Reading and Language Growth: What It Takes

by Robert Pondiscio
March 14th, 2012

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


  1. This, of course, is wonderful news, scratch that, corroboration of what we already knew. Background knowledge is critical to reading comprehension and to a child’s success in school.

    Does this then condemn the adage of so many primary (K-2) teachers who are steadfast in their belief that in grades K-2, children learn to read and from there on, they read to learn? Just wondering.

    And is this the same Answer Sheet hosted by the infamous educator(?) Valerie Strauss, who regularly invites the likes of Alfie Kohn, Monty Neill (and his sidekick, Lisa Guisbond), Marion Brady, George Wood, Anthony Cody, Deborah Meier, et al, as well as generic “veteran” teachers, educators, college professors who all worship at the altar of anti-reform (MANY OF WHOM HAVE NOTHING GOOD TO SAY ABOUT DON HIRSCH OR THE CORE KNOWLEDGE PHILOSOPHY); who regularly bash the likes of Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Joe Williams, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, President Obama and others, out of hand because they believe our schools are not working and need an overhaul?

    Robert, I can understand your desire to spread the good word regarding the CKF and its outstanding work, philosophy, and especially its successes, but you need to be a bit more circumspect, a tad more perspicacious in your selection of vehicles through which you choose to disperse such information.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 15, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  2. Now, now Brother Hoss. What’s the point of preaching to the converted? Saving souls requires bearing witness among the heathens. Not that any of those fine folks you mentioned, many of whom I know and respect, are heathens. OK, well, I’ll concede the point on Alfie Kohn.

    I’ve said it for years: successful movement seek converts. Unsuccessful movements hunt heretics.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 15, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  3. Congratulations to the Core Knowledge Foundation for helping make possible this success story, and another personal thanks for your part in giving my own kids a great education at their CK charter school.

    But as the NY Times article shows, the results are already being minimized by the ideological opponents of the CK approach – the comparison groups were too small, balanced literacy is really more effective, etc. No evidence, no matter how voluminous or how carefully gathered, will convince these people, who dominate the K-12 world.

    Let me beat an already pulverized dead horse again. These great results were achieved in traditional public schools with unionized teachers. Why in God’s name aren’t the local and national unions that represent these teachers screaming for CK to be adopted everywhere? Being able to demonstrate academic success can only bolster the public’s image of teachers, and maybe even convince voters to improve the financial situation of traditional public schools.

    Comment by John Webster — March 15, 2012 @ 10:22 am

  4. I first read about the schools who were part of the NYC “pilot” a few years ago, and am pleased to now learn of the significant success of the approach. Kudos to the teachers and administrators who had the courage to step away from a model they saw as ineffective for their students! As a Reading Specialist, I worked in a suburban district with four elementary schools – two on each side of the socio-economic spectrum. Having taught “on both sides,” as well as in the “merger” school where they all eventually join together, it was apparent that students lower on the poverty scale were not receiving what they needed from the so-called “balanced literacy” approach which was (and still is) endorsed amid great fanfare and expense. Students in the two schools which encompass less- affluent families, for example, spend “vacations” at home while both parents work; while students within the school boundaries of the more-affluent families spent school breaks in museums, zoos, ski resorts, and on trips and cruises. Guess which elementary-school’s students are represented among the academic success stories at the secondary level, and which elementary school’s students are prevalent among the lowest performers and drop-outs? It is all so sad, so obvious…and not impossible to improve, with some analysis and some passion! The only chance for poverty-level students to receive knowledge of their world, and build interest and confidence so that they can be “in the ball game” at the post-elementary grades, is to be immersed in literacy focused on deep and broad “classroom adventure.” As fly-by readers, they have little opportunity to become “expert” in anything. It became difficult (mostly impossible) to suggest the need for “topic-centered” curriculum (core knowledge), utilizing non-fiction AND fiction AND poetry AND drama – all focused on a core topic but from multiple perspectives. Instead, students sat and “read” (decoded) independently during “genre studies” among a tsunami of books, without the benefit of guidance through the multi-faceted layers that lead to true interest and understanding. Now, as the tide turns and “core curriculum” becomes more refined and more widely adopted, I hope word of the success of Core Knowledge spreads far and wide, especially among those schools and districts who serve those who need so much from the classroom experience. They are woefully deprived by the “just sit and read” approach, which is in fashion despite its lack of meaningful results among those who are our most vulnerable students.

