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.)

The Importance of Teaching Content

by Guest Blogger
August 6th, 2014

By Karin Chenoweth 

Karin Chenoweth is the writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post

Quite some years ago I visited a school in Baltimore City that had raised its third-grade reading scores dramatically. I wanted to see what they were doing to be so successful — and I was curious about why its fifth-grade scores had not improved even as its third-grade ones had.

When I got there I found a high-poverty school where the teachers were very focused on early reading instruction and had worked hard to teach kids the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently. I saw dedicated, hard-working teachers teaching early reading well and with verve and students who liked being in school.

As I often do when I visit a school, I randomly selected a child in one of the early grades and asked him to read to me. He happily read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression. I was impressed. As I walked out of his classroom with the assistant principal who was showing me around, I asked what the school did to teach kids about China — the geography, the culture, the naming system, the flora and fauna — in other words, the background knowledge that would help kids to understand a folk tale set in China.

Oh, the administrator said, that wasn’t necessary, adding that kids learn a surprising amount of background knowledge from television.

And that’s when I knew why the school’s third-grade reading improvement hadn’t translated into fifth-grade reading improvement.


TV brain courtesy of Shutterstock.

I was seeing in action what reading researcher Jeanne Chall wrote about decades ago: the “fourth-grade slump” of poor children.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding — which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren’t teaching kids an awful lot of content — that is, history, science, literature, and the arts — the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests — not because they can’t decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they’ve decoded them. And they can’t understand them because the words haven’t been taught.

Some kids do arrive at school with a lot of background knowledge and rich vocabularies, usually acquired from discussions at home and a set of experiences ranging from being read to from an early age to being taken to museums. The kids with those kinds of experiences tend to be kids from educated and well-off families, which is one of the reasons that reading scores are so highly correlated with family income and mother’s education.

If we are to break that correlation and ensure that all children can read and comprehend well, schools need to have coherent, content-rich curricula that systematically teach history, science, literature, and the arts. This isn’t so that children will do well on fifth-grade reading tests, by the way; it’s so that they can understand the world around them. Fifth-grade reading tests are just proxies for what comes next.

The idea that educators would rely on the random background knowledge kids pick up from television is misguided, which is why what that assistant principal told me almost took my breath away.

And yet I also knew that she was reflecting a widely held view among many educators that it is not necessary to systematically teach kids content. That view, which teacher Daisy Christodoulou calls a “myth of education,” is the subject of her new book, Seven Myths of Education, which was adapted by the American Educator as “Minding the Knowledge Gap: The Importance of Content in Student Learning.

Christodoulou taught for several years in a high-poverty school in England without the success she desperately wanted. She describes faithfully following what she had been told in her teacher training program — she had set up discussions, organized group projects, and encouraged individual problem solving — many of the same kinds of things American teachers are told to do. But she did not systematically teach her high school students the content of her field (English) because she had been told that was neither necessary nor good practice.

When she discovered a large body of research in cognitive science demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems, she wrote what amounts to a cri de coeur.

Educators who wonder why they work so hard without getting the results they hoped for will find a sympathetic ear and an introduction to many of the answers they’re looking for in Christodoulou’s article and book.


Reading Herman Melville Made Me a Better Teacher

by Guest Blogger
July 29th, 2014

By David O’Shell

David O’Shell is a middle school teacher in Maryland.

I have always wanted my students to be able to solve real problems in the world by relying on the abstract knowledge they have learned from me. I think this is central to what it means to be an educated person. It always has been. And I think no other writer has developed this notion of combining the ideal with the mundane in order to produce a complete individual more than Herman Melville. And this week, with Melville’s 195th birthday on Friday, I’m reminded that when I look out on my classroom, I see Melville and his world.

I see this in White Jacket, kind of an overture to Moby Dick, where Melville reveals this completed person to us in his lovely description of the Man of the Mast, as innocence and experience united: “You would almost think this old mastman had been blown out of Vesuvius, to look alone at his scarred, blackened forehead, chin, and cheeks. But gaze down into his eye, and though all the snows of Time have drifted higher and higher upon his brow, yet deep down in that eye you behold an infantile, sinless look, the same that answered the glance of this old man’s mother when first she cried for the babe to be laid by her side. That look is the fadeless, ever infantile immortality within” (649). Melville’s complete (or mostly complete) individual, Ishmael, Ahab, Bartleby, Israel Potter, will always have scars or wrinkles, a sunburn of the soul. But he will have these marks of experience in combination with a small candle within, by the light of which he can read these experiences.


