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.

I’m Afraid of Personalized Learning

by Lisa Hansel
August 18th, 2015

There. I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of personalized learning. Of course, I’m fascinated by it too. But the allure only adds to my fear—there’s a small chance that personalized learning could radically improve education and a large chance that it’ll produce the next flood of snake oil.

Writing about DC’s foray into personalized learning, Natalie Wexler sums up the benefits nicely:

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others struggle. Under the prevailing model, teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and others are lost. The personalized learning movement aims to engage and challenge all students, wherever they may be.

Wexler also notes many possible pitfalls, including students not pushing themselves or being off task, teachers being unable to support all students at different learning stations, and the lack of opportunities for whole-class discussions.

All of these challenges could be addressed—giving us a small chance that personalized learning could work at scale—but will they be? I doubt it.

One hurdle is that there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on what personalized learning is. Some people seem to be talking about personalized pathways to mastering a well-rounded curriculum; others seem to be talking about personalized pathways and personalized content.

Here’s a typically jumbled description of personalized learning from “creative learning strategist” Barbara Bray:

A personalized learning environment is more competency-based where students progress at their own pace instead of by grade levels. No more “mandated” seat time. The learner has their own learning path with multiple strategies to meet their different learning styles…. Learners are co-designers of the curriculum with the teachers. Teachers are co-learners with the learners. The teacher doesn’t have to be the hardest working person in the classroom; the learners need to be. They want to learn because they chose the topic and understand what they need to learn. They want to succeed so they try harder. They succeed because they designed their learning goals.

Moving at your own pace is alluring—especially if students who are behind are assisted with accelerating their pace. The risk is that the very notion of being “behind” evaporates, leaving us with students aging out of public schooling before they become college, career, or citizenship ready. But some combination of individual pacing, year-round options, and benchmarks for predicting on-time graduation could be very powerful.

Personalized content, in contrast, strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous. While it might be the path to engagement, it might also be the path to widening the achievement gap and locking even more people out of our democracy. Young people don’t know what they need to learn. They don’t know that comprehension—and therefore everything else—depends on broad knowledge and an enormous vocabulary.

If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs. Fortunately, most of my elementary and middle years were in a school that had English, math, science, history, French, Latin, and PE every day. By high school, not coincidentally, my interests were as broad as my elementary curriculum had been.

Personal choice of some content could be layered on top of a rich, pre-established curriculum. But the school must remain responsible for steering students toward worthwhile studies. As a recent article by Daniel Willingham notes:

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ…. Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks….

The aforementioned research [on long-term retention] also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime….

Education-policy debates tend to focus on structural issues—things like teacher quality, licensure requirements, and laws governing charter schools. But research on human memory indicates that academic content and the way it is sequenced—i.e., curriculum—are vital determinants of educational outcomes, and they’re aspects that receive insufficient attention.

For personalized learning to work, advocates will have to become far more careful about what students are learning and how they are able to revisit and build on their knowledge over several years.


Personalized pacing (with safeguards) and personalized content are very different things (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

A Full Year of Knowledge, Questions, Thinking, and Learning

by Guest Blogger
July 22nd, 2015

By Ilene Shafran

Ilene Shafran is a second grade teacher with twenty-four years of experience. Her diverse public school has a large English as a second language population and has earned a Blue Ribbon  from the US Department of Education. Shafran is involved in curriculum design, is a facilitator for a professional learning committee, and is a member of the United Federation of Teachers’ consultation committee.

So I did it. My second grade students had a full year of Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) for the first time. I piloted CKLA the previous year and decided to teach the full program because students were engaged, there were so many genuine writing opportunities, and I simply loved it.

It made sense to me to teach content, vocabulary and knowledge in the morning and then teach the more skills-based lessons and decodable reader lessons in the afternoon. The enjoyment and learning process was mutually beneficial. Each read-aloud story captured students’ interest like no other literacy program I have used. Each lesson presented questions and discussion topics that were intriguing, relevant, and thought provoking. I was especially impressed with my “faithful five,” a group of five students that always raised their hands to answer content-based questions. They were a mix of children with high and average abilities—the one thing they had in common was having been exposed to pilots of CKLA in first grade. I am looking forward to next year’s second graders, who all had a full year of CKLA in first grade. They should be ready to jump right in.