    Comment by Barbara Glanz — March 15, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  5. Singing is also important, especially folk music, which is distinguished by being content rich. The rhythmic patterns and stresses of folk music also usually echo the deepest rhythmic structure of the language and thus greatly enhance language and vocabulary learning.

    How long will we have to keep inventing the wheel. There is are marvelous programs of children’s folk music by distinguished American composer and pedagogue Ruth Crawford Seeger, whose works are used for American Kodaly music instruction. Only very privileged children have access to such programs. This shouldn’t be.

    Comment by Harold — March 15, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

  6. @Robert,

    Successful movements take no prisoners.

    Critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration advocates all, without so much as a trace of background knowledge in an attempt to ground students in the facts.

    The aforementioned might not be heathens but they are posers in the education reform debate; spewers of half truths, prevarications and canards in their effort to substantiate their feeble positions. They’re comrades with the NEA, the absolute greatest hindrance to any and all efforts at education reform.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 15, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

  7. Teaching reading is one of the most difficult areas, in my opinion. It is the foundation for all learning. In early education, teaching students to decode is the fundamental part of learning to read. However, decoding does not transfer into reading comprehension. Over the last four years, I have struggled with my principal’s definition of reading comprehension. She believes that students should read ALL instructional material independently by fourth grade. Every year she questions my methods of teaching reading skills such as drawing conclusions, predicting, cause and effect, context clues, sequencing, main idea and details, as well as other reading skills. I believe that students do not come to us knowing these terms and how to identify them in a story. Therefore, I spend the first two and a half nine weeks teaching students how to identify and comprehend these through their reading strategies. Through this process, I am creating independent readers. We can not just assume that students understand and can apply these reading skills. Once they have mastered the skills, then I begin to have them read all content material on their own and use my assistance as they need. Reading is a tricky area, especially if a student reads fluently and does not comprehend. Comprehension for some students takes years to develop.

    Comment by Lisa Walden — March 15, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

  8. So, Paul. Do I understand you correctly? Differentiation is for children only? ;-)

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 15, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

  9. @Robert,

    Differentiation doesn’t get it done, big guy. Too much emphasis on debunked learning styles and children’s interests.

    Individualized/customized PACE of instruction for each student is the answer. It is the BEST/ONLY answer, along with, of course, an abundance of background knowledge gradually inculcated over the child’s time in school.

    Adults? Guess that depends on your definition of “adults.”

    Just %#$&ing with ya.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 15, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

  10. What I found interesting is that these promising results were achieved in spite of the fact that many teachers were NOT able to devote the full 60 minutes from the CKLA protocol on a regular basis. Think what the scores might have looked like if they had been able to carve out the recommended time.

    Comment by Cindy — March 15, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  11. Hey everyone,

    Do you believe that our at risk students need more of a one to one intense reading and math pull out group. For instance, having a certified teacher or reading specialist work with them on reading skills and comprehension of a variety of texts for two hours a day in order to get them up to speed. I know that some people are going to say what about the science and history, however, why can the teacher not use those types of reading to teach the skills along with the fiction texts? We have to give up something in order to reach all of our kids, and in a way this is a type of differentiation and individualized pace combined.

