicable to elementary/middle school. Having the teachers be completely responsible for all learning seems a bit counterproductive at the high school level. At some point in time students need to become responsible for their own learning and it would seem reasonable to expect that level of independence in high school, if not the later part of middle school.

    All that being said. Their point regarding text types in the different domains has quite a bit of merit. Early reading instruction focuses heavily on fluently reading fairly simplistic narrative texts (quite rightly so). But informational texts (and many literary texts) require quite different reading abilities to extract information and meaning.

    Background knowledge helps immensely, but it is rarely enough as the content of a subject is intricately linked with the complexity of the language used to describe the content. (e.g. having some background knowledge in biology and understanding the definition of a a protein is not quite sufficient to understand the sentence: “Diverse proteins embedded in the lipid bilayer or positioned at one of its surfaces carry out most of the membrane functions.”)

    To be able to use a textbook to learn something new, students need to learn 1) that informational text is not read fluently, 2) that every sentence can contain multiple facts, implicit messages and embedded content that is not always obvious on a first read and 3) how to deconstruct the content specific text to illuminate the embedded concepts and establish the explict meaning of domain vocabulary. The conventions for embedding knowledge in the subject matter areas can vary greatly between the humanities and the sciences.

    It is unfortunate (for the students especially) that subject matter content has been often ignored in the current discussions on literacy and that good study skills (e.g. reading comprehension strategies) has somehow morphed into the purpose of schooling.

    But the real difficulties of reading informational (and complex literary) texts should not be lumped into the “skills” movement of reading. Being able to read and learn from a text in a subject matter domain is non-trivial. If the purpose of schooling were more content focused (instead of the glorified-study-skills-focused morass that we currently have) then the real issues with reading academic texts may be better appreciated and better instruction incorporated into schooling.

    What is unfortunate for many students is that the excessive reading comprehension skills taught (that may be most effective with narrative texts) often fail in “reading to learn” in the subject matter areas.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — January 11, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

  6. I appreciated the comments, Robert, about how ridiculous it seems to treat different subject areas’ readings as different beasts requiring different sets of muscles to wrestle. I don’t, however, believe it’s as ridiculous a notion as you do. (And actually disagreeing with your posts is not normal at all for me.)

    Fundamentally, I agree with you and EDH: the top-rated ‘must-happen’ for improving students’ comprehension of readings in multiple subject areas is increasing their subject-area-specific background knowledge. A close second, however, should be that they receive this information through printed media–and they must do this over and over and over. And then over and over some more.

    You rightly assert that separate and complete systems of decoding texts don’t exist for each content area. You’d have to agree, though, that pieces of writing about the physical sciences, say (just to keep it in the non-fiction realm), differ quite a lot in terms of structure, functional vocabulary, tone, voice, and intent than samples of historical, social-scientific, or newspaper writing.

    The problem, I’d say, is not all ‘different beasts requiring different muscles to wrestle’ or all ‘not enough background knowledge’, but rather a combination of the two. Whenever it became acceptable to let students set the game of curriculum-planning, Education responded to students’ withdrawal from reading by assigning less–or simply less-demanding–reading. In the subjects where non-fiction reading is relied on to convey ideas and background knowledge, reading got tossed out pretty well altogether, as ‘students don’t do it anyway’.

    As a result, students perform woefully on any tests that assess how well they are able to understand non-fiction writing. And sometimes they do so even when they have good stores of background knowledge. (Though this knowledge was likely fed to them by video, it was fed to them nonetheless.) When they must wrestle that particular Reading Beast on test day, however, they can’t access the background knowledge properly because they can’t understand the functional vocabulary or the conventions of the form. (Teachers out there: picture the students who, when asked to “Draw conclusions” on a test, actually DREW a picture…anyone besides me ever see this?)

    Though I’ll always chuckle a little bit at reports like the Carnegie (more because I know what kinds of mind-numbing instruction it’s sure to inspire than for any other reason), my practical experience-led gut tells me they have something there. Not by itself, of course, but when combined with the necessity of background knowledge. It’s not all about the multi-generational reluctance to build up the best stores of background knowledge in every student that makes these pieces of reading seem so alien to students. It’s also because of the multi-generational reluctance to deliver such background knowledge via READING that makes the task of reading and understanding them so difficult.

