There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test

by Robert Pondiscio
June 16th, 2010

“Children who do not learn to read proficiently by the end of third grade are unlikely ever to read at grade level,” writes Sara Mead in the July/August issue of The American Prospect.  The issue features a special section titled “Reading By Grade Three” that examines the crisis in early childhood literacy.  In addition to Sara’s piece, which lays out the case for national action on early childhood literacy, Cornelia Grumman,  executive director of the First Five Years Fund, looks at the need to get kids off to a good start even before formal schooling even begins; the New America Foundation’s Lisa Guernsey cautions against letting the clear need for improved early literacy translate into classrooms that are all skills and no play; Gordon MacInnes of The Century Foundation describes how providing low-income kids with “stable, high-quality preschool and kindergarten” has made a difference in New Jersey.  Lots more good reads; the whole package can be found here.   E.D. Hirsch and I contributed a piece as well, a version of which is below.  It looks at how a fundamental misconception about the nature of reading leads to mischief in how we teach and test it.   

There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test
E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Robert Pondiscio

It is among the most common nightmares.  You dream of taking a test for which you are completely unprepared having never studied or even attended the course.  For millions of American schoolchildren, however, it is a nightmare from which they cannot wake, a Kafkaesque trial visited upon them each year when they are required by law to take a reading tests with little preparation.  Eyebrows are already being raised.  Not prepared!?  Why, preparing for reading tests has become more than just an annual ritual for schools.  It is practically their raison d’être!

Schools and teachers may indeed be making a Herculean effort to raise reading scores, but paradoxically these efforts do little to improve reading achievement and to prepare children for college, career and a lifetime of productive, engaged citizenship.  This wasted effort is not because, as many would have it, our teachers are lazy or of low quality.   Rather, too many of our schools labor under fundamental misconceptions about reading comprehension, how it works, how to improve it, and how to test it.

Reading is not a Skill

Reading, like riding a bike, is an ability we acquire as children and generally never lose.  Some of us are more confident on two wheels than others and some of us, we believe, are better readers than others.  We view reading ability as a broad, generalized skill that is easily measured and assessed.  We judge our schools and increasingly individual teachers based on their ability to improve the reading ability of our children.  When you think about your ability to read—if you think about it at all—the chances are good that you perceive it as not just a skill, but a readily transferable skill.  Once you learn how to read you can competently read a novel, a newspaper article, or the latest memo from corporate headquarters.  Reading is reading is reading.  Either you can do it, or you cannot. 

This view of reading is only partially correct. The ability to translate written symbols into sounds, commonly called “decoding,” is indeed a skill that can be taught and mastered.  This explains why you are able to “read” nonsense words such as “rigfap” or “churbit.”  Once a child masters “letter-sound correspondence,” or phonics, we might say she can “read” since she can reproduce the sounds represented by written language.  But clearly there’s more to reading making sounds.  To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command—to read, write, listen and speak with understanding.  As nearly any elementary school teacher can attest, it is possible to decode skillfully yet struggle with comprehension.  And reading comprehension, the ability to extract meaning from text, is not transferable. 

Cognitive scientists describe comprehension as “domain specific.”  If a baseball fan reads “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game” he needs not another word to understand that the New York Yankees lost when Alex Rodriguez came up with a man on first base and one out; he hit a groundball to the shortstop, who threw to the second baseman, who relayed to first in time to catch Rodriguez for the final out.  If you’ve never heard of A-Rod or a 6-4-3 double play and cannot reconstruct the game situation, you are not a poor reader.  You merely lack the domain specific knowledge of baseball to fill in the gaps.  

Even simple texts, like the ones our children read on their all-important reading tests, are filled with gaps—presumed domain knowledge—that the writer assumes the reader knows.  Research also tells us that familiarity with domain knowledge increases fluency, broadens vocabulary (you can pick up words in context), and enables deeper reading and listening comprehension.

A simple model, then, would be to think of reading as a two-lock box, requiring two keys to open. The first key is decoding skills. The second key is oral language, vocabulary and domain-specific or background knowledge sufficient to understand what is being decoded.   Even this simple understanding of reading enables us to see that the very idea of an abstract skill called “reading comprehension” is ill-informed.  Yet most U.S. schools teach reading as if both decoding and comprehension are transferable skills (more on that in a moment). Worse, we test our children’s reading ability without regard to whether or not we have given them the requisite background knowledge they need to be successful.    

