Turning Decoders Into Readers

by Robert Pondiscio
June 9th, 2011

I’m a fan of PBS’s John Merrow.  He is the rare television journalist—perhaps the only one—who has the interest, background and sufficient airtime to give thorny education topics the nuanced treatment they deserve.  The other night he devoted nearly ten minutes of PBS’s Newshour to an intriguing question:  Can a good school have bad test scores?  To answer it, he and his producer Cat McGrath visited P.S. 1, a South Bronx school that appears to be filled with bright, eager learners and devoted teachers, yet is “failing” as judged by its terrible reading scores.  What’s going on?

“We discovered that the FIRST graders at that school were reading confidently and competently, Merrow writes on his blog, “but the fourth graders weren’t according to the results of the state test. Is this a paradox, or a full-blown contradiction?”  Merrow attempted to figure out where things leave the rails between first and fourth grades–an earnest, but ultimately frustrating piece that correctly diagnoses the problem, but fails to uncover or sufficiently examine its root causes.

Merrow starts by correctly pointing out that there is a big difference between “reading” in the first grade and “reading” in fourth grade.  Indeed, they’re hardly the same activity. Observing a phonics lesson in a first grade classroom, he points out that “Ms. Hunt’s students seem to be getting it. What they are doing is called decoding, but decoding is only half the battle. Understanding what the words mean is a much harder skill called comprehension. It’s where many children fall flat.”

For starters comprehension is not a “skill” at all.  Your ability to read with comprehension depends on many things.  You must be able to decode.  You must know all (or nearly all) of the words.  And you must know at least a little about the subject matter of the text to construct a mental model that allows you to make meaning correctly.   “My dog is sleeping on the couch” is easy to understand; “ My Havanese is snoozing on the divan” means more or less the same thing as long as you know about dogs and furniture, and understand that “snooze” is a synonym for sleep. 

Only 18% of P.S 1′s 4th graders are reading at or above grade level.  The good decoders have failed to become strong readers. What happened?  One 4th grade teacher says the children’s home lives start to take a toll.

“They’re not as innocent anymore. They’re realizing the things that are affecting their schoolwork. You know, I mean, I have homeless students in my room. I have students with fathers in jail. There’s drugs. So, that obviously comes into play at a certain point as well.”

Another 4th grade teacher suggests the grind of test prep and test anxiety is the issue.  “The system takes the fun out of reading,” observes Brenda Cartagena.  “I want them to read for enjoyment. I want them to grab that book because it’s fun. I tell them, reading, you travel, you meet new friends, you learn how to do new things. But it’s very difficult, you know? They take the joy out. And it’s hard to infuse it back.”

Full disclosure: I spent a significant amount of time talking to producer McGrath as she and Merrow prepared the piece.  I stressed the importance of vocabulary and background knowledge and how reading comprehension, unlike decoding, is not a transferable “skill” at all.  How the tests children take are de facto tests of general knowledge.  To what degree, I wondered, does the instruction these South Bronx kids receive reflect that?  Having taught at a nearby school in the same district a few blocks away, I suspected the answer is “not at all.”   To their credit Merrow and McGrath looked at the tests.  Merrow writes on his blog:

“We looked over past tests, and, sure enough, the passages were about subjects that poor kids in the south Bronx may not be familiar with (cicadas or dragonflies were two of the subjects, for example). Answering the questions did require inferential leaps, just as we had been told.

“So we asked to talk with a couple of fourth graders who were reading below grade level, and here’s where it got complicated.  As you will see in the NewsHour piece, both children, one age 9 and the other 11, handled the passages and answered all the questions. Maybe the personal attention helped, but they read easily and drew inferences correctly. We only ‘tested’ a couple of kids, but both were below grade-level, their teacher assured us.”

Again, did they “read easily?”  Or did they decode easily?  And I’m not as confident as Merrow that they “drew inferences correctly.”  Here’s what viewers saw Monday night on the Newshour:

JOHN MERROW: I wondered how the fourth-grade class might perform on the state test this year, and asked Ms. Cartagena to send me two of her students who were reading below great level.

