Writing for Understanding

by Lisa Hansel
November 17th, 2015

Back in 2003, Sam Wineburg, a history professor at Stanford, published a little essay (or quick rant) titled “Power Pointless.” I can’t find it online now, but it amounted to a plea to have students write papers instead of merely creating presentations. Bullet points can hide incomplete understandings; essays tend to reveal them.

Wineburg’s piece stuck with me because I’ve found it to be true even with well-developed presentations. I’ve attended the National History Day finals a few times, for example, and even at that high level I’ve found students who wrote papers to be much better prepared to answer questions. A focused essay with supporting details that are logically presented in well-connected paragraphs requires deep understanding and analysis, as well as writing skills.

And yet, especially with younger students, it can be difficult to determine the challenges underlying poorly written essays. Is the child still struggling with forming letters, spelling, punctuation, etc. such that she can’t express her understanding? Is she unfocused or unorganized? Or has she not developed much understanding?

Five teachers committed to improving students’ writing confronted those questions. In their classrooms, the widely used writing process is “significant, necessary, and vital,” but “not enough.” Through classroom R&D, they found that while students need to develop writing skills—from basic mechanics to sophisticated structures—problems are often grounded in a lack of understanding. Kids are asked to write before they’ve had a chance to learn much about their topic.

With over 130 years of teaching experience between them, these five teachers developed Writing for Understanding, an approach that emphasizes building and organizing knowledge as essential preparation for writing. They’ve written a terrific book that mixes cognitive science with their experiences as teachers and professional development providers. With everything from the rationale to explicit planning guidance to student writing samples, it’s a must read.

Here’s a small taste, drawn from the introduction and chapter 1:

Our work has convinced us that, even with a thoughtful question, many students fail when they write. This failure occurs … because they don’t have sufficient knowledge in the first place. No matter how thought-provoking the question is, one cannot reflect on knowledge one does not have. One cannot analyze information that is sketchy, inaccurate, or poorly understood. One cannot synthesize from nothing. It is up to teachers, then, to provide activities and experiences that give students knowledge and help them construct meaning from that knowledge….

It has long been a truism that one should write about what one knows; all writers know this, all teachers of writing or teachers who use writing in their classes know this. This truism has often led, however, to the idea that one should write about only what one already knows, or at the very least decide for oneself about what to learn and write.

One of the unintended consequences of this assumption has been that teachers have frequently not paid sufficient attention to how students actually acquired the knowledge about which they would write. In writing from personal experience, the knowledge could be assumed; after all, the knowledge was the writer’s own life events or ideas or reflections.

Because of this emphasis, the corollary to “write about what you know” has frequently not been articulated—that you should “know about what you write.” As a result, deliberate, intentional planning for knowledge building has not often been a part of the writing teacher’s approach….

Writing for Understanding is an approach that recognizes … that at the heart of effective writing, by any accepted definition, is the building of meaning and expression so that others can follow the writer’s thinking. Therefore, Writing for Understanding postulates that if students are to write effectively and with engagement—during testing, for their own personal growth, for school, for real life—they need to have certain elements in place. These elements are:

    • knowledge and understanding which can be articulated in spoken and written language
    • an appropriate focus for thinking about and synthesizing that knowledge and understanding
    • a structure through which to clearly develop and present that knowledge and understanding
    • control over conventions.

The rest of the book offers rich information for teachers on planning for understanding and supporting transfer of students’ writing ability—including the ability to learn about new topics to prepare for effective writing.

For a peek into a school that recently adopted Writing for Understanding—and some Listening & Learning domains from Core Knowledge Language Arts—take a look at these short videos:

ANet 1 (2)

ANet 2

The High-Tech Road to Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 27th, 2015

Every time I see a toddler with an iPad, I cringe just a little. I try to hide it. I know I’m supposed to be amazed at the little genius.

I also know that the device could be useful, especially as the toddler becomes a preschooler and starts learning letters and numbers. Still, beyond a few apps for those (very important) basics, I typically see the iPad as more opiate than education. But we can’t just say no. iPads and similar devices are ubiquitous and revered. We must co-opt them. But how?

Lisa Guernsey of New America and Michael Levine of Sesame Workshop provide the first really compelling answer I’ve seen. Their new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, is a rare gem. It’s written in a way that parents will find accessible and it offers a combination of research, initiatives (with videos), and insights that even the most expert decision makers will find useful.