Who is a “good reader?”

Researchers have consistently demonstrated that in order to understand what you’re reading, you need to know something about the subject matter.   Students who are identified as “poor readers” often comprehend with relative ease when asked to read passages on familiar subjects, outperforming even “good readers” who lack relevant background knowledge.  One well-known study looked at junior high school students judged to be either good or poor readers in terms of their ability to decode or read aloud fluently. Some knew a lot of about baseball, while others knew little. The children read a passage written at an early 5th-grade reading level, describing the action in a game. As they read, they were asked to move models of ballplayers around a replica baseball diamond to illustrate the action in the passage. If reading comprehension was a transferable skill that could be taught, practiced and mastered then the students who were “good” readers should have had no trouble outperforming the “poor” readers.  In fact (and perhaps intuitively) just the opposite happened.  Poor readers with high content knowledge outperformed good readers with low content knowledge.  Such findings should challenge our very idea of who is or is not good reader: if reading is the means by which we receive ideas and information, then the good reader is one who best understands the author’s words.

You have probably felt the uncomfortable sensation of feeling like a poor reader when struggling to understand a new product warranty, directions for installing a computer operating system, or some other piece of writing where your lack of background knowledge left you feeling out of your depth.  Your rate of reading slows.  You find yourself repeating sentences over and over to make sure you understand.  If this happens only rarely to you, it is because you possess a broad range of background knowledge—the more you know, the more you are able to communicate and comprehend. The implications of this insight for teaching children to read should be obvious: The more domain knowledge our children receive the more capable readers they will become.

The message has not reached American classrooms, however.  A stubborn belief in reading comprehension as a transferable skill combined with the immense pressures of testing and accountability has created something like a perfect storm—ever more time is being wasted (and wasted is not too strong a word) on scattered, trivial and incoherent reading.   A study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that only four percent of 1st grade class time in American elementary schools is spent on science, and two percent on social studies.  In third grade, about five percent of class time goes to each of these subjects.  Meanwhile a whopping 62% in 1st grade and 47% in 3rd is spent on language arts. 

Most young American children spend anywhere from 90 minutes to two-and-a-half hours a day in something educators call the “literacy block,” an extended period which might include  reading aloud, small group “guided reading,” independent writing, and other activities aimed at increasing children’s verbal skills.  Reading instruction largely focuses on teaching and practicing all-purpose “reading comprehension strategies”—helping students to find the main idea of passage, make inferences or identify the author’s purpose.  The general idea is to arm young readers with a suite of all-purpose tricks and tips for thinking about reading that can be applied to any text the child may encounter.   Careful readers may be thinking, “if the ability to understand what you read is a function of your domain-specific background knowledge, then how is it possible to teach all-purpose reading strategies?”  It’s a question well worth asking.  And one that seldom is.  

Reading strategies figured prominently in the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel, and reading strategies work, to a point. Reading comprehension scores tend to go up after instruction in strategies, but it’s a one-time boost.  The major contribution of such instruction is to help beginning readers know that text, like speech, is supposed to make sense.  If someone says something you don’t understand, you can always ask that person to repeat, explain, or give an example.  Reading strategies offer similar workarounds for print.  They’re not useless, but repeated practice seems to have little or no effect.

“The mistaken idea that reading is a skill—learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies and you can read anything—may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country,” wrote Daniel T. Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, recently in the Washington Post.  “Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge base problem must be solved.”

Tests Worth Teaching To

Once the connection between content and comprehension becomes clear, two conclusions come almost unbidden.  Our present system of testing reading ability is inherently unfair.  Since reading comprehension is not a transferable skill, unless we ensure that all children have access to the same body of knowledge, the student with the greater store of background knowledge will always have a strong advantage.  The second conclusion is even worse: the content-neutral way that we teach reading, as a discrete set of skills and strategies, is counterproductive and even irresponsible.