Being a teacher will mean that you meet some rough salts. I’ve taught kids without a home, who have attempted suicide, who are cruel or out of control. Other teachers have had much worse. How do you teach people like this? This is where teachers who work with tough kids scoff at tough standards.

Melville’s answer is to work with these people, as in work alongside them. This is Melville’s contribution of ideas to literature I find useful. His ideas are different from someone like Tolstoy, whose characters find enlightenment through a kind of volunteerism and cutting grass. Melville in democratic America had the opportunity to mix more evenly with people at the bottom. He comes through these experiences without sentimentalizing. Some of them are good fellows; some aren’t. It is in these situations, surrounded by the core of humanity in a microcosm, where we find ourselves and how we relate to the rest of the world. This is what Melville’s books are made of.

Melville is unique in this way among writers in that he is both at the bottom and at the top. His aristocratic family lost everything, he worked on merchant, whaling, and navy ships, became a famous author, married wealth, and ran out of money and fame once again. As a teacher I have to find myself in the same place, as being both on the bottom with those I am working with and at the same time being of a tradition of high culture.

That’s why I am glad I had so many terrible jobs before I became a teacher. Working at Pittsburgh’s Original Hot Dog Shop and in roofing gave me the experience of being in the trenches with the kinds of people I help as a teacher. Having to defend myself rhetorically against three other roofers 90 feet in the air on a 15 degree pitch on why I believed “humans came from monkeys” well prepared me to face a group of 30 struggling students alone in a cramped classroom. Some of these experiences were good and some were bad, but I was able to take the most educative of them and read them by my inner candle.

Melville’s educated individual is one who has merged experience with what is native, innocent. Queequeg from Moby Dick thus typifies the Melvillian student: “Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last” (691). For Melville, man at his best is a book to be read, reread, and puzzled over: “Seat yourself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary” (670). Here you see the problem that the mass of mankind presents to us. From our experience with the mass, we can come back to our fire within and come to a better understanding of our own book. And as teachers we can see each student as an unread book.

I am one of those teachers to whom principals assign the difficult kids. It has been a surprise to me that over the years I have shown skill in working with the tough ones. I was never particularly popular in school. I certainly do not have charisma like Mr. Keating. I’m the kind of person you grow to like after a few months. Years. But I can be real with you when it is necessary. Any person who is interested in becoming a teacher should first go for being real. Melville and a sunburn are a good place to start.

Follow Dave O’Shell on Twitter @DavidJOShell.

Quotations from Moby Dick are from the 1992 Modern Library Edition. All other quotations are from the 3 vol. Library of America Melville collection.

Why My Brother’s Keeper Should Look to ACT and Common Core

by Lisa Hansel
June 3rd, 2014

My Brother’s Keeper, a new Obama-administration initiative focused on boys and young men of color, appears to be off to a strong start. The Task Force’s 90-day report is impressive in terms of breadth and focus. At its heart are “six universal milestones” that “serve as the basis for the Task Force’s work and recommendations:”

  1. Entering school ready to learn
  2. Reading at grade level by third grade
  3. Graduating from high school ready for college and career
  4. Completing postsecondary education or training
  5. Successfully entering the workforce
  6. Reducing violence and providing a second chance

One of the report’s best features is an explicit rejection of any silver-bullet solutions. As we all know, far too many of America’s boys of color face multi-faceted, severe challenges. Thankfully, the Task Force recognizes that viable solutions must be comprehensive, coordinated, and long term. Its recommendations reflect as much, and also a desire to “continue to listen, gather input, engage experts and stakeholders, [and] develop additional recommendations.”

Great! I have a recommendation: Learn from ACT and the Common Core standards. Specifically, realize that meeting the six milestones will require a much greater emphasis on building knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Let’s start with ACT, which offers both grim data and doable recommendations, and then move to Common Core, which—if properly understood—offers sound guidance.