Rather than a summary, I’ll offer a few samples of Lisa and Michael’s findings and trust that you’ll be motivated to dive into the whole book.

On literacy:

Literacy in the younger years is not, and never has been, solely about reading print. Walk into a children’s library and what do you see everywhere? Picture books, some with no print at all. Nor is early literacy only about reading books. Literacy has always involved speaking, listening, and writing.

On literacy apps:

Our analysis can be summed up as follows: kids’ literacy apps are abundant within the marketplace, but they have not been designed or distributed in any coherent fashion, and the vast majority are not oriented to help bridge the gulf of literacy problems faced by some families…. Meanwhile, however, we see hope in the growing number of curators popping up, a few of whom are trying to bring in a lens on learning in the early years.

On the future of literacy apps:

To give you a sense of the type of research likely to come, consider the case of the app-based learning system called Learn with Homer…. It brings a mix of proven early learning techniques—story time, rich vocabulary and background knowledge, and skills practice—together in one app…. Kids are not only learning what the letter A sounds like and that “alligator” starts with A, but also taking virtual “field trips” to the zoo, where they learn about alligators.

On wise use:

We cannot afford to ignore the affordances of technology, especially for disadvantaged children and families of many different backgrounds and circumstances who may not otherwise have access to information and learning opportunities. And yet to leave the fate of these children to technology alone would be a big mistake…. Children who interact with technology while working with adults who can set good examples and guide them to new heights are receiving tremendous advantages. If only the privileged few have the opportunity for that kind of tech-assisted but human-powered learning, divides will only grow wider.


To be educational, iPad time needs to be quality time (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

On knowledge and comprehension:

One recent day in California, a six-year-old boy named Brandon was … watching one of Disney’s Ice Age movies, when he saw a scene that captivated him. On the screen were the lovable animations of Ice Age’s prehistoric beasts, loping along the barren, icy terrain. Brandon turned to his father: “Papi, at that time, what was it like? There weren’t any buses?” Smiling, his father, José Rubén, saw this as a teachable moment. He went to his computer, pulled up YouTube, and searched for videos that would show his son more about what life was like during that time…. Brandon was engaged in building his knowledge base, getting an introduction to concepts and ideas that not only gave him a little more understanding of the Ice Age, but also helped him put the Ice Age into context of other periods in history and start to gain a framework for thinking about how time passes and how change happens….

When most people talk about the troubling state of children’s reading in the United States, the untapped power of these kinds of learning moments are not likely on their minds. Instead they may think our country’s problems are simply a function of whether children ever learned how to decode words on a page or read sentences with fluency. But the root of the problem may be in children’s abilities to comprehend and make sense of the ideas that are built by those words and sentences. Recent vocabulary scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, showed that American children are making few if any significant gains in understanding the meaning of complex words, with a wide gulf between white students and … Hispanic and African American students. So if there are ways to build that word learning and even more importantly build a deeper knowledge base that enables comprehension in today’s children, don’t we have a moral obligation to seize it?

Penguins, Pythons, and Text Sets

by Lisa Hansel
September 22nd, 2015

Pop quiz: What do the following texts have to do with each other?

  • “What Happens When it Rains”
  • “Shasta Dam”
  • “Water Main Break in Downtown New York City”
  • “Penguins: Up Close and Personal”
  • “Pythons Invade the Florida Everglades”
  • “Who Wants a Spiny Snack?”

If you answered that they all have some connection to water, you’re right—but there’s no prize.

These texts are posted on ReadWorks’s website, on a page devoted to “K-12 Articles Related to Water.” As the intro wisely states, “Research says that reading or listening to several articles related to the same topic can help students build knowledge, acquire and reinforce important vocabulary, and make connections.”

That’s true. But ReadWorks didn’t follow its own advice.

The texts listed above are its set on water for 4th grade (that spiny one is on pufferfish). Technically all of these texts are related to water, but none is actually about water. Even the first one, which you might assume is about rain or perhaps the water cycle, is really about dirt turning to mud.


Mud-loving child courtesy of Shutterstock.

That one may not be worth a text set, but all the other texts in this collection are. Instead of pretending that these are all about water, it would be far more productive to create text sets on the actual topics: dams, city water infrastructure, penguins (and possibly other animals in Antarctica), the Everglades, and oceanic fish. Only by having multiple texts on these focused topics will students have a chance to “build knowledge, acquire and reinforce important vocabulary, and make connections.”