In addition to the great conversations and accountable talk we had this year, my students wrote high-quality pieces about some very sophisticated topics. As CKLA is designed for students to acquire a broad knowledge base, it also lends itself to going through the writing process and creating rigorous writing lessons on a variety of topics. I am amazed and very pleased that my students were able to write in such detail using rich vocabulary, as well as incorporating second-grade Common Core standards for writing.

Together, all of the second-grade teachers decided that our first writing piece would be on the Chinese New Year after studying ancient China. We chose this topic because most students were familiar with it, so the CKLA read aloud added to their prior knowledge and enabled them to write in some detail. We used this writing piece as a baseline for informational writing. By looking at these writing samples, we were able to assess students’ strengths and needs, as well as set beginning of the year writing goals. Then we learned about ancient Indian and Greek civilizations. Students picked an ancient person to write a narrative about—many chose Alexander the Great, whom they found fascinating.

Some of my favorite writing pieces were those we did during the Greek mythology domain. We created Greek myth journals where students kept track of the different stories by writing responses to each myth. Many students also wrote their own Greek myths trying to explain things about the natural world. This very sophisticated type of writing was modeled and done in groups, but it also allowed our high achievers a chance to write an original myth on their own.

Midyear, we studied cycles of nature and students learned how to write comparisons using a variety of organizers. Then, students used their organizers to plan and write a comparison paragraph.

After studying insect groups, students had a lot of fun writing in the narrative genre when they pretended to be an insect and tell all about themselves from the insect’s viewpoint.

Then it was onto major events in American history—the War of 1812 and all of the fascinating people that helped create our great nation. My students were captivated by James and Dolley Madison. Over the winter break, we asked students to write a speech about someone from 1812 and create a “wearable” biography. Students created a poster board of fun facts and pictures of the person they chose, then cut out holes for their faces and arms. Students made terrific speeches and marched around in a parade showing off their knowledge to parents and peers.

After this domain, we moved on to studying Westward expansion. It was fun for my students to learn so much about pioneer days and traveling across America in covered wagons. We used the domain worksheets to make story quilt squares for each read aloud in which students wrote key details and responses. Since the writing activity was ongoing throughout the unit, it gave students an opportunity to create a wonderful project at the end of the unit. Students put all their story squares together and created a pioneer quilt. It was visually beautiful and loaded with students’ writing.

Our lessons and read alouds during the Human Body domain were most intense. I was extremely impressed by my students’ maturity as they examined all the diagrams and posters of the different systems of the human body. No one screamed! There were chuckles and gasps, but for the most part my students were able to control themselves. More importantly, there were a lot of technical terms that they learned through the diagrams and labeled pictures. Alone the way, we gained an appreciation for pre-med students. My students looked forward to the nutrition part of the domain and had fun writing about their healthy days.

After studying Immigration, students put themselves in the shoes of an immigrant from the early 1900s and wrote about choosing a place to live in America. This piece allowed students to write a narrative based on real facts they learned. We explored the different cities across America and the different reasons why immigrants picked one place over another.

This was a full, rewarding year of questioning, thinking, learning, and writing. We had wonderful writing sessions in which we looked at the craft and elements of good writing—writing that my students felt proud of because they gained the knowledge and had access to all the key information. They became experts in the areas they wrote about, giving them confidence to tell others what they learned. A common introduction for many of my students became “This is what I learned about….” When I look back on everything my students learned this past year, I am very satisfied with and appreciative of this curriculum. I can’t imagine teaching any other way.

My students’ writing samples speak for themselves.

 1st wrtg piece chinese new year (2)

2nd greek journal entry

These two samples are from a boy who struggled at the beginning of the year; to complete his Chinese New Year piece, he required one-on-one guidance to express his ideas. He improved quickly, writing about Zeus independently and “on demand” in response to a prompt after just four (out of twelve) CKLA domains.

4 th insect narr

This insect narrative was written by a girl who is an English language learner. She has good comprehension, but finds adding numerous details challenging. She wrote this piece in February without any teacher or peer assistance.