    Comment by Lisa Walden — March 15, 2012 @ 10:43 pm

  12. I am impressed that the CK pilot in NYC moved forward with such great success and that other districts in trouble did not immediately jump on that bandwagon. The strategies that are supposed to be so complex are coming across on the west coast in the form of language arts curriculum that is 90% expository text, so we are basically reading across content areas and integrating the strategies as directed. The program is successful if the teachers are dedicated to front-loading information and really building academic vocabulary through multiple uses throughout the school day. The differentiation method and progress monitoring benefit the students in several ways. At the end of the day, we must remember that we are teaching little people, not just test takers.

    Comment by Leanne Marquez — March 16, 2012 @ 1:18 am

  13. Lisa,

    To oversimplify a bit, it seems to me that the Core Knowledge approach is based on the premise that you can’t really teach reading directly. Pull out groups focusing on reading skills are not going to do the trick. The only true way to teach reading is to teach content over the course of many years. Teach rich content well and reading ability will follow. Teach reading “skills” ad nauseum and only a malnourished brain will follow. The conventional wisdom that reading ability is comprised of a suite of skills that can be imparted by a teacher is invalid, as is the idea that reading practice is the key ingredient in making good readers. It’s counterintuitive, but if you really think about it, it makes sense: you need to know what the words mean to understand a text.

    Comment by Ponderosa — March 16, 2012 @ 1:30 am

  14. Advanced students will likely thrive in a CK curriculum as well. A student who reads far above so-called grade level will find the curriculum stimulating, as it’s actually about something. It’s much more interesting to learn about the solar system, say, or listen to Byron’s “Apostrophe to the Ocean,” than to practice strategies in order to progress from one reading level to the next.

    What I find discouraging about the test score emphasis (not CK’s fault in the least) is that it ignores just how interesting the Core Knowledge curriculum is. It’s great that CK has proved so successful. But even if it hadn’t, I would favor it because of what it contains. It seems we have nearly forgotten about giving students something substantial to think about. We have nearly forgotten the value of imparting this material and taking it in.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 16, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  15. I always told my kids (elem), reading is a bit of an unusual subject. You are what you are when you enter the classroom in September. Combine this with the fact that most students spend a similar portion of their school day reading. Guys, if you want to improve in reading, it’s like anything else in life, you have to work at it (on your own time, outside of school). If you want to improve at playing the piano, it isn’t going to happen with your once a week, 45 minute piano lesson. You have to go home and practice, and practice the right exercises/pieces. The same with any sport or activity. You have to put in the time. If you’re going to rely on school alone to improve your reading, well, it probably isn’t going to do the trick. In the same breath I always encouraged them to read substantive stuff; that was code for nonfiction. Biographies were often popular and most were also fortunate to find books on their interests. Whether it was dinosaurs, wars, the weather, science, American Girl, history, geography, whatever. Read. And when you get done with that turn off the television or put down the game and read yourself to sleep. It involved a great deal of romance on my part to get some motivated, but once I discovered their interests, I kept finding books on the subject for them to read.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 16, 2012 @ 9:48 am

  16. Paul,

    Yes, I also believe that students must read not only at school but at home. I provide my students with 30-45 minutes a day to read independently on their reading level without any interruptions. So far this year they have read 13 million words. They did not do that only at school. They have developed a love of reading that has transferred into their daily lives. I admit they do read more fiction than nonfiction, however we do address many varieties of texts in my classroom. We created a hardbound book of Virginia biographies this years after reading nonfiction books about famous Virginians. This was a very meaningful projects for my students.

    Comment by Lisa Walden — March 16, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

  17. Lisa, I think you are falling into the reading is a skill trap. You can’t draw inferences, make predictions etc. if you don’t know what background knowledge the words assume. For example, a passage about the Blue and the Gray, Grant, Lee, and Sherman’s March to the Sea will be meaningless if the kids don’t understand the Civil War context. Likewise,saying that someone did something like Grant took Richmond doesn’t make sense without the context. Likewise, a passage about Venus, the morning star, Saturn, the tides and eclipses is meaningless without an understanding of the solar system. Both those passages were in a sample of the NAEP test a few years ago. Content across the disciplines and in all kinds of literature is the essential component of reading; without that, “reading skills” crash when reading means not just decoding but comprehension. That’s the fourth-grade slump.