If our schools understood and acted upon the clear evidence that domain-specific content knowledge is foundational to literacy, reading instruction might look very different in our children’s classrooms.  Rather than idle away precious hours on trivial stories or randomly chosen nonfiction, reading, writing and listening instruction would be built into study of ancient civilizations in first grade, for example, Greek mythology in second , or the human body in third.  Recently, the Core Knowledge Foundation has been piloting precisely such a language arts program in a small number of schools in New York City and elsewhere.  Initial results are promising, however it is crucial to remember that building domain knowledge is a long-term proposition.  All reading tests are cumulative.  The measurable benefit of broad background knowledge can take years to reveal itself.

At present, teachers are tacitly discouraged from taking the long view.  Indeed, what incentive would a 2nd grade teacher have to emphasize content that might not show up on a test until 6th grade, if even then?  There is more upside for teachers in doing exactly what they chiefly do now – test prep, skills and strategies – unless we actively incentivize a domain-specific approach to language arts.

Let us propose a reasonable, simple, even elegant alternative to replace the vicious circle of narrowed curriculum and comprehension skills of limited efficacy, which over time depress reading achievement.  By tying the content of reading tests to specific curricular content, the circle becomes virtuous.   Here’s how it would work:  let’s say a state’s 4th grade science standards includes the circulatory system, atoms and molecules, electricity, Earth’s geologic layers and weather; Social Studies standards include world geography, Europe in the Middle Ages, the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution, among other domains.  The state’s reading tests should include not just fiction and poetry, but nonfiction readings on those topics and others culled from those specific curriculum standards.  Teachers would still teach to the test, emphasizing domain specific knowledge (because it might be on the test), but no one would object, since it would help students not only pass the current year’s test, but to build the broad background knowledge that enables them to become stronger readers in general. 

The benefits of such “curriculum-based reading tests” would be many:  tests would be fairer, and a better reflection (teacher quality advocates take note) of how well a student had learned the particular year’s curriculum.  The tests would also exhibit “consequential validity” meaning they would actually improve education.  Instead of wasted hours of mind-numbing test prep and reading strategy lessons of limited value, the best test-taking strategy would be to spend time learning the material in the curriculum standards—a true virtuous circle.

By contrast let’s imagine what it is like to be a 4th grade boy in a struggling South Bronx elementary school, sitting for a high-stakes reading test.  If you do not pass, you are facing summer school or repeating the grade.  Because the school has large numbers of students below grade level, they have drastically cut back on science, social studies, art, music—even gym and recess—to focus on reading and math.  You have spent the year learning and practicing reading strategies.  Your teacher, worried about her performance, has relentlessly hammered test-taking strategies for months.

The test begins and the very first passage concerns the customs of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.  You do not know what a custom is; neither do you know who the Dutch were, or even what a colony is.  You have never heard of Amsterdam, old or new.  Certainly it’s never come up in class.  Without background knowledge you struggle with most of the passages on the test.  You never had a chance.   Meanwhile, across town, more affluent students take and pass the test with ease. They are no more bright or capable than you are, but because they have wider general knowledge—as students who come from advantaged backgrounds so often do—the test is not much of a challenge.  Those who think reading is a transferable skill and take their background knowledge for granted may well wonder what all the fuss is about.  Those kids and teachers in the Bronx struggle all year and fail to get ready for this? Why, all the answers are right there on the page!

It ends, as it inevitably must, in the finger pointing that plagues American education.  Do not blame the tests.  Taxpayers are entitled to know if the schools they support are any good, and reading tests, all things considered, are quite reliable.  Do not blame the test writers.  They have no idea what topics are being taught in school and their job is done when tests show certain technical characteristics. It is unfair to blame teachers, since they are mainly operating to the best of their ability using the methods in which they were trained.  And let’s certainly not blame the parents of our struggling young man in the South Bronx.  Is it unreasonable to assume that a child who dutifully goes to school every day will gain access to the same rich, enabling domains of knowledge that more affluent children take for granted?

It’s not unreasonable at all.  That’s what schools are supposed to be for.  The only thing unreasonable is our refusal to see reading for what it really is, and to teach and test reading accordingly.


  1. Super-lucid! I especially like the New Amsterdam example.

    Comment by Ben F — June 16, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  2. Congratulations to both authors. I hope administrators read the article carefully and reconsider the assumptions of their “literacy” programs. They should give much thought to these words: “Instead of wasted hours of mind-numbing test prep and reading strategy lessons of limited value, the best test-taking strategy would be to spend time learning the material in the curriculum standards–a true virtuous cycle.”

    One thing I’d like to add. Even if a curriculum is carefully constructed so that students build the needed background knowledge across subject areas, students should also learn to struggle with things they do not immediately understand. They should learn to sit with difficult texts and problems for hours until pieces start to come clear.

    There are situations, of course, where it is counterproductive to struggle with something that is much too difficult. It will result in frustration and sloppy work. Someone who has just started piano cannot play Liszt. Even hours of effort, weeks on end, will likely result in so much banging. Someone who is still learning arithmetic should not be plunged into linear algebra. But this still leaves open a wide area of challenge. If we expect students to read and work with only those things they understand, they will miss out on some of the best.

    And perhaps that is a transferable skill: the ability to stick with a difficult problem or challenging text. If so, it is well worth transfering.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 16, 2010 @ 10:01 am

  3. Excellent article. All teachers take note – reading aloud across the curriculum will produce huge gains in knowledge transfer, vocabulary, prosody and comprehension of texts. This is is how teachers take unreachable texts and topics due to readability levels and make it accessible for all students.

    Comment by Shannon Dipple — June 16, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Monique Le Pailleur and Erny-Newton E., Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: E.D. Hirsch and yours truly explain in The American Prospect why there's no such thing as a "reading test." [...]

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  5. Absolutely brilliant description regarding why these glorified study skills (e.g. reading strategies) have failed to enable unknowledgable students from succeeding on reading tests. And thank you for pointing out that it is not the testing or the teachers that are at fault but the lack of content-rich curricula.

    Regarding your very important closing: “The only thing unreasonable is our refusal to see reading for what it really is, and to teach and test reading accordingly.”

    This, of course, is the most problematic element of school reform. Who is supposed to realize that reading is not a skill? Certainly, you do. Willingham does. And probably many of the readers of this blog.

    So how do you convince everyone at Teacher’s College that reading comprehension is not a skill? Certainly, reason and evidence have done little to dissuade advocates of TC Reader’s Workshop that their approach may not enable students to learn well.

    It is gratifying that the CCSSI standards have tried to include content into their standards. But considering that any state standards (good or bad) have had little effect at changing classroom practice, how likely is it that the CCSSI standards will be any different?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 16, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  6. Agreed, agreed–Hirsch hits the nail on the head. And Erin’s right, too: we need to see reading for what it is, and teach and test accordingly. Which might mean scrapping Reading First and dibels (the nonsense-word decoding exercises Hirsch describes) and the tons of phonics worksheets that are given to “remdedial” readers in the 4th grade, in hopes that they’ll make “basic” on the test.

    Let’s give kids rich and interesting content, right out of the chute. And let’s give it to all kids, rich and poor– poems and stories and information about their world and its systems, cultures, events and achievements. And let’s use real literature, not watered-down, leveled pseudo-lit. It all sounds great to me.

    In fact, it sounds a lot like the whole language program used by the ordinary elementary school my children attended in Hartland, Michigan. The one they abandoned in the wake of the National Reading Panel’s findings.

    Thanks for posting the piece–it’s brilliant. I couldn’t agree more.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 16, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

  7. Bull’s eye!

    This month’s American Educator has a great piece by Linda Perlstein that complements your piece nicely. She describes the mind-numbing test-prep activities at an elementary school that boosted its state test scores at the expense of content knowledge. The teachers at that school seemed to have few illusions about what their students actually knew–and how hard they’d fall when they entered middle school. (Perlstein’s piece was adapted from her book, Tested).