    Comment by Eric Kalenze — January 11, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

  7. Paul- I’m using the CK “What Your Preschooler Needs to Know” series with my 4 year old and it’s fantastic. He’s got speech & language delay and as his therapist puts it, he needs to be explicitly taught things that most kids will pick up on their own through osmosis. I really like how systematic the CK preschool materials are.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — January 11, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

  8. Robert,

    Paul Tough cites Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s 1995 study, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” in his book on Geoff Canada and Harlem Chidren’s Zone. Tough wrote “They found … that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words”

    Although just 42 families participated in the study (and the researchers cautioned against extrapolating too much from this small study) it has nonetheless become the defacto study to cite in this regard.

    Maybe someone should send a copy of Hart’s book over to the fine folks at Carnegie.

    Comment by Matthew — January 11, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

  9. I’m not convinced by Erin and Eric’s apologies for reading strategies. I mean, how many of US were taught these strategies? Or did we just plunge into texts and poke around? If the kids know the vocab and the concepts, it seems to me they’ll be able to navigate a text, however oddly structured. If they don’t, all the lessons on text forms in the world will boot them little. Moreover, I tend to agree with Robert’s suggestion that this metacognitive busy-ness is more likely to hinder comprehension than help it.

    Literacy creep is alive and well at my middle school. My eighth-grade counterpart and I sat down last year to compare our respective approaches to teaching history. It was clear that her main mission was not to transmit knowledge of American history but to teach kids “how to use a textbook”. She repeated over and over that this would be the best way to prepare students for high school, since success there depended on students’ ability to navigate textbooks. I, on the other hand, want to teach a ton of history.

    Comment by Ben F — January 12, 2010 @ 12:26 am

  10. Robert,

    While I believe that successful reading strategies can differ in various disciplines, I agree more with your general point about how background knowledge gives students a location to place new knowledge.

    I am currently in my 19th year teaching high school English in Connecticut, and I have always told students to be continually vigilant for the “vuja de” effect. That is, it’s not quite deja vu where they sense a type of momentary flashback. Instead, it’s when they learn a new concept in class and then start to see it or hear it in other areas of their lives. Like when your family buys a new car. Wouldn’t you know it? All of the sudden, you notice how many cars of that type are on the road, where before you were oblivious. It’s the same with reading.

    Our primary task as reading” teachers”, then, is to facilitate this awareness on the part of students. And I believe this continual building of their “knowledge base,” as you might say, will help them to improve their reading (and learning) skills. Unfortunately, that approach smacks right up against a “21st century world” of “digital information” which is segmented, fractionalized, and truncated. In other words, it is increasingly difficult for students to find a context for the new information they learn. But that’s a debate for another day.

    Comment by Barth — January 12, 2010 @ 7:16 am

  11. Ben F,
    Study skills without something to study is quite useless. Teaching kids how to navigate a textbook without any content associated purpose is equally quite useless.

    If learning content was the primary purpose of the classroom then content-tailored study skills might be helpful to help students dive into the materials and develop a more complex understanding than would happen on a skim/first read. Unfortunately, it has become the fashion to only teach general study skills (often inappropriate to the materials) without any content associated with them.

    Vocabulary is essential but it is not the only sub-skill necessary to understand material. If you would include being able to understand complex subordinated clausal sentence structures, implict messages, ellipsis (omitted words), and valid/invalid reasoning (in addition to the vocabulary and concepts usually discussed) into your definition of background knowledge, then it we would be consistent in our promotion of background knowledge.

    Certainly, you could just ask students to dive into the materials and work it out themselves. But that study technique doesn’t necessarily illuminate many of the complex, subtle meanings that we would wish our students to take away from the subject materials.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — January 12, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  12. Ben F:
    I can’t read my comment and see an apology for reading strategies. Rather, I was suggesting that repeated, dogged assigning of reading to transmit background knowledge is the key to increasing students’ ability to handle non-fiction texts.

