Note: This piece also appears on the Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet.
For several years, I taught 5th grade in the lowest performing elementary school in New York City’s lowest performing school district. Four out of five of my students scored below grade level—often far below grade level—on their state tests. You could easily look at the test scores of my students and conclude, “these kids can’t read.”
In fact, I never had a single student who couldn’t “read.” Put a piece of text in front of them and they could all (some with greater fluency than others certainly) verbalize the words in front of them, or “decode.” What they couldn’t seem to do consistently and competently was to discuss or answer questions about their reading. They “read it” but they didn’t “get it.” They could decode, but not comprehend.
Separating decoding and comprehension is critical to any discussion of reading. Decoding is a skill that can–and must–be taught in the early grades. Students taught with an explicit, systematic phonics approach in the early grades should be able to master all the decoding skills they need. Decoding is a prerequisite skill but it’s not reading. We’re readers only when we understand the words we decode, and comprehension is not a skill, despite our persistent attempts to teach and test it like one. “We tend to teach comprehension as a series of ‘reading strategies’ that can be practiced and mastered. Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way,” University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has written on this blog. “The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.”
This week, the Core Knowledge Foundation, where I work, announced the results of an intriguing pilot program that sees reading for the complicated, cumulative process it is. Children in ten New York City schools learned to read with the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program, a comprehensive literacy curriculum emphasizing phonics, coherent content knowledge, and oral and written language development across a wide range of subjects. CKLA has two distinct instructional components: a “skills” strand that teaches decoding; and a “listening and learning” strand that builds background knowledge and vocabulary, primarily through readalouds. Students in ten demographically similar control schools received more traditional reading instruction—the kind of balanced literacy, content-agnostic, comprehension skills-and-strategies approach I was trained to use with my South Bronx 5th graders. The CKLA students showed significantly higher reading achievement from kindergarten to 2nd grade than the control group in nearly all measures.
Gratifying stuff, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The primary takeaway from the research, tailored for our 140-character age, was “new study finds nonfiction curriculum enhances reading comprehension skills.” That’s part of the story. Yes, there is more nonfiction in Core Knowledge than is typically taught in the early grades, but fiction and poetry are equally represented. If there’s a secret sauce in the curriculum, it probably has as much to do with its emphasis on building background knowledge orally.
Oral language precedes written language; we learn to speak and listen long before we can read and write. Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own. This oral language advantage persists for years. A child’s ability to take in information through reading typically doesn’t catch up to his or her ability to do so by listening until the 8th grade. Teachers generally understand this, which is why class readalouds are a staple of elementary school classrooms. But this oral comprehension advantage can also be used to build background knowledge in a systematic, coherent way over many years. Readalouds are more than just an opportunity for a class to enjoy a great story together. Content-rich, nonfiction readalouds, often in narrative form, are a central feature of the CKLA program and a powerful way to build a child’s store of vocabulary and knowledge–critical components of mature reading comprehension.
This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language. They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment. If this gap remains unaddressed in school, then demographics becomes, if not destiny, then a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place. If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.
Finally, another important issue to keep in mind is time. The greatest casualty of the education reform era has been patience. We expect two to three years language growth per year to catch disadvantaged children up. The inevitable result is quick fixes that overpromise and underdeliver. Today’s miracle becomes tomorrow’s scandal with depressing regularity. To understand the nature of language growth and the critical role of knowledge to is to understand that there can be no quick fixes. The only way to raise achievement and to narrow gaps is through a slow and steady investment in the vocabulary and knowledge that are the prerequisites of language growth and competence.
This patient, coherent investment in background knowledge—so critical to success yet so often missing from language arts instruction—needs to be nurtured and grown for the entirety of a child’s time in school. It can work. It is working. The New York City pilot study is an encouraging first step. We’re getting kids in the game. With care and patience, we can keep them there.
Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio