Spend the Summer Reading (Aloud)

by Lisa Hansel
June 9th, 2015

Of all the things I want to thank my mother for, the time she devoted to reading aloud to me as a child is at the top of the list. She didn’t just tuck my sister and me into bed with a little story; she climbed in an hour before bedtime and read aloud full novels in just a few weeks.

Years ago, my mother was in a car accident; we knew she would be okay, but we had some rough times to get through. The hospital room didn’t allow for snuggling up, but as my sister and I took turns reading aloud Jane Austen in Boca, we recaptured that bedtime story feeling. I’ve wondered ever since how I could get the three of us to read aloud to each other, even if just once a year.

So a recent blog post by Deb Werrlein brought a big smile to my face—she’s still reading aloud to her teenagers!

Reading aloud to little kids is common (and should be universal); it develops language, vocabulary, and knowledge—and makes for great family time. But not long after children learn to read, most parents stop reading aloud. That’s a shame. As Thomas Sticht has found, listening comprehension typically outstrips reading comprehension until age 13. Through middle school, teachers and parents could boost learning by reading texts that are too challenging for children to tackle on their own.

That should be plenty of inducement, but that’s not what kept Deb going. She’s made reading aloud part of her family life for pure enjoyment—the reading itself and the rich conversations that ensue:

Before the days of radio, television and the Xbox, families often gathered to listen as someone read aloud for entertainment. This communal activity prompted discussion, speculation, and debate.

In our modern day, reading together can generate common ground for parents and teens who might otherwise find their interests diverging. Reading with my kids has spurred lively discussions about war, pride, racism, greed, capitalism, and addiction. Of course, we also spend plenty of time soaking in the suspense of what will happen next. For my kids, it’s pure entertainment. For me, it’s rare quiet time spent together and the opportunity to connect. Whatever our motivations, this pleasure and bonding has kept us reading together for years….

On some nights, we read during chores—where one of us washes dishes while the other reads out loud. Other times, we read on vacation. When my husband, the kids, and I drove to Florida this past Christmas, we listened to “The Help” on CD for 18 hours, bringing our family together around one story in the car….

The novel my son and I just finished is one of many Stephen King books we have read together. When I gave it to him for his birthday last June, I knew the 842-page tome might be the last we’d have time to read together. It took us almost a year to get through it, but at least that gave us months to talk about the book. We speculated all winter about whether the time-traveling protagonist could save President Kennedy, and if he did, what sinister repercussions Stephen King might have in store this time.

When we finally turned the last page, I was sad for the end of an era. My son will graduate this June and leave for college in August. But I’m so grateful for the stacks of books and memories we’ve made over the years.

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Teens reading to each other courtesy of Shutterstock.

Knowledge For Literacy

by Guest Blogger
May 18th, 2015

By Marilyn Jager Adams

Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University, is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post, which originally appeared on the Shanker Blogis adapted from Literacy Ladders, an anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.

Liteacy Ladders Cover

The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.

What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.

Comprehension Depends on Knowledge

The overarching theme of these essays is that if we wish to advance our students’ literacy, we must devote ourselves to increasing the breadth and depth of their domain knowledge.

Through language, novel concepts are communicated in the form of novel combinations of familiar concepts. That is, new concepts and the meanings of new words can be verbally explained only in terms of known words. Sometimes a new word can be adequately explained by comparing and contrasting it with familiar concepts (e.g., a mayfly looks like a giant mosquito but it is harmless). Otherwise, we must define the word by decomposing it into familiar concepts and then piecing together the whole. Either way, the usefulness of the effort depends on the familiarity of the supporting concepts we offer.

Yet the role of prior knowledge runs far deeper. The core definition of a word is only a tiny fragment of the meaning that makes it useful in understanding language. Neuroimaging confirms that the full meaning of a familiar word extends broadly through the mind, including associations to every trace that your experience with that word or its concept has left in your memory. For instance, your full knowledge of the word “apple” extends to the traces in your memory of the many apples in your life and how they have looked, felt, tasted, smelled, or sounded (e.g., when you bit into, dropped, or sliced them); of where you were and what else and who else was there with each apple; of picking apples, peeling apples, and bobbing for apples; of cider, apple pie, caramel apples, and Waldorf salads; of apple trees, teachers’ apples, and poison apples; of “rotten apples,” “apple-cheeked,” “apple a day,” and the “Big Apple;” of Adam and Eve, William Tell, George Washington, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, and so on. The more strongly or frequently any such association has been tied to the apples in your life, the more strongly it dominates your overall concept of an apple. But all of your experiences, be they direct or linguistic, are there — waiting to be activated and used in making sense of “apple” the next time you see or hear the word.

When you encounter “apple” in conversation or text, it will automatically activate its entire, extended complex of associations in your mind, and the same thing happens when you encounter each successive word in the sentence. As the associations tied to each ensuing word in the sentence become activated, subsets of knowledge from different words that overlap effectively become “superactivated.”*

Alternatively, consider what happens if — whether due to vocabulary or reading difficulties — you cannot recognize a word at all. What you lose is not just the meaning of that particular word, but also the work it was supposed to do in providing context and precise meanings for the other words around it. In between — to the extent that you recognize the word but have scant knowledge of its meaning and usage — your understanding is commensurately impoverished.

In other words, knowledge is the medium of understanding and therefore of reading with understanding.