When constructing a text set, the key is for words and ideas to repeat across the set. A well-designed text set will start with an introductory text on a specific topic that provides basic concepts and essential vocabulary; the set will progress to more and more complex texts that provide multiple exposures to the words and ideas that students need to master.

ReadWorks’s texts on water don’t do that. Since water is only tangentially related to these texts’ topics, the text set provides almost no repetition of words or ideas. Students don’t have a chance to build knowledge or vocabulary, and there are very few connections to make (but please let me know if you ever see penguins and pythons hanging out at the Shasta Dam).

Pretty much all of ReadWorks’s text sets on water are like this—not about water. But there is one exception. Five of the six texts it pulled together for third grade are coherent:

  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Living Things & Ecosystems Need Water”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Water’s Impact on the Earth”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Water? : Protecting Out Water”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Marine Biology? : Life in the Ocean”
  • “What’s the Big Idea about Marine Biology? : Creatures and Ecosystems of the Ocean”
  • “Li Bing and the Flooding”

The five truly about water were provided by OLogy, a website for children by the American Museum of Natural History. They are informative and engaging—as is the whole Ology site.

ReadWorks could dramatically improve its text sets if it took these five as a model. Even just using the texts listed on its water page, coherent text sets (on topics such as the Everglades) that provide the repetition needed for learning could be created by mixing easier texts for children to read with harder texts for teachers to read aloud.

Of course, old habits are hard to break. Teachers have long been told to create theme-based units. It sounds like a great idea, but much like these texts vaguely related to water, themes tend to be far too broad to support learning. As E. D. Hirsch explained in “A Wealth of Words,” vocabulary is learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts—it’s also the key to increasing equity.

Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof that Informative Can Be Engaging

by Lisa Hansel
August 27th, 2015

Kiana Hernandez is a young woman who opted out of a standardized test last spring. She had her reasons, as the Mother Jones article about her details, but that’s not what interests me about her story. What grabbed me is the reading instruction she received—or endured:

She’d failed the Florida reading test every year since sixth grade and had been placed in remedial classes where she was drilled on basic skills, like reading paragraphs to find the topic sentence and then filling in the right bubbles on a practice test. She didn’t get to read whole books like her peers in the regular class or practice her writing, analysis, and debating—skills she would need for the political science degree she dreamed of, or for the school board candidacy that she envisioned.

I am not against testing—I think it is critical to closing the achievement gap. But I am opposed to the stakes being so high that otherwise-reasonable people put kids’ scores above their education. And I’m opposed to expecting students to take tests for which they have not been prepared. Hernandez has been cheated, as have millions of other needy students.

As one teacher quoted in the article put it, giving low-income students “random passages” to “practice picking the correct multiple-choice” answer is “very separate and unequal.”

This is the Core Knowledge blog, so you know what students need. Let’s jump to a great new resource.

A terrific author for the middle grades, Joy Hakim, has just published an eBook: Reading Science Stories. It’s a marvelous resource for English, history, and science teachers looking for narrative nonfiction—or perhaps a starting place for collaborating on an interdisciplinary project.

Here’s the beginning of one of my favorite chapters, “A Boy with Something on His Mind”:

Fifteen-year-old Albert Einstein is miserable. He is trying to finish high school in Germany, but he hates the school; it’s a strict, rigid place. To make things worse, his parents have moved to Italy. They think he should stay behind until his schooling is completed. It isn’t long, though, before he is on his way over the Alps, heading south to join them. Why does he leave Germany? Today, no one is quite sure, but a letter from the school offers a powerful clue: “Your presence in the class is disruptive and affects the other students.”

What are the Einsteins to do with their son? He is a high school dropout who has arrived without warning.

In Milan, Italy, Albert’s father owns a factory that builds parts for machines—called dynamos—which take energy from coal, oil, or mountain streams and convert it into electrical power. A dynamo can turn the lights on in a village. It is 1895, and electric lights are a new thing—and so is all the electrical technology that is fueling the Industrial Revolution.

Albert is going to take the world way beyond the Industrial Revolution. He will bring about a new scientific age. But no one knows that now. His parents keep urging him to get serious about school. Hanging around the factory may be fun and a terrific way to learn about the exciting electrical machinery, but it isn’t enough in the fast-changing world at the end of the nineteenth century. His father suggests that Albert forget his “philosophical nonsense.” He needs a degree.