Jeannette, who is 9, came first.

STUDENT: So far, I have hoped to find many new species.

JOHN MERROW: I asked her to read a passage about dragonflies from last year’s state test.

STUDENT: About 5,500 dragonfly species buzz around the world. Who doesn’t like — like looking at these amazing insects?

JOHN MERROW: What are species?


JOHN MERROW: Kinds. It’s kinds of species. Right. Exactly. Yes.

Exactly right?  It is impossible to know, based on this exchange, if the child understands “species” as well as Merrow assumes or if she has a sufficient grasp of what a dragonfly is to apply the concept.  As a teacher, I’d want to probe more for understanding, “if you’re looking at two dragonflies, how can you tell if they are different species?” you might ask.  If she said they might be different colors or have different shaped wings, I’d feel reasonably confident that she understands the basic idea.  If she says “one’s male and one’s female” or can’t explain the difference at all, then the concept is still shaky, or she might not know enough about dragonflies to apply it. Either way it would impact her ability to draw inferences and make meaning from the passage.

Given that the achievement gap long predates test-driven accountability, you could sensibly argue that that testing makes the problem worse, but it cannot be the root cause.  Similarly, the idea that “real life catches up with kids” by 4th grade is unsatisfying.  If reading comprehension is a skill like riding a bike or throwing a ball through a hoop (it’s not), it is not an ability you would suddenly lose if your father was sent to prison or you were evicted from your home.

What Merrow either didn’t probe or did not air is what – what exactly – the instruction given to these children in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade looks like.  Are they being steeped in a content-rich curriculum that would make it less likely that concepts like cicadas, dragonflies and species would be unfamiliar at test time?  Or is the school operating, as most do, on the incorrect  assumption that reading comprehension is a transferable skill?  That decoding + engagement + content-free reading strategies is enough to guarantee success? When this formula fails, as it inevitably must, it is normal to look to outside causes like poverty, fractured families and test anxiety as root causes.  These things certainly work against student engagement and achievement, but they are clearly not the cause of failure. 

Merrow is due a lot of credit for  taking a nuanced view of reading and and asking the right question: why doesn’t early decoding success automatically turn in to comprehension success?  But ultimately the piece doesn’t provide the answer.


  1. Thanks for sharing this piece. It would be interesting to see how kids across all socio-economic strata would do if we gave state assessments that were written at grade-level, but contained content that was as obscure as possible — content similar to your example “ My Havanese is snoozing on the divan.”

    I appreciated Merrow’s piece because he showed an orderly urban public school where children are learning and teachers are teaching. If one were to merely look at the school’s assessment scores, it would be easy to assume that the school is a failure. But as someone who has taught most elementary grades, I know how challenging it has been for the teachers to get the kids where they need to be.

    I don’t doubt that if we had a curricula that emphasized discrete content that every fourth-grader should know, the kids in PS 1 would do well. Those teachers and students would work hard to know and understand what they need to know and understand.

    But as our curriculum and state standards are currently designed, state assessments are a “crap shoot” for some urban kids. This is unfair, undemocratic and damaging to children’s psyches.

    Comment by bkteacher — June 9, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

  2. Very strong argument. As you point out, a lot needs to be taken apart here. First, what is the school actually teaching to fourth graders? Second, which questions on the test seem to pose problems for them?

    The whole concept of “grade level” should be taken apart. It is based on the erroneous assumption that students progress in some predictable manner from large illustrations to small ones to no illustrations at all; from large print to small print; from short words to long words; from short sentences to long, complex sentences; and from fairytales to novels about teen gangs and broken homes. Some progression of this sort does occur, but as you point out, so much depends on what students know.

    All the same, I am intrigued by Merrow’s observation that the students seemed to do better when questioned personally. You make a good point: Merrow may have been stretching things a little when he took their responses as a sign that they understood the passages and the concepts in them. A fuzzy understanding might sound ok but might lead to an incorrect answer (or slew of answers) on the test.