Topical Units Can Help

Research demonstrates that, for comprehension, relevant knowledge is even more important than general reading ability. When high- and low-knowledge groups are divided into good and poor readers, those with little knowledge relevant to the text at hand perform relatively poorly, regardless of how well they read in general. In contrast — and this is important — the performance of the poor readers with higher background knowledge is generally better than that of the good readers with less background knowledge, and nearly as good as the good readers with lots of background knowledge.

Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro. The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension and propelling the reading process forward. In one study, scientists monitored readers’ eye movements while reading about topics that were more versus less familiar to them. Given texts about less familiar topics, people’s reading slowed down and the progress of their eye movements was marked with more pausing and rereading. In other words, not only do readers with less topic-relevant background knowledge gain less from reading about that topic, less-knowledgeable readers must also expend more time and effort to arrive at what limited understanding they do gain.**

What does information have to do with text complexity? They are closely related in two important ways. On one hand, texts that are more complex in vocabulary and syntax also tend to be more presumptuous of readers’ background knowledge. On the other, texts that strive to present more precise argument or more specific information on a topic are unavoidably more complex in vocabulary and syntax. In order for students to become comfortable and competent with these sorts of texts, they must first develop a supportive understanding of the broader topic under discussion. And that’s where topical units come in.

In a topical reading unit, all texts are about some aspect of a single main concept. Topical readings provide a natural and highly productive way of revisiting and extending learning. Across readings, as the books build interlaced networks of knowledge, the similarities, contrasts, and usages of the words gain clarity. In tandem, the stories gain plot and excitement, and the informational texts gain structure and provoke wonder. Further, as the knowledge network is enriched, the mind is ever better prepared to understand the language of each new sentence.***

The deeper domain knowledge that topical units help students acquire is of inestimable importance in itself, but topical units also bring a number of other benefits. Direct benefits include increases in reading fluency, accelerated vocabulary growth, and improvements in the spelling, style, organization, and ideas in students’ writing. Because topical units offer a means of scaffolding texts, they allow students to rapidly work their way up to engage productively with texts that would otherwise be beyond their reach. In turn, experience in understanding more sophisticated texts brings additional benefits. For example, an expert oceanographer can be expected to penetrate an advanced text in oceanography with ease. However, people who have engaged deeply with complex information in any scientific field —  experts in biogenetics, mineralogy, physics, or marine biology, for example — could be expected to be able to understand the same text far better than a person without any specialized knowledge (even if with significantly more effort than the oceanographer). The advantage of the oceanographer is due to the fact that knowledge is domain specific.****

The advantage of the other well-read scientists is due to the fact that the modes of thought and analysis that deep knowledge affords are part of the literate mind and can be applied across known andunknown domains.

Can advanced texts really be made accessible to less proficient readers in this way? Yes. As a concrete example, no text on dinosaurs would get through a readability formula for second-graders. However, having built up their vocabulary and domain knowledge in an area of interest, many second-graders are able to read and understand remarkably sophisticated texts about dinosaurs with great satisfaction. Gradually and seamlessly, students build the knowledge networks that prepare them to tackle texts of increasingly greater depth and complexity.

__________

* For an educator-friendly review of the neural connections from letters to meaning, see: M. J. Adams, “The Relation between Alphabetic Basics, Word Recognition and Reading,” in What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction, 4th edition, eds. S. J. Samuels and A. E. Farstrup (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2011), 4–24.

** For a summary of the studies in the preceding two paragraphs, see Willingham’s “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” p. 42 in Literacy Ladders.

*** Be warned: Some reading programs mistake what might better be called “thematic units” for topical units. As a quick rule of thumb, if it is a topical unit, then the word or words naming the same core concept should appear frequently in every text. Note: Superficial treatments and texts about different concepts labeled with the same word don’t count.

**** E. D. Hirsch, “Beyond Comprehension: We Have yet to Adopt a Common Core Curriculum that Builds Knowledge Grade by Grade–But We Need To,” p. 54 in the Literacy Ladders.

An appraisal of Core Knowledge Language Arts

by Guest Blogger
April 21st, 2015

By Ilene Shafran

Ilene Shafran is a 2nd-grade teacher at PS 34 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This appraisal was originally published as a Teacher to Teacher column in the New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers, and was posted on the UFT website. The opinion expressed in the column is the author’s own and should not be construed as an endorsement by the union.

As a 24-year veteran of teaching in elementary school, I have seen literacy programs come and go. Each new program that claims to be “Common Core-aligned” always seems to fall short of experienced teachers’ expectations. So when I finally had the opportunity to try out and pilot a Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum that I felt had potential, I jumped at the chance.

The program, which is called Core Knowledge Language Arts, is the recommended New York State ELA curriculum for elementary schools. All the materials are available on the EngageNY website. I admit that when you first look at this program, it seems overwhelming and daunting. But I have found that the advantages of getting to know this curriculum on an intimate level far outweigh the risks of being lost in a sea of learning objectives.

Any longtime teacher will tell you that there is no magic, all-encompassing curriculum that is perfect right out of the box. As educators, we know that ELA curriculum needs to be adapted to meet the needs and demands of our students, whether they are struggling readers or high-achieving students. Good teaching means we adapt and differentiate the best that we can with the resources we have available to us.