While everyone in the family is worrying about his future, young Einstein’s mind is somewhere else. There is a question that won’t leave his head. “What would the world look like if I could sit on a beam of light?” he keeps asking himself.

It becomes an obsession, trying to hang on to the light beam. And, because light travels through space at 299,792.5 kilometers per second (or 186,282 miles per second), it also means that in less than a second, Albert will leave the Earth and its atmosphere. What are time and space and matter like out in the vastness of the universe? No one can help him answer that, because no one knows what happens at the speed of light.

Einstein may not realize it, but he is thinking about the scientific question of his age: Why does light—which is electromagnetic radiation—behave the way it does? Light doesn’t seem to follow the same laws of motion—Isaac Newton’s laws—that guide a baseball when you pitch it. Most people at the end of the nineteenth century don’t know that this incompatibility is creating a kind of crisis in scientific thinking. Newton’s laws of motion work wonderfully well in our everyday world. Electromagnetic laws, established by James Clerk Maxwell, work wonderfully well, too. But electromagnetism is leading science beyond the everyday. It is opening the whole universe to consideration. And physicists have found that where there is an overlap between Newton’s science and electromagnetic science, there seems to be an incongruity. Isaac Newton’s laws and James Clerk Maxwell’s laws can’t both be right—at least not completely right. Hardly anyone is bothered by this, except for a few physicists and a 15-year-old thinker.

Hungry for more? Hakim has all of chapter one, “Take a Number,” and ordering information on her website.


Kiana Hernandez didn’t need to drill strategies with random texts. She needed rich, informative texts that would build her knowledge and vocabulary while she practiced essential skills. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


Dear Alliance: You Almost Nailed It

by Lisa Hansel
August 21st, 2015

The Alliance for Excellent Education has a new report: The Next Chapter: Supporting Literacy Within ESEA. It’s definitely worth reading, making many crucial points about supporting literacy from kindergarten through twelfth grade in a few pages.

There’s just one problem: it does not discuss building broad academic knowledge.

Like almost all discussions of literacy, the focus is on literacy instruction and reading and writing skills. If only such skills were sufficient!

In the section on “Why Readers Struggle,” the report mentions vocabulary and alludes to the Common Core standards, but knowledge is neglected:

Improving literacy achievement can prove daunting because individuals struggling to read and write experience a wide range of challenges that require an equally wide range of interventions. Students may have difficulty with word recognition, vocabulary, or reading fluency. In addition, states’ new English language arts standards increase expectations for reading and writing proficiency by emphasizing the critical thinking and analytical skills students need to succeed in college and a career. These standards foster the progressive development of literacy skills by exposing students to challenging texts within academic content areas. Many students, however, lack the strategies and stamina to understand informational texts, make connections among ideas, and draw conclusions based on evidence gathered from source material.

Hmm. Why do the new standards require “challenging texts within academic content areas”? What enables “critical thinking and analytical skills”? And what might we offer students so that they don’t need “strategies and stamina to understand informational texts” (especially since “strategies and stamina” are only minimally effective)?

As decades of research in cognitive science show—and the Common Core standards clearly state—language comprehension requires broad knowledge. In fact, knowledge is so critical in comprehension that a weak reader with extensive knowledge of the topic in the text will substantially outperform a strong reader without such knowledge


In school and throughout life, comprehension depends on broad knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

It’s great to see the Alliance pushing to close the reading achievement gap. Much of its report makes good sense, but the gap can’t be closed via literacy instruction alone.

To be fair, in its discussion of response to intervention, the report does state, “All students need to engage in authentic literacy, which refers to the intensive integration of purposeful reading, writing, and talking into core subject areas.” But this acknowledgement of the importance of all core subjects still fails to recognize that the knowledge students acquire across subjects is the key to good comprehension. If acquiring knowledge were the goal, I’d expect to see “integration of purposeful listening, reading, writing, and talking” since listening to and discussing teacher read-alouds is a great way to build knowledge in the elementary and middle grades. As written, it seems as if the purpose of “authentic literacy” is to build “strategies and stamina.”

I’d love to see the Alliance publish a new report soon. One that touts the need to build broad knowledge from early childhood through twelfth grade, clarifies that a well-rounded curriculum is the only way to narrow the reading achievement gap, and calls for “literacy” interventions for struggling students that include enrichment across subjects.

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.


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?


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.


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