    But if I am not mistaken, he was asking them to choose from the options on the test. So presumably they would have given the same answer on the test. What’s the difference, then? I suspect it may be easier to come up with one right answer in relaxed conversation than to produce twenty under pressure.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 10, 2011 @ 9:06 am

  3. Robert, This is great analysis! I agree with your take. Merrow is due lots of credit, but the challenge is that this stuff gets deep fast. “God is in the details.” content matters. And the fact is that the teachers at this school have to be much better than teachers in more affluent places to make up for the disadvantage that the children have.

    Comment by Bill Jackson — June 10, 2011 @ 11:20 am

  4. Thanks, Bill. I agree that teachers need to be at the top of their game to succeed at a school like PS1. That said, it is entirely possible to be at the top of the game you were trained to play, work your butt off…and fail. If teachers are implementing a content-free reading curriculum they can be stellar pros and still get dismal results. The dominant feature of schools like this, I believe, is teachers working hard and failing. This will continue until we change the dominant views of how to teach reading from content-neutral to content-rich

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 10, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  5. I wonder if the teachers who find it hard to make reading interesting after third grade have tried history readings, and if the teachers who have a hard time with that do much reading on their own. Nonreading teachers are more likely to have nonreading students, I would guess.

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — June 10, 2011 @ 11:42 am

  6. Wonderful piece–and I think that you are spot-on: by 4th grade, reading is a synthesis of discrete skills and accessible, integrated background knowledge. You might even call that a constructivist philosophy, but don’t let me get distracted here (grin).

    I give Merrow credit for probing at the issue with his non-educator perspectives. He may not have fully uncovered what was happening, but he gave it a better effort than most surface-level analyses of reading scores. And I don’t fault the teachers for suggesting that skills-based, test-prep instruction and the impoverished lives the kids are leading are part of the reason their ability to comprehend is lagging.

    In some ways, the fact that the children’s out-of-school lives are marked by the ravages of poverty goes some way to explain why they haven’t had lots of higher-level interactions around concepts like classification of dragonflies, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 10, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

  7. As compelling as Merrow was – and is – I think you missed his point. Qualitative assessments are messy, and, at heart, assessing reading skills in 4th grade are a lot messier than lots of other skills earlier and later. And comprehension is, as you well demonstrate, a quality rather than a skill, and estimated better from indirect measures than from how much a kid recalls or which alternative answer seems more worthwhile. Keeping in mind that many bubble tests attempt to seduce answers that are “wrong,” when most urban students I know identify answers as “better,” this is an even more difficult metric.

    One of the questions John might have examined is why suburban or rich kids actually do have more access to more “content” measures. It’s not merely class, nor verbal skills, nor parents in or out of jail (Madoff mitigates that metric). Yet it is an attitude toward content – toward utility and purpose – which distinguishes these class-like differentiations. From this direction, my concern is less with why some fail than how others may appear to succeed, and whether that success actually prepares them for multicultural, multi-class, and continuously changing international demographics. I think the low scores in the Bronx, given the high interest, energy and critical skills kids demonstrate on other measures, undercuts other successful skills in Great Neck.

    For a very different perspective on the same issues, look at http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/06/06/110606crat_atlarge_menand. Louis Menand in the New Yorker frames the same question, I think, a little more elegantly than Merrow, since his target is higher ed evaluation (which is only a few years later in the sequence, but a whole lot classier in its bias).

    Menand’s argument is that schools (college in his case) are vehicles to segregate people, and to tune their skills to different classes, professions, and values. The successful school in the Bronx, using such a metric, might well not test the same way as the successful school in Rye or Great Neck, just as Harvard ain’t a state community college. THERE is the rub. And that’s also why the key to “core values” is to tuning those values to success in a less class-bound chord.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — June 10, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

  8. This is where I’m really struggling with my 2nd child. He was a late talker and his vocabulary still is a bit lagging for his age (5 1/2). He is an excellent decoder and can fluently read just about anything. But often he can’t comprehend what he just read- it might as well be gibberish: “The garglezonk fribbered the snarfblatt.” I really have to work with him to explicitly teach vocabulary because he doesn’t pick them up by osmosis like my oldest child does.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — June 10, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

  9. As elementary teachers learn in college and even sooner in the classroom; in K-2, kids learn to read; after that, kids read to learn. This begs the question; what access do poor children from the inner city have to a rich variety of literature versus middle class youngsters from the suburbs?