“Knowledge Capital” Determines Economic Growth

by Lisa Hansel
July 14th, 2015

With the recession still fresh in our minds and questions about whether college is worth the cost, some may be wondering just how much schooling matters. If they go searching for answers, they may even find confusing claims like this: “at the global level, no relationship has been found between a more educated population and more rapid economic development.”

Finally, analyses by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann provide a compelling answer: seat time doesn’t matter, but knowledge does. They explain years of work in a new book, The Knowledge Capital of Nations: Education and the Economics of Growth. I’ll confess: I haven’t read it (so far, I’ve read a couple of their free papers, which Hanushek graciously makes easy to find). But I will read it—I’ve been hoping for this book since finding an early, and especially reader-friendly, analysis in the spring 2008 issue of Education Next.

For now, here’s the central claim, drawn from the book’s introduction:

The conclusion of the analysis we develop in this book is that Adam Smith was right: human capital, as we now call it, is extraordinarily important for a nation’s economic development. The significance of education, however, has been obscured by measurement issues. Time in school is a very bad measure of what is learned and of what skills are developed, particularly in an international context. With better measures, the fundamental importance of human capital becomes clear.

Although many factors enter into a nation’s economic growth, we conclude that the cognitive skills of the population are the most essential to long-run prosperity. These skills, which in the aggregate we call the “knowledge capital” of a nation, explain in large part the differences in long-run growth we have seen around the world in the past half century.

For those who have not yet been persuaded by the democracy- and cognition-based arguments for rigorous, knowledge-rich elementary and secondary education, perhaps this economic argument will win the day. Seat time is a waste of precious resources; building knowledge is a terrific investment.


Knowledge and the economy grow together (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Does Class Trump Ability?

by Lisa Hansel
June 5th, 2015

“A 13-year study that tracked students of different socioeconomic status found that ‘class trumps ability’ most times when it comes to college graduation, including when comparing top-achieving poor teenagers with top-achieving affluent teenagers.”

That’s the summary by Chalkbeat New York (which is an excellent source of info on NYC schools). It links to a New York Times article with some not-very-surprising findings: “A low-income college student with top math scores has the same chance of graduating with a bachelor’s degree (41 percent) as a rich student with mediocre scores.”


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The interesting question is why. It isn’t really the case that “class trumps ability.” What’s really going on is that class contributes to ability in ways that our standardized tests don’t capture. There are plenty of obvious ways that money makes college easier: wealthier students don’t need jobs, have time for study groups, can afford all of the books, have their own computers so they don’t have to trek to campus, can hire tutors, etc.

There may also be more subtle ways that class impacts ability. For example, research with elementary-grades students conducted by Jessica Calarco found that wealthier students are more likely to seek clarifications, ask for help, and generally demand what they need to be able to learn:

Compared to working-class students, middle-class children ask for more help from teachers, and approach these interactions more assertively, even calling out or getting up to make requests. Because teachers are more responsive to these proactive strategies, they become a form of cultural capital that yields meaningful but stratified social profits.

The working-class children Calarco observed learned less not because they were less able in the academic sense, but because they didn’t feel comfortable making demands on their teachers. Instead of making their needs known, often they waited for the teacher to be free to help them (or to notice they needed help).

Elementary teachers are generally quite attentive to children’s needs, so this is yet another example of small differences having a big impact over time. Now imagine this same class-based difference on a college campus. In my experience, college professors were not attentive. They expected their adult students be proactive and assertive. I’d love to see Calarco’s work replicated with college students—perhaps colleges could devise a support structure to help some students become more proactive.

Another way that class impacts ability is, of course, cultural literacy. Standardized tests are far from adequate in capturing the full range of knowledge that affects the daily interactions on college campuses. As Karin Chenoweth has noted, even the brightest of students can feel out of place in college if they lack the broad knowledge that wealthy students take for granted. In her autobiography, Sonia Sotomayor explains that despite her dedication as a student and top scores, “there was a world I had missed, of things that I didn’t know anything about … [As an adult] there are moments when people make references to things that I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

The toughest thing about such differences in knowledge is that far too many students misinterpret them as differences in innate ability or potential. They aren’t. We may not be able to remediate all of the obvious differences between or more- and less-advantaged students, but we can narrow the knowledge gap by giving everyone a rich, well-rounded, cumulative education. For our most determined students, we may be able to close the cultural literacy and assertiveness gaps, which may greatly increase their odds of graduating from college.