When I piloted Core Knowledge Language Arts at my school last year, I was generally familiar with the components and basic premise of this program from my work as a New York City Common Core Fellows member, who for two years evaluated different types of Common Core-aligned curriculum options.

The program has two main components: First, there are 10 to 12 domains, or units, depending on the grade, that are heavily content-based (in social studies, history and science) and focus on vast academic vocabulary, background knowledge, critical thinking skills and class discussions. Then, there is a second component that focuses on reading skills, allowing teachers to meet reading foundational standards. Students have their own readers and skill workbooks to practice these important skills. The program is designed to meet students where they are and help them grow as readers.

So far, teachers at my school see our students engaged in the content as well as the vocabulary. Students participate in turn-and-talk discussions about real-world events and form opinions about real-world learning.

There are a few challenges with the program. Each lesson begins with a list of core content objectives as well as language arts objectives. Teacher teams need to come together and make instructional decisions on which ones to focus on in the classroom. Collaboration and sharing of ideas are essential for getting through these extensive lesson plans. Individual teachers also need to determine the needs of their students and choose the objectives that will be most effective in meeting their needs.

The lessons are rigorous, and questioning is extensive. Lessons are delivered in 60-minute blocks of time (60 minutes for listening and learning and 60 minutes for skills). In addition, teachers need to plan for independent reading and guided reading times. There is a lot of oral discussion, which is good for developing critical thinking and lends itself well to developing writing activities; however, the writing extensions included in the daily lessons are hit-or-miss. Some activities have perfect writing activities and some lack writing tie-ins altogether, so teachers will need to develop their own writing activities.

The listening-and-learning strand is primarily focused on teacher read-aloud and questioning, which means teachers will need to develop more interactive discussion through accountable talk. It is always a challenge to engage all of our students in discussions. This program lends itself to think/pair/share discussions with rich questioning and discussion topics.

Because of the large volume of vocabulary taught in each lesson, teachers also need to provide additional instructional opportunities to reinforce the new vocabulary. The skills strand is designed to meet students at their current reading level and support their growth throughout the school year.

In my 2nd-grade classroom, my students are eager to learn and discuss some grown-up topics thanks to this curriculum. It is allowing me and my fellow teachers to meet the demands of the Common Core — not in terms of testing, but in terms of meeting the high expectations we have for all of our students.

Reading Comprehension: There’s No Workaround for Knowledge

by Guest Blogger
April 13th, 2015

By Greg Ashman

Greg Ashman is a teacher in Australia. Supported by his school (but not necessarily representing its views), he has developed a love of educational research. Ashman is  now pursuing a PhD. This post originally appeared on his blog, Filling the Pail.

To mark the recent cricket world cup, I thought it might be a good idea to quote a section from a BBC report on the semi-final match between Australia and India:

“…Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.”

If you are reading this then you are probably an educated person. I suspect that you can decode all of the words in that quote with ease. However, I am uncertain as to whether you will have comprehended it. This will depend, I suggest, on how much you know about cricket.

What if you read through it slowly, asking yourself questions about the quote as you go along? If you struggled with the quote then try this. Does it help?

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Watching a match or reading about it, knowledge is essential to comprehension (cricket photo courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Strategies such as self-questioning do clearly lead to greater comprehension. There is little doubt about this. And interestingly, the most effective way to teach such strategies appears to be with explicit instruction, even if they do seems to resolve down to just two strategies; questioning and summarising. However, if you don’t know what an “off-break” is then you may still struggle with the cricket quote, regardless of how many times you stop to ask yourself questions.

This might not matter a great deal. I am sure that many people pass through life knowing little of cricket and caring even less. But what if the passage was about a political situation; one that affected the reader? Perhaps the reader, if well-informed, would want to use her democratic rights to protest. Yet when she reads the relevant report in the New York Times, on the BBC website or after following a Twitter link, she finds that she cannot comprehend the relevant texts because they are full of the equivalents of ‘off-breaks’ and ‘back-of-a-length’ bowling.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Instead of simply teaching comprehension strategies, we could also ensure that students leave school in possession of the bodies of knowledge that are likely to be needed to understand common sources of information; knowledge that is historical, political, scientific and literary. This is the argument of E. D. Hirsch. It is difficult to fault scientifically or logically; background knowledge clearly does aid comprehension.

Hirsch goes further. He argues that children from the most deprived backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to move schools frequently. These children will suffer if they end up learning about the Ancient Egyptians three times but never hear of Apartheid. And so this leads to the logic of a common curriculum, shared across schools; not a particularly radical notion in those countries with a national curriculum like the UK or Australia. Unfortunately, the idea has created the opportunity for people to misunderstand Hirsch. The charge is that he is trying to impose his view of a white, middle-class, male, European, Judeo-Christian culture on diverse groups of people.

This is far from Hirsch’s aim. He references the New York Times and asks what knowledge is required in order to comprehend it. So Hirsch takes an empirical line. If you have a beef with anyone for trying to define culture then you need to take it up with the New York Times or BBC journalists. Hirsch is not the guilty party.

But what of relevance?

Is it appropriate to teach children from diverse backgrounds about Shakespeare? He is dead, white, male and European. Perhaps a different playwright might be more contemporary and relevant? Perhaps. But if the newspapers are full of inferences and allusions that require a passing familiarity with Shakespeare then these students will be disadvantaged. And such knowledge may serve the revolutionary and the subversive well. As Sun Tzu advises us; know your enemies and know yourself.

However, I think I can sympathise with Hirsch’s critics. It seems unfair that the inequities of the past would define what we teach our students today. Teachers tend to be idealists, after all. Perhaps we can get around the requirement for background knowledge if we teach transferable comprehensions strategies. This way, when our students don’t understand a text they can apply one of these strategies and thus understand it. We would then be free to reset the clock and select content that best suited our personal views about what is most relevant to our students. We would be free from the tyranny of culture as it actually exists.

And reading comprehension strategies are promising in this regard. They clearly have some effect. There is strong evidence for this.

Although they also seem a bit dull. Would your students rather learn about the Ancient Egyptians or a strategy for asking themselves questions whilst reading prose? And what if reading scores don’t improve much? Then we’ll need more of this strategy instruction and less of other things; music or art or science.

This would be an error. It seems that instruction in reading comprehension strategies provides a boost but it is a limited one. A short course will do as much good as a long one and so these strategies probably shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the curriculum. Rather, they should be perhaps revisited from time-to-time in the context of something else; a unit on government, perhaps.

The reality is that we cannot develop a workaround for background knowledge. Perhaps we need to embrace this reality and start to celebrate the beauty that lies in knowing about our world. This might have the added benefit of raising reading comprehension levels.

 

Raising Readers—Not Test Takers

by Lisa Hansel
March 18th, 2015

In recent months, Teach Plus had over 1,000 teachers review sample items from PARCC, one of the two testing consortia trying to create assessments aligned to the Common Core standards.

I say “trying” because in reading, the task is pretty much impossible. The standards specify things students should be able to do, but they contain almost no content. Thankfully, they do call for content-rich curriculum and explain that comprehension depends on broad knowledge, but they don’t provide the content-specificity needed to guide instruction or assessment.

Thousands of different curricula and assessments could be aligned to the standards, which would be fine if teachers were trusted to develop both. But teachers are not allowed to create the assessments—at least the ones that count. So it is entirely possible for a teacher to develop an “aligned” curriculum that does not prepare students for the content that shows up on the “aligned” assessment.

The result is an unfair assessment.

Test developers acknowledge as much, creating guidelines for item development that minimize knowledge as a source of “bias.”

Well, the 1,000 teachers who just reviewed PARCC think the stripping of knowledge did not go far enough:

Nearly all participants found that the PARCC passages were better quality than the passages in state tests, as they are previously published pieces (indicating that they are complex and demonstrate expertise in nonfiction). However, there was some concern students did not have “background knowledge, nor the vocabulary to understand” vocabulary within the texts. Their comments suggest that to assess students as accurately as possible, some portions may need to be edited for diverse learners, or those with limited background knowledge of certain content areas.

I understand why teachers would call for reducing the prior knowledge demands of the test—they are stuck in this crazy world of being measured with content that no one told them to teach. But let’s be honest: reducing the knowledge demand makes the test a little fairer; it does not make the education students are getting any better.

The knowledge bias can’t be avoided with tests that are not explicitly aligned to the curriculum. Without a curriculum that specifies what has been taught—and therefore what it is fair to expect students to know—test writers are reduced to a narrow band of banal topics (but even “Jenny goes to the market” demands some prior, unequally distributed knowledge).

The less the knowledge bias, the less the test reflects real-world comprehension. Outside testlandia, comprehension is not isolated from knowledge. An adult who can’t comprehend a newspaper is not considered literate. Broad knowledge is inherent in literacy. If we care about reading, as opposed to testing, we shouldn’t be creating tests that minimize knowledge demands. We should be developing a coherent instruction, assessment, and accountability system that builds broad knowledge and is fair because it tests what is taught.

Clearly, our nation’s policymakers need a crash course in reading. Once they understand that there is no such thing as general comprehension ability, maybe they’ll stop trying to hold schools accountable for developing it.

Fortunately, a great crash course is now available: Daniel Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. If policymakers read between the lines, they’ll see an awful lot they can do too.

As with Willingham’s previous books, this one is engaging, easy to read, and super informative. Here’s just a taste:

Most parents want their children to be solid general readers. They aren’t worried about their kids reading professional journals for butterfly collectors, but they expect their kids to be able to read the New York Times, National Geographic, or other materials written for the thoughtful layperson. A writer for the New York Times will not assume deep knowledge about postage stamps, or African geography, or Elizabethan playwrights— but she will assume some knowledge about each. To be a good general reader, your child needs knowledge of the world that’s a million miles wide and an inch deep—wide enough to recognize the titles The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, for example, but not that the former may have inspired the latter. Enough to know that rare stamps can be very valuable, but not the going price of the rare Inverted Jenny stamp of 1918.

If being a “good reader” actually means “knowing a little bit about a lot of stuff,” then reading tests don’t work quite the way most people think they do. Reading tests purport to measure a student’s ability to read, and “ability to read” sounds like a general skill. Once I know your ability to read, I ought to be able (roughly) to predict your comprehension of any text I hand you. But I’ve just said that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much you happen to know about the topic of the text , because that determines your ability to make up for the information the writer felt free to omit. Perhaps, then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.

There is reason to think that’s true. In one study, researchers measured the reading ability of eleventh graders with a standard reading test and also administered tests of what they called “cultural literacy”—students’ knowledge of mainstream culture. There were tests of the names of artists, entertainers, military leaders, musicians, philosophers, and scientists, as well as separate tests of factual knowledge of science, history, and literature. The researchers found robust correlations between scores on the reading test and scores on the various cultural literacy tests—correlations between 0.55 and 0.90.

If we are to increase reading ability, policymakers will have to accept that it takes many years to develop the breadth of knowledge needed for tests that are not based on a specific curriculum. We shouldn’t be stripping the knowledge demands out of our tests; we should be stripping the unreasonable mandates from our accountability policies. If we all focused on raising readers, we would spend far less time on testing and far more on building broad knowledge.

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Young reader, building knowledge and comprehension, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Even TFA Isn’t Boosting Reading Comprehension

by Lisa Hansel
March 10th, 2015

Teach for America (TFA) aims to increase student achievement by increasing the quality of teaching. Concerned with the short-term commitment TFA asks its recruits to make, I’ve never been sure what to make of TFA. Seeking teachers who were themselves strong students and focusing on outcomes, it has the potential to elevate the teaching profession. But by recruiting for a two-year stint, it also questions teaching as a career.

With these grumblings in the back of my mind, I’m always interested in research on TFA. If there were clear evidence that it did, or did not, work, my dilemma would be resolved. Well, even with a very rigorous new study by Mathematica Policy Research, my dilemma lives on. Comparing 66 TFA teachers with 90 non-TFA (mostly traditionally prepared) teachers in 36 schools serving preschool through fifth grade, only one significant difference was found: TFA teachers in preschool through second grade were more effective in reading. They added about 1.3 months of learning.

That’s important—it indicates that the TFA teachers are doing a better job on foundational reading skills. But what’s also important is that there was no difference in third through fifth grade. Even more important, there was plenty of room for improvement: on average, these preschool through fifth grade students’ were at the 34th percentile.

Why isn’t reading comprehension budging? The Mathematica study can’t answer, but readers of the Core Knowledge blog certainly can. Until elementary schools—and all types of teacher preparation programs—get serious about systematically building knowledge and vocabulary, reading comprehension will remain far too low.

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Books on the brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

Fortunately, more and more educators, administrators, and professors are coming to understand the nature of comprehension. A recent paper by Donald L. Compton, Amanda C. Miller, Amy M. Elleman, and Laura M. Steacy makes me think knowledge is starting to get its due (thanks to Aaron Grossman for sending it to me).

With a strong-but-brief review of the research on comprehension, the paper is well worth reading. So, I’m just offering some highlights (and hoping TFA’s Wendy Kopp is reading):

Much of the instructional research on reading comprehension has focused on strategy instruction as a means to engage students with text and help them monitor their comprehension…. This focus is warranted as evidenced by the effectiveness of strategy instruction especially for struggling readers…. However, it is unclear whether increased comprehension can be attributed to learning specific strategies. In their review of strategy instruction, Rosenshine and Meister (1994) noted that it did not matter which strategies were combined; as long as multiple strategies were used, students’ comprehension increased. In fact, it may not be the strategies themselves that engender changes in comprehension, but possibly some other factors that strategy instruction fosters, such as deeper engagement with the text and awareness of the need to monitor comprehension.

Our intent here is not to argue against the positive role strategy instruction may play in increasing engagement with text but instead to highlight unforeseen consequences associated with this type of instruction. We propose that strategy instruction may result in low-level text representations that embody only what is explicitly expressed in a text…. Deep level understanding of a text, on the other hand, goes beyond the text in nontrivial ways, requiring the construction of meaning through inference making, not just passive absorption of information….

Reading comprehension occurs as the reader builds a mental representation of the text…. The majority of comprehension theorists suggest that there are at least two levels of representation: a text-based representation and a situation model…. The text representation conveys the underlying meaning of the text’s explicit information…. The situation model involves the intertwining of the reader’s background knowledge with the text-based representation to form a deep representation of the text. Thus, the situation model is a more meaningful representation that goes beyond the text-based information…. We maintain that failure to construct situation models during reading is an acute symptom associated with reading comprehension disability.

A number of studies have reported that individual differences in background knowledge significantly influence the building of a representative situation model…. Readers who possess high levels of knowledge consistently exhibit better comprehension and retention than readers with low levels of knowledge….

[One study] examined the contribution of knowledge to comprehension processes by asking good and poor fifth-grade readers to read or listen to passages and answer questions. Results indicated that having some knowledge about a passage’s topic, which poor readers had less of, was positively associated with the likelihood of correctly answering questions about that passage. In addition, general knowledge and vocabulary knowledge remained significantly associated with correct responses even while controlling for passage specific knowledge. (Again, poor readers possessed less general knowledge and vocabulary knowledge compared to good readers.) Finally, regardless of passage-specific background knowledge, questions about information stated literally in the text were easier to answer than questions that required inference. Results suggest that multiple forms of knowledge, both passage specific and general, are likely required to form coherent and high-quality representations of text.

Wanted: A District with the Courage to Close the Gap

by Lisa Hansel
January 8th, 2015

I’m not one to do New Year’s resolutions—why set myself up for failure? But I do like to take a little time over the holidays to reflect on the year.