    Comment by momof4 — March 16, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  18. LIsa, Ponderosa, et al…
    As a Reading Specialist and former adjunct who taught Content Area Reading in a Masters program, I believe strongly that the best reading lessons are done within content-area material. Many Science and Social Studies topics ignite our students’ imagination, and what a waste of precious teachable moments NOT to integrate reading skills when those lessons are formulated. It takes work, planning, and a true integrated curriculum, along with collaboration between the classroom teacher and the reading teacher. When “pull-out” is necessary for small groups of struggling students, it then can be parallel and meaningful to classroom content, rather than focusing on isolated reading skills. (I never had a student thank me for teaching the Main Idea, but many thanked me for teaching them about animal migrations.) Deficient readers want to learn about their world, and want to engage in the same classroom conversations as their more-proficient peers, especially from grade 3 and up, when content becomes ( or “should become”) a more predominant part of the curriculum. For example, if studying the American Revolution, why would all students- regardless of reading level- not be engaged in reading historical fiction or non-fiction about that time period? The reading lessons that can be taught are limitless, as are the leveled-books available on the topic. We deny our lower-performing and at-risk students the opportunity to think and learn when we deny them access to meaningful classroom dialogue about subjects they need to know.

    Comment by Barbara Glanz — March 16, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

  19. I hear what you are saying regarding the tools students need to excel as readers. I do not know what the current stats are on readers from low-income neighborhoods. As a substitute teacher in many low-income neighborhoods of a major metropolis I can tell you, however that many of thoses elementary school children in read above their grade-levels. Please make sure you are careful with the language used and provide stats to support your writing.

    Comment by shakira hightower — March 18, 2012 @ 12:25 am

  20. This is a wonderful discussion about our thoughts on students and reading. However, please do not misunderstand the reading that evolves in my classroom. I completely believe that students learn through cross curriculum of reading through history and science. If they are to truly understand the reasons behind the Civil War, it is essential that they are able to draw conclusions about strategy plans, reasoning out the causes and effects of the war, and explaining the main ideas and details. I do use leveled reader from our library on the topics that I cover in class to enhance my students reading comprehension on subjects. However, I feel that it is equally important that they are able to not only comprehend, but apply what they have learned through comparisons, writing exercises, or verbal communications. Thus, enhancing their learning while allowing the transfer of knowledge to become embedded in their mind. One other thing that I should mention is that I teach all four content subjects in my classroom. Therefore, this allows me to do a tremendous amount of cross-curriculum teaching within my room.

    Comment by Lisa Walden — March 18, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

  21. As parent of a special-needs child with language delay, I hope that the CK curriculum developers will consider putting together a tutorial version of the LA program for use with SN students. I am using the CK “What Your Preschooler Needs to Know” activity book with her and while I really like it as a jumping off point, I’m finding that I have to significantly adapt it because of her learning disabilities. She is the one of my kids who most benefits from the systematic, explicit building of background knowledge that CK helps with.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 24, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  22. Reading is fundamental and reaches across all suject areas. If this idea could be executed, altered, or extended in any way, it will be beneficial. It would be wonderful to assist learners who do not have the financial or social means to succeed. Our pool of stuggling readers is increasing. I teach seventh grade, and the concept of remembering or applying what you have read is still a challenge. If we continue to base accountability on test scores and assessments, this is definitely an area of concern.

    Comment by K. Watts — April 22, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

  23. [...] it makes sense to have students read across the subjects—to build their knowledge on a wide range of topics. This will ultimately make them stronger readers of literature as well as science and history. For [...]

    Pingback by Fiction Is Not Fluff « Diana Senechal — August 25, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

  24. […] noted in Reading and Language Growth:  What It Takes, non-fiction text is an important facet of reading comprehension instruction.  Many early readers […]

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