    Comment by Claus — June 16, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  8. Excellent article, EXCELLENT. I can’t begin to tell you how many elementary teachers I taught with who all but refused to teach science or social studies because they insisted there was no time. They spent (without exaggeration) 75% of their day teaching reading/literacy under the philosophy that children were to “learn to read” in the primary grades so they could then spend the remaining years of elementary school reading to learn. They were also very reluctant to even spend time teaching math. Meanwhile, the first two to four years were spent on reading/literacy at the expense of content knowledge in the other important disciplines. You simply could not dissuade these folks from their longstanding beliefs. You could also walk into the teachers’ room on any given December 7th and attempt to initiate a conversation regarding Pearl Harbor and none of them, I mean not a one, had any idea what you were talking about.

    As well as the example of A-Rod hitting into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game (music to the ears of a lifelong Red Sox fan), I also like the example Don used in his book with a passage on cricket. There are indeed few in this country that could ever get any questions correct on a test regarding this passage based entirely on their lack of background knowledge of this relatively foreign topic.

    Now you need to somehow get the word out to schools across the country without sounding like your pedaling Don Hirsch’s mantra or his books

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 16, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  9. The problem in reading instruction is the same one plaguing all the academic subjects in K-12: corruption. The faulty pseudoscience of pedagogy, which aims to replace specific subject-matter in the schools with gimmicky, vapid, formalistic thinking skills across the board (as Dr. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch have pointed out numerous times before), maintains great commercial and philosophical appeal in our profession. That’s how content-reading got displaced by “higher-order thinking skills” in the first place, and it’s what still allows pedagogues who know nothing about art, literature, science, history, or mathematics to dictate what teachers do and how they do it. While I’m grateful to Dr. Hirsch and Mr. Pondiscio for another superb article, I’m afraid even they underestimate the powerful cottage industry that they’re implicitly challenging here. Forget the children; there are careers and fortunes at stake.

    Comment by James — June 16, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

  10. Excellent article!

    I will, however, have to respectfully disagree with Nancy on the “whole language” vs. phonics issue. If the kids don’t receive systematic phonics instruction, many of them will never get to the point where they can read “real literature”.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — June 16, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

  11. Reading comprehension and decoding are decidedly different elements of reading ability. Decoding is a skill that does require (for the vast majority of students) systematic and explict instruction. Conventional phonics is not the optimal way of enabling this skill as the techniques used are often incomplete, and take way to long. Great decoding instruction using synthetic phonics should be completed within one year not the 2-3 years usually seen in conventional phonics. That being said, for young children who have not automated their decoding skills, oral language development using read alouds of good literature and extensive non-fiction in support of future reading ability can accelerate the development of “reading comprehension”.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 17, 2010 @ 12:28 am

  12. Thanks for taking the bait, CW and Erin.

    Not to worry–I personally have great clarity around the dynamics of high-quality reading instruction and don’t need a primer on optimum timetables for mastering decoding. It’s easy to say that teachers should not have to use explicit phonics/decoding strategies beyond a certain time period, but–alas–they often must, and the kinds of non-reading reading tests that Hirsch describes here are pushing even the very best reading teachers into endless skill and drill work. The stakes are high for emerging readers and just as high for teacher evaluation and public perception of school efficacy, so they keep grinding away.

    My point was echoed in your last sentence: “for young children who have not automated their decoding skills, oral language development using read alouds of good literature and extensive non-fiction in support of future reading ability can accelerate the development of reading comprehension.” Precisely.

    I’m thinking of the markers of a good whole language program: immersing students who have not yet “clicked” (developed sufficient fluency in decoding) in a print-rich environment with real literature, trade books and multiple genres, fiction and non-fiction, as a means of developing knowledge to support comprehension, as decoding catches up. It sounds just like what Hirsch is describing.

    I never said students don’t need phonics instruction. Of course they do. Only that the “comprehension” part is integrated from the start in whole language–and that perhaps in demonizing whole language (something I’ve seen here fairly often) we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 17, 2010 @ 1:46 am

  13. And I’m so NOT taking the bait. If there’s one thing I learned as a teacher it’s not to reward attention-seeking behavior from troublemakers. ;-)

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 17, 2010 @ 8:47 am

  14. [...] There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test « T&#1… [...]

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  15. As part of my Alternative Certification in Math & Science for Grades 4-8, I have to undertake a course in ‘Reading Skills for Adolescents’. Math & Science content area teachers are being encouraged to spend part of their instructional time reading to the class from a wide range of trade books, magazines and other sources.

