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.