For me, the highlight of 2014 was attending the Politico 50 reception with E. D. Hirsch, who shared the No. 8 spot on Politico’s list of “thinkers, doers, and dreamers” with David Coleman. Most striking as we mingled was the depth and ease of the conversation. For Prof. Hirsch and me, at least, this was a room full of strangers. No matter. The topic could be the Iranian revolution or United States v. Windsor or technology’s potential impact on opportunity to learn; we all possessed enough common knowledge to converse seriously.

Whether at home, at school, at the library, or online, somehow we all acquired a definite core of knowledge. As a result, it did not matter that we had just met, were from all over the US, and specialized in different fields—we understood each other.  The evening was a microcosm of how a democracy ought to be. Each of us had our personal interests and individual expertise; and each of us had enough knowledge in common to be able to discuss important topics. That’s not to say we agreed on those topics. Differing views were expressed and, in a couple of instances, vigorously debated.

The heart of a democracy is the ability to communicate with fellow citizens across space, time, and individual differences. Especially in a country as large and diverse as ours, that ability to communicate depends on all of us sharing a core of knowledge. That core does not mean we will agree, but it gives us a platform for being able to understand each other.

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Communicating across time and place requires shared knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

No one kernel of knowledge may matter; but collectively, this core of knowledge divides the citizens with full access to civil society from the disenfranchised. It is essential for literacy, grasping analogies, critical thinking, and learning yet more (and more easily). Recent research shows that such knowledge is a powerful factor in social mobility, more powerful than parents’ education or school selectivity by one’s early 40s.

Most of us lucky enough to have learned this core of knowledge seem not to appreciate just how often we rely on it. At work, at the coffee shop, catching up on the news, we draw on and add to our vast stores of knowledge constantly. Neither news anchors nor neighbors provide all the details; they give you what’s new, and your store of knowledge plugs the holes. Even better, our shared knowledge is a source of strength. From the celebration of the Star-Spangled Banner that took place in Baltimore in September (another highlight of 2014 for me) to “one giant leap for mankind” 45 years ago, there are certain events, concepts, and people that cause a flood of images and ideas among the education haves. That flood is instantaneous. It offers both an anchor to steady us and a foundation on which to build. The simple words “I have a dream” can be overwhelming. Joyous. Sorrowful. Hopeful.

Well, I too have a dream. It is for everyone to have the core of shared knowledge that facilitates communication and invites all to be full participants in civil society. Yes, we have a long way to go. But at least people are starting to recognize that E. D. Hirsch’s great idea—that we could identify essential knowledge and create a curriculum to teach it to all children—is essential for equal opportunity. It’s egalitarian, not elitist, and it guarantees that everyone gets to study the arts, sciences, and humanities. Nor does it interfere with unique pursuits: If we spread that core of shared knowledge over several grades, there’s plenty of time left each year for students to learn content of local import and pursue their individual interests.

If you know of a district that shares my dream, please let me know: lhansel@coreknowledge.org. The Core Knowledge Foundation is seeking a district with the courage to close the achievement gap by implementing a content-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum (including art, music, civics, and all the other important things that too often are neglected these days) in all of its elementary schools. While Core Knowledge would like to work with the district in creating the curriculum, it need not follow the Core Knowledge Sequence. The curriculum would have to be rigorous, coherent, and cumulatively build knowledge and skills. School entry is when the achievement gap is the smallest. By addressing vocabulary and knowledge disparities from the very beginning of schooling (mainly through engaging read-alouds, discussions, and projects), we can close the gap by the end of elementary school.

In the Core Knowledge community, we have individual schools that achieve terrific results with all of their students. We believe the results would be even better if the effort were districtwide. Teachers would be able to collaborate across schools; after a few years of shared problem solving and visiting each other’s classes, they would have world-class curriculum and pedagogy. They could even engage in their own form of Japanese lesson study. In addition, student mobility would be less of a problem, because children would not be completely lost academically when they changed schools within the district.

My words are neither eloquent nor enduring, but they are sincere. Let’s work together to give all children the broad, rich knowledge they need to become productive, responsible, engaged citizens.

The Best of the Common Core: Shifting from Skills to Knowledge

by Lisa Hansel
December 11th, 2014

You already know that the Common Core English language arts and literacy standards call for building knowledge with a content-rich curriculum. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen evidence of that call’s impact.

Last week, Fordham had a conference on Upward Mobility. Most of the day was depressing—the odds are so severely stacked against our neediest students—but there were just enough bright spots keep us going. The papers are going to be published as a book next year, but right now you can read the drafts for free.

Not surprisingly, Robert Pondiscio’s paper is excellent, reminding us that even the brightest, hardest-working students struggle when they are not given the opportunity to learn essential knowledge:

In 1994, Ron Suskind published A Hope in the Unseen, the story of a bright, ambitious young man from one of the worst high schools in Washington, D.C. who defies the odds to win acceptance at Brown University. The book became one of the touchstones of the education-reform movement because it appeared to demonstrate that demographics need not be destiny. You can grow up as dirt poor as its protagonist, Cedric Jennings, and still achieve at the highest levels academically—all the way to the Ivy League.

There is a brief but telling moment in the book when a Brown professor asks his class how many of them have ever been to Ellis Island. Cedric has never heard of it. “Ellis Island is not a core concept in Southeast Washington,” Suskind wrote. Rather it is “the sort of white people’s history passed over in favor of Afrocentric studies.”