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.

Reading Recovery Works—Now Let’s Make It Even Better

by Lisa Hansel
March 31st, 2015

Reading Recovery is an intensive intervention for first graders who are struggling to learn to read. Although its research base is not huge, well-controlled studies have found it highly effective. Newly published research shows that Reading Recovery is remaining effective even as it scales up. This is great news—and could mean that Reading Recovery will be adopted by thousands more schools.

To reap Reading Recovery’s benefits for first graders without lowering achievement in upper elementary and beyond, schools will need to be very careful about when they use it. Reading Recovery is a pull-out program: Providing one-on-one instruction is Reading Recovery’s strength—but if students are pulled out of history, science, art, or music, their short-term gains in reading ability could come at the expense of their long-term comprehension ability.


Building young children’s knowledge of science, history, art, and music matters just as much early reading skills (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Let’s take a quick look at what Reading Recovery does. According to a CPRE report that is an earlier version of the new, peer-reviewed study (and that was well-vetted by the What Works Clearinghouse):

Reading Recovery is an intensive intervention targeting the lowest-achieving 15-20 percent of 1st-grade readers. It takes as its underlying principle the idea that individualized, short-term, highly responsive instruction delivered by an expert can disrupt the trajectory of low literacy achievement, produce accelerated gains, and enable students to catch up to their peers and sustain achievement at grade level into the future. Reading Recovery attends to phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension–the critical elements of literacy and reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel (2000).

In short, it has a strong research base. Even better, it has strong results. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, impact on reading ability was two-thirds of a standard deviation.

Reading Recovery does more for struggling first graders than many people believed possible. But it can’t do everything. As a short-term intervention, it can’t meaningfully increase students’ general knowledge. As a result, it can’t address a key factor for reading ability in later grades.

To be clear, I don’t think Reading Recovery should be responsible for increasing knowledge of the world. It’s a targeted program that’s getting a great deal from a relatively small amount of instructional time (about 30 minutes a day for 12–20 weeks). So my point is not that Reading Recovery should change—it’s that schools using Reading Recovery need to be very strategic about when to deliver the intervention. What will the student miss? Is there any way to not miss anything, to deliver Reading Recovery before or after school? Or perhaps during silent reading time, which these low-achieving first graders may only minimally benefit from?

It may seem that there’s nothing more important in first grade than developing basic reading skills. But in fact, research indicates that building general knowledge is just as important—possibly even more important. In a 2010 study by David Grissmer et al., general knowledge at kindergarten entry was a better predictor of fifth-grade reading ability than early reading skills. General knowledge also predicted later science and math achievement:

[The] general knowledge test measured the child’s early comprehension of physical and social science facts. Whereas the early math and reading tests focused mainly on procedural knowledge, the general knowledge test focused mainly on declarative knowledge (i.e., elementary knowledge or comprehension of the external world). General knowledge was the strongest predictor of later reading and science and, along with earlier math, was a strong predictor of later math…. Paradoxically, higher long-term achievement in math and reading may require reduced direct emphasis on math and reading and more time and stronger curricula outside math and reading.

This is a powerful finding: Kindergartners’ general knowledge is critical to their reading, science, and math achievement at the end of elementary school. So, building students’ knowledge—as much as possible and as early as possible—is critical too.

Educators do not have to choose between building children’s knowledge and skills. There is time for both, if everyone values both. Sadly, the importance of building knowledge in the early grades is still unrecognized by many schools. As Ruth Wattenberg has explained, “When elementary teachers were asked during what time period struggling students received extra instruction in ELA or math, 60 percent said that they were pulled from social studies class; 55 percent said from science class.”

Pull outs from science, social studies, art, and music must stop. Along with great literature, these subjects are what make up general knowledge. They are inherently interesting and absolutely essential. As Reading Recovery continues to spread, it would do well to help schools see that when they do their interventions matters just as much as which interventions they choose.