    Sounds very interesting in theory. Makes me wonder whether I will ever really have the time to fit this in.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — June 17, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

  16. Nancy, At risk of rewarding attention-seeking behavior, “whole language” was discredited by the NRP, not because of the use of quality literature in the classroom, but because more students were not learning to decode using whole language approaches (e.g. the 3-cueing system) when compared to conventional phonics. Clearly if students cannot decode the words on the page their reading comprehension will suffer even if their oral language is quite high.

    And I agree that the baby was thrown out with the bath water, with regard to the inclusion of content-rich language in the early grades. Unfortunately, the emphasis of whole language on the incidental acquision of decoding skills (using the 3-cueing system) did lead to more students with inadequate decoding skills when compared to conventional phonics.

    While conventional phonics has not been that great for our students, the 3-cueing system was even worse. I would hope that at some point that schools will adopt the synthetic phonics techniques which are more enclusive and take tremendously less time to enable fluent decoding skills than conventional phonics.

    I am glad to hear that at least we are in agreement about the use of quality literature and non-fiction in developing oral language for young children.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 17, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

  17. It’s much easier to create a foundation of effective decoding instruction and scaffold content/literacy experiences around it, than the reverse.

    Comment by JB — June 18, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  18. [...] There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test « The Core Knowledge Blog [...]

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  19. Surely the most important aspect of reading comprehension is ability to learn something new by reading about it. When I was a child growing up in the rural state of Idaho, I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”. I had never been to a big city, and I had never even heard of Brooklyn. In spite of my lack of background knowledge, I loved the book. It gave me insight into a world that was very different from anything that I had experienced. Much, perhaps most, of my background knowledge comes from things that I have learned by reading about them. A reading test that only covered subjects that students already knew about would be of limited value. Children need to be able to learn new things by reading about them.

    Comment by Ray — June 19, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

  20. This is the most reasonable article by E.D. Hirsch I’ve ever read. That being said, I see some flaws. First–and this is shocking for someone (Hirsch) who puts such high value on vocabulary–the authors never clearly define their central terms: “skill,” “ability,” or “transfer.” Second, I wonder how accurate the depiction of elementary classroom practice is. I teach 7th and 8th grade, and my reading instruction is nothing like what these authors represent. Last, their “elegant” solution (content-specific reading tests) opens up a hornets nest: standardizing state (or even national) curriculum. Of course, that’s Hirsch’s life-long pet project. (smile)

    Comment by Howard Fishbein — June 19, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

  21. I’ve always found it interesting that there seem to be so many people who are both enamored of the French/Finnish/Korean/Japanese/Singaporean etc. schools and firmly opposed to a national curriculum; which all of those countries have.

    Comment by momof4 — June 19, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  22. This article points out what a terrible situation we face. I have read E.D. Hirsch’s previous writings along these lines as well as Daniel Willingham’s. I respect the work of both men and accept their conclusions. The problem is that, as a teacher, their work provides next to no practical advice as to how to proceed. They tell us, correctly I’m sure, that the current practices are misguided. Thus we know what not to do. Unfortunately, their advice for fixing the problem involves revising our approach for future students without so much as a backward glance at those currently in the system! There is no attempt here to address the needs of students currently attending school. Instead, the discussion moves to reforming curriculum and developing curriculum-based reading tests. How does that help a 15 year old who is currently reading at a fifth-grade level? Can we tell the parents of an older struggling reader that the solution to their child’s problem is to do a better job with kindergarteners in the future? The work of reforming the system to prevent problems in the future is vital, yet focusing on only that effort leaves an enormous gap. It is a stunning omission.

    Comment by Robert Fauceau — June 20, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

  23. [...] say that reading is not a skill and there’s no such thing as a reading test, among other [...]

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  24. @RobertFauceau I guess it is a stunning ommission, except for, oh, the last 30 years of Hirsch’s work. I suppose he could have outlined a grade-by-grade sequence of what children need to become fully literate, but…oh, wait…he DID that. And since that has existed in print for longer than any current K-12 student has been in school your point is….well, what IS your point?