Because of his lack of background knowledge, Cedric is at a decided disadvantage. He struggles through a lecture in which some students barely take notes and others literally sleep in class. “So many class discussions are full of references he doesn’t understand,” Suskind reports. “Maura knows what to write on her pad and the sleepers will be able to skim the required readings, all of them guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge of history, economics, and education, of culture and social events, that they picked up in school or at home or God knows where.”

The author does not dwell on the anecdote, but it is a critical insight. Jennings is a smart, driven young man who wants badly to succeed. He may be the grittiest in class and have first-rate work habits. But he has to work much harder, and his simple lack of background knowledge nearly derails his chance of succeeding in college. In the end, he succeeds not because of his education, but in spite of it. His journey from poor urban schools, through the Ivy League, and onward to a life of economic mobility is made far more difficult than it needed to be. This remains the case in too many schools that serve almost exclusively low-income children.

Now the bright spot. In commenting on Pondiscio’s paper, Dacia Toll of Achievement First explained that the because of the Common Core—and her new understanding of the importance of knowledge—Achievement First schools are radically altering their literacy instruction. While the full panel (panel III) is worth watching, if you only have a few minutes, jump up to Toll’s comments, which begin 38 minutes in.

Because of the Common Core, Toll says, Achievement First’s leaders have realized that “the achievement gap is even wider than we thought it was.” She continues, “The more you look at the English language arts gaps in particular, the more you come back to background knowledge and vocabulary.” Toll is honest about Achievement First’s previous mistakes. To increase reading, they used to do more reading—and they made time for that by taking time away from other subjects. They now see how misguided that was, and are dedicated to a content-rich curriculum.

Hoping to help educators across the country come to the same realization, Student Achievement Partners and the Council for Great City Schools have started a “Text Set Project.” The project is based on research (explained in the CCSS’s appendix A) that children acquire vocabulary up to four times faster when they focus on one topic for several weeks. Each text set covers one topic, contains roughly 6-10 readings, may be supplemented by a video, and has simple activities to help students extract key points and vocabulary. SAP and CGCS is hosting text set workshops all across the US to immerse educators in the research on reading comprehension—especially why knowledge is key—and to show how to build text sets. I had the pleasure of attending this week in Baltimore.

Core Knowledge educators already know about immersing students in domains of study. Here’s one activity I learned about at the workshop that seems like a great way to boost student learning. It’s called a Rolling Knowledge Journal. Students complete the journal as they work their way through the text set. The Journal is a three-column worksheet in which they fill in the title of the text, list the new and important things they learned from that text, and then explain how this new text adds to what they already knew. It’s a great tool not only for students, but teachers too. One teacher uses the Rolling Knowledge Journal to make sure her texts are well sequenced before she gives the text set to students.

We’ve all heard plenty of examples of the Common Core being misinterpreted. The standards will be what we make of them. In these cases, at least, educators are making them into a great opportunity to learn.

Children Don’t Know How to Close the Vocabulary Gap

by Lisa Hansel
December 3rd, 2014

Most children don’t even know there is a vocabulary gap. They don’t know that reading about a wide variety of topics is the best way to acquire new vocabulary. They don’t know that books (even children’s books) use a wider variety of vocabulary than adults’ conversation. They don’t know that reading several texts on the same topic—and thus staying focused on that topic for two to three weeks—can make vocabulary learning up to four times faster.

Nor do they know what they need to learn. They don’t know what science, history, geography, civics, art, and music content they will be asked to master in later years (if they are lucky enough to attend schools that have a rich curriculum). They don’t know how much more fulfilling their lives would be if they “had a dream” or asked “What’s in a name?” or grasped “one giant leap for mankind.”

What children know is what they’ve been taught—at home, by commercials, at school, by neighbors…. Fortunately, virtually all children do share a wonderful quality that makes them eager to learn: curiosity.

To close the vocabulary gap, adults must do a better job of capitalizing on that curiosity to broaden children’s knowledge. And we must do it early, while the curiosity is so strong and the vocabulary gap is relatively small.

Since you’re reading the Core Knowledge blog, you already know that the first thing to do is write a content-rich, carefully sequenced curriculum for preschool through at least the elementary grades. What else can we do? One thing I think teachers and parents should consider is more carefully curating the books that children have to choose from. With a little gentle guidance, children can become curious about a great variety of topics. Take archeology for example. What kid would not be fascinated by digging in dirt and excavating tombs to find ancient people, stories, and treasures?

For resistant readers, let’s get creative about branching out from their current interests (which, don’t forget, are rarely “natural”; they’re often induced by commercial enterprises). Star Wars could be a great invitation to some astronomy books. Perhaps Sponge Bob could lead to marine biology. Especially if these subjects are introduced with read-alouds by a parent or teacher, kids can get hooked—and get the crucial introduction to a topic that makes comprehension easier—before they try to read about these topics  on their own.

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Child in need of guidance courtesy of Shutterstock.

Susan Neuman and Donna Celano provide an excellent example of curated choice vs. free choice in their decade-long study of two Philadelphia libraries: Chestnut Hill, in a high-income area by the same name, and Lillian Marrero, in the low-income Badlands area.