Teaching for Retention

by Lisa Hansel
March 2nd, 2015

In my last post, I described conversations with three teachers that revealed their different views about what teaching is.

The most persuasive was a teacher who focuses on retention—and thinks teachers are making a mistake when they change topics as soon as they see that students have comprehended the topic at hand.

As we spoke, I thought about what happens to me as I listen to NPR. Even when I find a story really interesting, I’m only able to remember it well if it is on a topic I already know well. Most of the time, the stories are on things I only know a bit about. If I try to retell them, the details are fuzzy; I mix up the key people and events and can’t convey much. It’s an odd feeling—I fully comprehended the story at the time, but I don’t realize how little of it I’ve retained until I try to tell a friend about it.

To really learn the story, I’d have to comprehend it, then study it—quiz myself, practice those details that make the story coherent, and quiz myself again. I’d also need to revisit the material periodically—hopefully adding to it, but at a minimum refreshing my memory. That’s the type of learning that would enable future learning, including deeper comprehension each time new details are added to the web of knowledge growing in my long-term memory.

The retention-focused teacher I spoke with was very intentional about her instructional time. She argued that if a topic was worthy of mentioning, it was worthy of fully teaching—teaching so students could confidently talk about their new knowledge. She saw the school year as far too short, and each class as a precious resource to be fiercely protected. She saw instruction aimed at coverage and even comprehension—anything less than retention—as a waste of time. And, she accepted that her approach meant that she taught fewer topics, and thus had to carefully decide which topics merited class time.

One great benefit of this careful weighing of topics was that she had gotten really thoughtful about embedding skill development in serious academic content. While some of her colleagues taught skills with “fun” content, she eschewed that as inefficient. For example, she taught grammar with sentences that refreshed students’ memories on key content they were learning in science and social studies—no grammar lessons with sentences about basketball or cartoons in her classes.

Reflecting on our conversation, my mind returned to Daniel Willingham’s article on familiarity vs. recollection. Along with that article, he has several useful tips for ensuring that students don’t mistake their familiarity for real learning. His tips focus on “jostling students away from a reliance on familiarity and partial access as indices of their knowledge, and encouraging (or requiring) them to test just how much knowledge they recall and understand.” He recommends, for example, that teachers “Make it clear to students that the standard of ‘knowing’ is the ‘ability to explain to others,’ not ‘understanding when explained by others.’”

This pretty well sums up what the retention-focused teacher I spoke with learned over many years of teaching. So it raises a question for another day: why didn’t she learn about the dangers of familiarity (or mere comprehension) and the necessity of recollection in her preparation program or in ongoing professional development?


Writing is a great way for students to explain, solidify, and gauge what they have learned. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

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.

New Leaders in Literacy

by Lisa Hansel
October 22nd, 2014

It used to be that advocating for building broad knowledge with a content-rich curriculum in the early grades was a lonely enterprise. No more! Whether it’s the focus on the early word gap or the Common Core’s explanation of literacy or the moral universe bending toward justice, knowledge is finally getting its due.

New reports from the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) emphasize knowledge as a prerequisite to skills. In deference to the nature of the blogosphere, I’ve arranged them from shortest to longest.

In a new blog post and report, NSBA highlights the importance of nonfiction reading. The post takes on three widespread myths about the Common Core: that the standards push fictional literature out of the curriculum, that nonfiction doesn’t help prepare students for college, and that nonfiction is boring. Lovers of history, science, art, music, geography, civics, and Core Knowledge already know these claims are preposterous, but the post is worth a quick read. Here’s my favorite nugget: “Beth Deniell of Kennesaw State observed that the critics of informational reading ‘seem not to have considered that the contextual information students need in order to understand a literary work arrives in non-literary texts.’”

NSBA’s report takes a more data-oriented approach, showing that US students and adults lag behind in information reading ability. It will be eye-opening to anyone who thinks that life-long literacy—the type the enables prosperity and civic engagement—can be built on fiction alone.