    Forgive my churlish response, but I’ve written often about my skepticism about magic bullet solutions. But there’s an equal and opposite phenomenon that is equally bizarre: education criticism that says any solution that does not address all problems at once is invalid. Diane Ravitch faced a lot of this earlier this year when critics of her book dismissed it for “not offering solutions” and instead of a merely devastating bill of particulars of current ed reform thought and policy. It’s tantamount to saying “Well, fine, young man, the Emperor is indeed wearing no clothes. But what exactly do you plan to do about it?”

    If I read you correctly, you’re suggesting that any diagnosis of current problems in reading instruction–and a plan of action–are meaningless unless it also offers a how-to solution for remediation.


    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 22, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

  25. I’d like to see the goal of reading by the end of grade one. Some kids would need more time and some would need less, but I can’t believe that most kids can’t be reading by the end of first grade WITH GOOD CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION. For kids who arrive with language deficits, that will require lots of high-quality read-alouds, but real instruction and content should start at school entry.

    Comment by momof4 — June 23, 2010 @ 8:53 am

  26. Robert,

    I know this is off-topic a bit, but shortly after seeing this, I came across this, from the co-founder of Wikiepdia (now not affiliated with it):

    It looks like something you would definitely want to talk about! He talks explicitly about “core knowledge”.


    Comment by Nathan — June 24, 2010 @ 11:26 am

  27. momof4,

    A lofty goal and “most kids” might be a bit of a stretch.

    Look at who NCLB was aimed at; poor/minority inner-city kids. This is clearly the population we’ve been aiming at for at least the better part of the past quarter century. And how has that worked out? We’re still woefully unsuccessful at closing the achievement gap with too many of these kids left far, far behind.

    Additionally, we all know this is NOT the sole fault of our schools. To get all/most youngsters in this country reading by the end of first grade will take a major paradigm shift in home/family environments of this extensive cohort. Much of this, of course, can be linked directly to poverty. HOWEVER, there are many willing parents/guardians simply lacking the knowledge as to how to raise their children, what’s appropriate versus what should be taboo. If there were some vehicle to address this issue (local hospitals, perhaps) to offer a parental primer to the target audience, at least some of these issues could finally be addressed.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 24, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  28. @Paul, @Momof4, I am assuming that Momof4 means that all kids should be fluently decoding by the end of first grade. It is not a stretch that all kids should be able to learn to decode fluently (exeptions might include deaf children or those with severe cognitive deficits). Decoding is a skill and once learned/automated is highly transferable to any word. (Comprehension, as so eloquently written above by Robert and Prof. Hirsch, is not a skill and thus the transferablity of reading comprehension is highly questionable.)

    In Finland, all kids do learn to decode in about 9 months. Something that doesn’t happen in most English speaking countries as our orthography is a bit complex and our traditions for teaching decoding rather poor. But with a well organized method of instruction (e.g. synthetic phonics), all kids can learn to fluently decode within one year.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — June 25, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

  29. Excellent article and on point. We must work with our children to help them master their math and reading skills.

    Comment by Mike Theodore — August 18, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

  30. I like the concept of tests that are worth teaching to. I see that as we go further with the core curriculum, this pops it head up more.

    Comment by Julia — January 21, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

  31. [...] background knowledge as much as anything else. In fact, as Hirsch and Robert Pondicsio argued in a must-read piece in the American Prospect from [...]

    Pingback by Pearson crosses a line | Stop Common Core Illinois — May 5, 2013 @ 11:43 am

  32. [...] background knowledge as much as anything else. In fact, as Hirsch and Robert Pondicsio argued in a must-read piece in the American Prospect from 2010, Even simple texts, like those on reading tests, are filled [...]

    Pingback by The problem with Pearson-designed tests that threatens thousands of scores — May 6, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

  33. I was interning in a first grade class and had a brilliant idea; to bring in a large picture book on ancient civilizations and show it to the children/students. After getting permission from the teacher the next day I brought in the book, the students gathered around in a circle and I went through section by section showing them far-away places from long, long ago. Their eyes and ears were so open and interested. I believe as an educator that children at first grade and earlier are ready for the classics. They may not be ready to read them but they are ready to hear from them which in turn will spark their learning and put them on a path of genius.

    Comment by John Sparacio — July 28, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

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