In the Chestnut Hill library, children always seem to enter the preschool area accompanied by an adult—most often their mother but occasionally a father, a nanny, or a grandmother. In comparison, in the Badlands, young children almost always enter alone, sometimes with a sibling but very rarely with an adult. Occasionally, an older brother or cousin might help locate a book or read to them. But more often than not, we see short bursts of activity, almost frenetic in nature. With little to do, children wander in and out with relatively little focus. Rarely are books checked out.

For children in Chestnut Hill, the activities are highly routinized. Invariably, the accompanying parent takes charge, suggesting books, videos, or audio books to check out. Sometimes the parent might pull a book down and let the child examine it or ask a child what types of books to look for. But the parents are clearly in charge: in a very authoritative manner, they sometimes note, “That book is too hard for you,” “That is too easy,” or “This one might be better.” Parents steer children to challenging selections, sometimes appeasing them with a video selection as well. Visits are brief, highly focused, and without exception, end with checking out a slew of books and, often, DVDs.

Inside the spacious preschool area at Lillian Marrero, separated from the rest of the library by “castle walls,” we find bins and baskets, crates and shelves full of books, and small tables with computers…. A mother sits 10 feet away in a chair marking her book with a yellow highlighter while her 6-year-old son explores the stacks alone. He forays several times for books, returning with selections to show his mother for her approval. “No, we’ve already seen them,” she says, sending him back to find something new. He returns several minutes later. Collecting what appears to be one, two, or three items from him, the mother gathers the rest of her belongings. Before she heads for the door, she points to the librarian who is now sitting at her desk. “Say bye to the lady,” the mother says to the little boy. “Bye-bye, lady,” he dutifully responds….

For early literacy, these differences have profound implications. In the spirit of concerted cultivation, toddlers and preschoolers in Chestnut Hill appear to be carefully mentored in selecting challenging materials; in contrast, those who experience the process of natural growth in the Badlands receive little, if any, coaching. Left on their own, these children resort to playful activity of short bursts, picking books up and putting them down with little discrimination and involvement. In Chestnut Hill, activities are carefully orchestrated to encourage reading for individual growth and development; in the Badlands, no such mentoring is available—the children are on their own.

Killing Three Birds with One Stone

by Lisa Hansel
November 4th, 2014

The Fordham Institute’s Aaron Churchill has an interesting new post weighing the merits of state-mandated testing in science and social studies. He notes the cons—like the minimal added information on school quality given the high correlations between scores on science and reading tests—and the pros—like reversing the narrowing of the curriculum driven by the high-stakes emphasis on reading and math. Then he sets forth four options (and ultimately recommends his third option):

1.) Keep the status quo. This would ensure that social studies and science are tested, but in non-consecutive years (e.g., science in grades 5 and 8). Yet the status quo still does not compel schools to treat these subjects as equal partners with ELA and math.

2.) Eliminate testing in social studies and science. This approach would reduce the cost of testing in these areas, which gives us little new information about student achievement for school-quality purposes. However, this option would likely encourage even more focus on ELA and math and would require a waiver from federal statute which presently requires science testing at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

3.) Increase testing in social studies and science to the same frequency as math and ELA (i.e., test these subjects annually in grades 3-8). This would balance schools’ incentives to treat each subject equally, but at the cost of more time and money. From an information perspective, although little additional information is yielded in terms of student proficiency, annual testing could help analysts construct growth (i.e., “value-added”) measures for these subjects.

4.) Decrease testing in math and ELA to non-consecutive grades to match the frequency of social studies and science (e.g., test math and ELA in grades 4 and 6, not consecutively in grades 3-8). This would also balance schools’ incentives to treat subjects equally, but at the cost of less information and accountability. It would also require federal action to grant Ohio relief from consecutive-year-testing mandates in math and ELA in grades 3–8, or more likely, a rewritten federal law that governs state accountability (No Child Left Behind).

I’d like to offer a fifth option that assesses science and social studies yet has fewer tests: Draw the topics for the reading comprehension tests from the science and social studies standards. This blog recently explored the many drawbacks of current reading comprehension tests. In short, they contain a random smattering of “common” topics and topics that ought to be taught in school, but since they are not tied to any specific content that we can be certain has been taught, they inevitably privilege students who have acquired broad knowledge (usually at home).

The only way to construct truly fair reading comprehension tests is to ensure that the passages are on topics that have been taught in school. Since states’ English language arts standards usually do not specify which books, poems, short stories, etc. to teach in each grade, ELA standards are a poor guide for test developers concerned with equity. But states’ science and social studies standards usually do specify some core content to be taught in each grade. The obvious path forward is to construct reading comprehension tests that assess language arts skills using the science and social studies content specified in the standards. After all, skills depend on relevant prior knowledge, so such tests would give a more accurate picture of schools’ impact on students’ language abilities than our current random-content tests. And for the cost and time of just one test, we would have a decent gauge of three subjects.

Even better would be to draw the topics for passages on reading comprehension tests from science, social studies, art, music, geography, and civics standards. Such tests would (1) induce schools to develop a broad, content-rich curriculum and support teacher collaboration, (2) reduce the impact of the home on students’ scores, (3) build the knowledge and vocabulary that is essential to literacy, and (4) be the foundation for an accountability system that requires fewer tests yet still ensures that standards are being met.

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Reading tests with science and social studies content that had been taught would be more equitable and more interesting. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.