    Simply, my perception as a former English teacher and life-long observer of literature instruction and accumulation of reading skill is that social studies and science teachers have failed in their roles as gatekeepers when it comes to reading. (Not that English teachers have done much better, of course, many times resorting to teaching high-interest texts over ones of high substance.) When these disciplines were faced with the rush of criticism about their reading materials being the least ‘engaging’, I wish they’d have put their institutional stick in the sand and come up with ways to get it done anyway. They did not, choosing to substitute technologically aided delivery methods or shorter, ‘more story-like’ ways of communicating information.

    As a result, we’ve got (at least) two generations of citizens who find mainstream-newspaper op-ed pieces too complex to bother slogging through. And when push comes to shove at testing times (in Minnesota, for instance, where I’m from, the grade 11 reading test is based solely in various forms of non-fiction reading), English departments are left holding the bag to remediate these ill-prepared non-fiction readers. For where else is reading taught? Who’s professionally best-suited to prepare students for reading tests? English, of course! Those teachers take ‘methods of teaching reading’ courses to become certified, don’t they?

    Based on your comments, Ben, you strike me as someone who agrees with me about how typically non-fiction-based content areas have dropped the ball. It even sounds like you’ve got some less-than-enlightened folks working around you each day… I was in no means apologizing for act-of-reading strategies, because I, too, don’t believe they increase students’ chances of becoming better readers. I do believe that content areas need to own, though, that the types of reading associated with their disciplines are structured in ways that differ from others’. As such, these types of readings should be practiced regularly by them–not half-heartedly substituted for or handed off to ‘real teachers of reading’.

    Comment by Eric Kalenze — January 12, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

  13. The quality of textbooks has declined drastically, both in content and in quality/complexity of language and vocabulary. This, of course, hits the sciences and social studies the hardest, since English is more likely to use non-textbook sources of literature. Ideally, kids would be exposed to progressively more challenging texts over their elementary and middle school years, so that they would be prepared for real high-school and college texts.

    I see the watering-down of standards and the accompanying disdain for mastery as a natural consequence of full inclusion, social promotion and the pretense that everyone can become proficient (in the same amount of time, even). It’s a fantasy that can happen only if proficiency is set so low as to be meaningless.

    Comment by momof4 — January 12, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

  14. Erin,

    Thinking out loud here…

    I definitely want students to take away “subtle complex meanings”, but I can only barely imagine a Taking Away Subtle and Complex Meanings lesson that would impart this skill. When I read Dickens or Poe with the kids, I point out subtle and complex meanings, or Socratically lead students to find them themselves. I hope that by modeling this process, students will learn that there ARE subtle and complex meanings to be found in many texts, and by watching me they’ll get some clue as to how to root them out themselves. I know I never had any explicit instruction in formulae for tackling a text; I think I’ve inferred understanding of how texts work from reading a lot. However, when I think about poetry, especially, I see that explicit instruction in formal issues is truly useful; perhaps it is with other texts too. I think I’m constitutionally averse to any kind of instruction that is so arid and devoid of juicy, concrete particulars. I’d be happy to talk about the function of line breaks in the context of a Dickinson poem, but a lot less eager to abstract the concept from a particular poem and make it the main subject of a lesson.

    Comment by Ben F — January 12, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

  15. Ben F,
    Glad to hear that you are adverse to arid instruction, divorced from content. It would be great if every teacher held that same adversion.

    As a teacher, it is great that you are modeling how to understand and interpret content-dense texts. But oral instruction/discussion is not quite the same as being able to independently read and analyze a text. Conversational English is fairly simple compared to written academic English (especially in the content areas) and during the discussions you can adjust your words to clarify student misunderstandings. Not so in a written text. Understanding and learning from written material is quite a different ballpark and non-trivial. While students may be quite engaged with your classroom discussion, if you set them loose on a unfamiliar complex, content-dense text would they be equally as proficient?

    Explicit instruction on how to deconstruct and learn from a complex text is not common in our schools, but it is possible to do more than toss the students in and expect them to slug it out themselves.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — January 13, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

  16. Reading is reading in any context area, pleasure or not. We use the same brain functions, but we must remember that our brain does not store everything in one closet. Different concepts are located in different areas of the brain and those areas may not even be exactly the same for everyone. Even men and women store information differently.