For those new to building knowledge and literacy from preschool through third grade, ECS’s report is a great place to start. It moves rapidly through key points on everything from access to preschool and kindergarten to educational quality and continuity to financing and governance, and it offers snapshots of advances made by various states. With a state-level policymaker focus, the report only touches lightly on curriculum, but it does hit on the necessity of carefully sequencing learning experiences:

When children engage in a coherent set of high-quality P-3 learning experiences, the “fade out” effect (i.e., the notion that early gains in learning disappear later in school) is greatly diminished. Aligning standards, curricula and assessments ensures that young children engage in the right sequence of learning experiences at the right time. Alignment also ensures children are working toward building the set of skills and knowledge they will need as they move from a high-quality preschool to a high-quality full-day kindergarten and the early elementary grades. (p. 16)


Happy reader courtesy of Shutterstock.

NAESP’s report is both the longest and most informative. It’s a real gem for preschool directors and elementary principals. The first two sections—on preschool to third grade continuity, curriculum, and instruction—are especially strong. A few highlights:

Longitudinal studies have shown that an integrated learning continuum for children from age three to grade three contributes to sustaining achievement gains made in prekindergarten programs. (p. 11)

Alignment of standards, instruction, assessment and professional development ensures that students enter each successive grade having the foundation and skills needed to succeed there. Such alignment can reduce unnecessary repetition in instruction and allow for coverage of more instructional topics. A successful Pre-K-3 learning community aligns standards with a sequenced, coherent curriculum that describes what should be taught in each grade and in each subject and makes clear what mastery of each subject means and how it looks. (p. 21)

Learning is cumulative: Early learning facilitates later learning, and children who already know something about a particular topic often have an easier time learning more about it….

Effective instructional leaders support two specific early reading abilities: decoding and comprehension. Decoding is the ability to identify the words on a page; comprehension is the ability to understand what those words mean…. Instructional leaders support teaching that builds comprehension through read-alouds in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade, which help children to build knowledge and vocabulary….

Effective Pre-K-3 instructional leaders know that to be successful in a variety of subjects in middle and high school, students also need to build a basis of prior knowledge in science, history, civics, the arts, physical education and social-emotional learning. (p. 22)

E­ffective principals … know that student engagement is essential and that significant learning happens through exploration and play, particularly in prekindergarten and kindergarten. Strategies used to ensure understanding of key content and concepts will, however, change as children progress from grade to grade. For instance, once children enter first and second grade, effective principals know that these strategies shift to more direct instruction, integrated into engaging and dynamic learning opportunities. (p. 23)

To each of these very strong reports, the one thing I would add is domain-based instruction. As the research appendix to the Common Core ELA and literacy standards states, “Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Vocabulary development … occurs most effectively [when] domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks” (Appendix A, p. 33). In essence, most vocabulary is not learned through vocab lists, dictionaries, and weekly quizzes. Those things can be useful, but the vast majority of words are learned through multiple exposures in multiple contexts.

The difference between domain-based instruction and widely used theme-based units is focus. While a theme might be friendship and cover everything from family members to pets to pen pals, a domain is much narrower, such as the solar system or early Asian civilizations. The benefit of the domain is that vocabulary and concepts are repeated, deepened, and expanded with a carefully selected set of texts and supporting activities. While a theme might offer a great variety of words and ideas, little is repeated often enough to be learned. A focused domain provides a more genuine opportunity to learn; students get the multiple contexts they need and teachers have several opportunities to differentiate instruction, allowing everyone to master the core concepts and vocabulary of the domain.

Ideally, all children would learn from a content-specific, domain-based, cumulative curriculum that begins in preschool and extends through elementary school. When the preschool is located in the elementary school, collaboration on curriculum is feasible. But coordinating among a disparate set of child care settings, preschool centers, and elementary schools can be next to impossible. When planning together is unlikely, the next-best option is a preschool through fifth-grade program that ensures one grade builds on the next even without teachers interacting. A coherent program can provide continuity in developing language skills, vocabulary, and broad knowledge even as it shifts from a play-oriented approach in preschool to a more academic approach in the upper elementary grades. (Interested? Give Core Knowledge Language Arts a try. Preschool through third grade can be downloaded for free, and several units from grades 4 and 5 are also now freely available.)