In the New York Times last week, Brett Peiser, chief executive officer of the Uncommon Schools network, asked some very important questions about why students struggle with reading comprehension: “Is it a vocabulary issue? A background knowledge issue? A sentence length issue? How dense is the text?” As Peiser noted, all of these are facets of comprehension that take time to improve—but the problem is both easier to understand and harder to address than most educators realize.
In response to the Times article, Mike Goldstein, founder of the Match Charter School, noted on his blog that “At Match, we too have always had larger math gains than English gains. Not just on MCAS, also on SAT.” He continues:
Two years ago I tackled this topic, and Tom [Hoffman] commented:
One problem with our testing regime is that it makes math look like half of the goal of a school. Math as a discipline is constructed and taught differently than all others. If your school is constructed to optimize math instruction, you’re not half way there; you’re more like 1/5th of the way.
Good thought. I don’t know of any schools where kids have, say, 4 English classes and one math class. And if we didn’t have the phrase “English class” — if instead we only had the component parts called “Literature class,” “Non-fiction class,” “Writing class,” “Vocabulary Building and Grammar class,” and so forth, you could imagine a school designed that way, with 4X the amount of time devoted to English. And then instead of one test for English, we’d have 4 exams and one math exams.
I’m not saying this is a good idea given other tradeoffs, I’m saying that might result in more equal sized gains.
Goldstein is a fan of E. D. Hirsch’s work, so I hope he’ll smile when he reads this: I know of schools that have “4 English classes and one math class.” Schools that teach the full Core Knowledge Sequence teach language arts, world and American history and geography, visual arts, music, science, and mathematics. If you trust the decades of research showing that the key to literacy is broad knowledge, then these schools have, in effect, five English classes and one math class. The difference between this and typical schooling is that Core Knowledge schools teach all of these things from kindergarten through eighth grade. They do it rigorously, with content-rich curricula that flesh out the Sequence with domain-based studies in which reading, discussing, and writing content happens throughout each day.
To put this back in Peiser’s terms, if you focus on knowledge, issues with vocabulary, long sentences, and dense texts will be resolved.
As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary is best learned not with vocabulary lists, but in context while studying specific domains of knowledge. Key terms may be explained as needed, but most vocabulary is acquired through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. I saw an example of this recently at P.S. 104, the Bays Water School in Queens, NY, which is doing a terrific job of bringing Core Knowledge Language Arts to life. Second graders had recently listened to, discussed, and written about a series of texts their teacher read aloud about leaders—like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr.—who had fought for a cause. Along the way, they learned the word “injustice.” I happened to be sitting in when the teacher started reading aloud from Charlotte’s Web: “Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result, she now has a pig.” Hands flew into the air as the children were eager to relate what they already knew about injustice to this new example.
It may be fairly obvious that building knowledge also builds vocabulary and enables comprehension. But the connection between knowledge and comprehending dense texts with long sentences may not be as obvious. Recent research by Diana Arya, Elfrieda Hiebert, and P. David Pearson shines some light:
The present study was designed to address the question of whether lexical or syntactic factors exert greater influence on the comprehension of elementary science texts. Based on previous research on text accessibility, it was expected that syntactic and lexical complexity would each affect students’ performance on science texts, and that these two types of text complexity together would additionally impact student performance. In order to test this hypothesis, 16 texts that varied in syntactic and lexical complexity across four different topics were constructed. Students read texts that ranged in complexity, each from a different topic.
Contrary to our hypotheses, syntactic complexity did not explain variance in performance across any of the four topics….
Lexical complexity significantly influenced comprehension performance for texts on two of the four topics, Tree Frogs and Soil, but not for texts on Jelly Beans and Toothpaste. This finding was consistent across all participant groups, including ELLs.
In writing about this research, E. D. Hirsch noted that “These results are at odds with the notion that the usual measures of sentence structure (and/or length) and vocabulary are reliable ways to determine the ‘right’ reading level of a text for a child. On the other hand, their findings are consistent with other work in language study, as Arya, Hiebert, and Pearson were quick to point out…. Given enough familiarity with a topic, children are able to make correct guesses about words they have never seen before. They are also able to disentangle complex syntax if their topic familiarity enables them to grasp the gist of a text.”
So, for comprehension, the primary question is this: How can we ensure that students are familiar with a broad range of topics? You don’t need four English classes—you need a content-rich, carefully organized, grade-by-grade curriculum. Introduce young children to the world through literature, science, history, geography, and the arts. Even in middle school, read to them texts that are too challenging for them to read themselves. Engage them in discussions and substantive writing every day.
And be patient.
Patience is the hard part. Our high-stakes accountability systems not only expect yearly gains, they reward bad practices. While drilling students in comprehension strategies can get a bump in scores, it will not lead to meaningful increases in literacy. Building broad knowledge (and thus broad vocabulary and the capacity to grasp complex text) takes time. With a content-rich, sequential curriculum, schools can build the necessary knowledge over time. What they can’t do is show big yearly gains on tests that are not matched to their curriculum (which is a hazard of all state tests in which the content of the passages is not revealed and thus can’t be studied).
Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute has proposed an interesting solution: a two-part accountability system that allows schools to create their own measures. Here’s his pitch (Duncan, Congress—are you listening?):
- First, as the default system, we keep something like we have today, but with better standards and tests. (Yes, common-core standards and tests.) Students are tested annually; schools are held accountable for making solid progress from September to June, with greater progress expected for students who are further behind. States and districts give these schools lots of assistance—with curriculum development, teacher training, and the like. Such a default system won’t lead to widespread excellence, but it will continue to raise the floor so that the “typical” school in America becomes better than it is today. (NB: I’d scrap any state-prescribed “accountability” below the level of the school. In other words, no more rigid teacher evaluation systems; leave personnel issues to the principals.) And it would provide taxpayers an assurance that they are getting a “public good” from their investment in public education (namely, a reasonably educated citizenry).
- Then we offer all public schools—district and charter—an opt-out alternative. They can propose to the state or its surrogate that they be held accountable to a different set of measures. My preferences would be those related to the long-term success of their graduates. School “inspections” could be part of the picture, too. These evaluation metrics would be rigorous, but designed to be supportive of, rather than oppositional to, the cause of excellent schools. And they might be particularly important to educators of a more progressive, anti-testing bent.
This plan would allow schools to focus on building knowledge instead of artificially boosting scores with drills on comprehension and test-taking strategies. Schools could commit to a strong curriculum, then measure progress in reading comprehension through curriculum-based tests of students’ growing knowledge of literature, science, history, geography, music, the arts. Such tests could involve reading, writing, and speaking to ensure that students are progressing in all aspects of language as they develop broad knowledge of the world.
Developing and teaching a content-rich, coherent curriculum is hard to do, but it’s also the only approach that works.