    I have been teaching for almost 30 years now. Yes, the textbooks have been dummied down and there are lots of games to go along with almost anything that you want to learn. Sometimes these games are beneficial, but life is not a series of fun games. Reality is that life will contain lots of mundane activities that have to be completed, but they may not bring us great joy and feeling of accomplishment. Students are graduating form high schools and universities thinking that every day is going to be filled with excitement. Not so. I am still excited about teaching, but I can’t say that every day is exciting. On the other hand, would that not become boring because of the over stimulated minds? It is the variety of changes that actually stimulate us to do better and achieve more.

    Yes, I have read to my students, but not as a means of instruction. I have done this to encourage their independent reading. To entice them to read other literature. I do this to fill a need that I have found with many of today’s students. In our ever busy environment, our children have been neglected when it comes to being read to. Children even much older children have an inate desire to be read to. Can you image starting kindergarten and never having a book read to you? Don’t laugh. I have had these students and they aren’t even kids that are highly disadvantaged. Imagine a child who has never owned a book. This is the saddest to me. Children can not appreciate reading if they have never experienced this life event.

    Another reason that I may read a text is to model the process of comprehension through the facts, main idea, conclusions, and inferences. I may even go so far as to ask what a word means and then look it up in the dictionary. Students need to know that teachers are not all-knowing beings.

    Teachers are criticized daily for not having classrooms of high performing students. If students were clones in a science lab, this might happen. What about the student who is born with a handicap? Can they achieve at the same speed as the student who has a genius IQ or even something in between. We need to realize that students learn at different rates and different proficiencies. Students need encouragement, but they also need to know that failure is a means to success. When schools stopped allowing failing grades of students and blaming this on the teachers, they stopped being reality learning environments. In the science lab, if 10 groups of students perform the same experiment and one or two groups get somewhat different results, did they fail or do they need to redo the procedures to get the same results. How many failures have brought about new creations in technology, foods, fashion, science, etc?

    Failure should not be a negative term, but a term that means you need to try again.

    Comment by Annie — January 13, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  17. We are just in the middle of surveying the books on teaching reading recommended by teacher training courses in England. Overwhelmingly, the titles are about ‘literacy’–but very few of them deign to comment on teaching children to decode. When they do, they parrot the ‘searchlights’ model, which is the same thing as the three-cueing system in the US. Phonics is only touched with a very long spoon.

    ‘Literacy’ is to some extent about children’s literature–which, for the most part, is specifically written to appeal to children whose knowledge bases do not extent very far beyond everyday experiences. Insofar as ‘literacy’ has a purpose, it is to instil post-modern, politically-correct attitudes. Never mind that the emphasis on race serves mostly to perpetuate racism.

    The most egregious example we have found so far is the BEd course from Cambridge, which is the most prestigious teacher-training course in Britain. They did not deign to supply their reading list as required under our Freedom of Information Act, but fortunately their website is so ineptly designed that we quickly found it anyways.

    And what a production. Their trainee teachers learn virtually nothing about pedagogy: nearly every title is about ‘literacy’ in a political sense. Paolo Friere is not neglected, believe me. Cambridge-trained teachers may not know much about teaching children to subtract or the difference between a verb and a noun, but they will be fully clued-up on “Education and Literacy in developing countries” (no less than 45 titles!).

    Ironically, it would be difficult to devise a better way of keeping England’s proles in their places than by sending trainee teachers to Cambridge.

    Comment by Tom Burkard — January 13, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

  18. Treating content/background information and vocabulary as a part of “reading” is a double whammy for kids. Not only is the instruction mucked up, maintaining SES/racial gaps. Standardized Reading Tests deliberately confound background information and vocabulary in the measurement and call it “comprehension.” Kids who flunk a test item would do so if the text and test were read to them. But the failure is chalked up to “reading” attributable to a “deficit” of the child, parents, or society. And the unaccountables at the top are held harmless.

    Comment by Dick Schutz — January 13, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

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