    Going from content neutral to content rich curricula is key as Robert continually points out on this blog. That’s why anthologies are so critical, especially to urban elementary schools, and must contain their fair share of non-fiction such as biographies at the expense of so many trivial (but fun) fictional works too many schools embrace.

    What’s a kid to learn from a series of Judy Blumes versus history of the US colonies or a slew of biographies regarding the Founding Fathers? How about Henry Huggins up the ying-yang versus a wide variety of science based non-fictions. Again, the JBs and the HHs might be entertainig (to some kids) but they’re grossly lacking in rich content.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 12, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

  10. I wonder why that passage was chosen for fourth graders. “Species” is a very sophisticated concept, involving ability to interbreed. Frankly, I don’t think it is one 9 year olds are necessarily ready for. Not only that, I get the feeling the teacher is shaky about it as well. Better just to learn the difference between insects and, say, fish – or something and that there are many different kinds of each, big and small.

    This is a problem I have with American education. What they learn and are tested on is just random. What geniuses come up with these tests — not anyone with a background in education, I hope.

    On the other hand, speaking of background knowledge, we regularly visit friends in the country, and I remember some years ago overhearing a conversation between my five-year-old daughter and a five-year-old neighbor of our friends, who had grown up in the country. We live in Brooklyn, on the Atlantic flyway, and we used to watch the birds in our back yard — blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, indigo buntings — the arrival of a new one would send us all to the window to ooh, and ahh binoculars in hand. Visiting the country I overheard my daughter say to the country girl — “Do you have a lot of different kinds of birds here? We have so many in the city” — and the other girl just looked at her blankly. Of course they have many many more kinds of birds in the country than we do in the city, but no one had gotten excited about them or pointed them out to her, (even though her father was a dedicated hunter and probably knew a great deal about birds and fish). It is a class thing, I guess. My daughter didn’t learn to read until she was seven, by the way, because I sent her to a Waldorf kindergarten, but she now attends a selective college.

    Comment by Harold — June 20, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

  11. The other thing is that learning is very dependent on working memory and working memory is easily disrupted by anxiety. That is why it is so important for children to learn through play and not to be put on the spot.

    Children are extremely liable to avoid anything that makes them feel anxious or inadequate. They have little sense of perspective. It is important for any learner to experience success, if we expect them to be motivated that is why testing is highly counterproductive in the early grades.

    Comment by Harold — June 20, 2011 @ 6:15 pm

  12. @Harold, you are spot on! We need to change the way we are teaching children. Learning on the spot just doesn’t work with kids in this generation.

    Comment by Jake — June 27, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  13. Will, I think your statement is well said,

    Nonreading teachers are more likely to have nonreading students…

    What I notice with my 3rd graders is the more they see me read and I model what good readers do as they read the more they take chances and read books beyond their comfort level and take chances. Beleive it or not, I still have kids who want to stay in the world of Junie B Jones. I feel that my job as a teacher is to take them beyond and open their eyes to the wonderful world of literature. I also found myself, posting the current book that I was reading on the board so they can see that I too am always reading. We have to help them exapnd their vocabulary through small group instruction.

    Comment by Johanna Byrd — July 13, 2011 @ 11:49 pm

  14. Robert Pondiscio I have to agree. The content also needs to be rich in text selection. We need to demonstrate the areas of reading and metacognition through the use of literature. Sharing books with students is a great way to get them interested and excited about reading. This can aid in comprehension.


    Comment by Johanna Byrd — July 17, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

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