Many of us think of ACT as just a testing company, but it has a research arm that mines ACT data and the broader literature to figure out how to improve educational outcomes. Chrys Dougherty, ACT senior research scientist, has produced three must-read briefs showing just how difficult it is for youth who are behind academically to catch up—and therefore how crucial it is to intervene early.

In his most recent brief, Dougherty shows that at least half of fourth- and eighth-grade Hispanic and African American students in the states whose data he analyzed are not doing well in reading—and almost none who are doing poorly catch up by the end of high school. Using longitudinal student outcome data, ACT has established benchmark scores that indicate college readiness (or, for younger students, being on a trajectory to end high school college ready). Students who score at or above those benchmarks are “on track,” while students who score more than one standard deviation below them are “far off track.”

Drawing data from Dougherty’s new brief, let’s look at fourth-to-eighth-grade results in reading on ACT Explore.

Fourth graders
who are
“far off track”:

“Far off track” fourth graders who caught up by eight grade:

Non-low income:



Low income:






African American:



Note: These data are from Arkansas and Kentucky; see the brief for details.

As Dougherty shows, the data tracking students from eighth grade to the end of high school are just as depressing. Worse, keep in mind that these results are for all students, boys and girls. Girls tend to do better in reading than boys. In draft working papers, Dougherty and his colleagues have broken out results by gender, finding an even great challenge for My Brother’s Keeper (and all of us).

Knowing that being ready for college means having acquired an enormous store of academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills, Dougherty’s first recommendation for school and district leaders is to:

Teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades. Ensure that all students receive a content- and vocabulary-rich curriculum beginning in the early years, spanning a range of subject areas including not only English language arts and mathematics, but also science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts…. Such a curriculum—the basis for preparing students long term for college, careers, and informed citizenship—is valuable for all students but is likely to be especially beneficial for students from at-risk demographic groups, who are more likely to arrive from home with limited knowledge and vocabulary.

Let’s assume the Task Force heeds Dougherty’s advice and adds “Teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades” to its list of recommendations. Where could it find out what that looks like? The Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy. Not in the individual standards, but in the narrative that accompanies the standards. There, the Task Force will find something absolutely essential, but so far missing from its report: an understanding that reading comprehension comes not just from mastering reading skills, but also from learning a great deal of academic subject matter and vocabulary.

The Task Force emphasizes having parents talk to their children more (and in more encouraging ways), improving reading skills instruction, and having children read more. These are necessary but insufficient recommendations. To accelerate knowledge and vocabulary acquisition, which will greatly increase the odds of meeting the Task Force’s milestones, parents and educators need to be as efficient as possible and start as early as possible.

The Common Core explains how. Start with the standards’ research appendix:

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…. Hence, vocabulary development for these words occurs most effectively through a coherent course of study in which subject matters are integrated and coordinated across the curriculum and domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks.

Then, take a look at Common Core’s blueprint for a coherent course of study in K–5, where we learn that “texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period.” Even better, we learn how to build knowledge before children can read: “Children in the early grades (particularly K–2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing.”

Everyone on the Task Force is busy, so I’ll boil it down. Parents shouldn’t just talk more; they should also read aloud more. And parents and teachers shouldn’t read aloud just one book on a topic; they should pick a topic and spend a couple of weeks reading aloud and discussing several books on that topic. If they do, many more boys of color will enter school ready to learn and will read at grade level.


Educators: Don’t Assume A Can Opener

by Guest Blogger
March 11th, 2014

By Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is a middle school science teacher in California. This post originally appeared on his blog:

There is a famous joke about the way economists often undermine the usefulness of their conclusions by making too many simplifying assumptions. Here’s one of the older formulations:

There is a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, “Assume we have a can opener”!


(Imaginary can opener courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It’s probably not fair to pick on economists in this way when the abuse of simplifying assumptions is at least as widespread in education.

For instance, arguably the trendiest thing going in education today is ‘grit‘: “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals”.

We all agree, I suspect, that a tendency to persevere is desirable, and that we should prefer that students have more of that tendency than less of it. So it is perhaps not surprising that since the term was popularized by researcher Angela Duckworth many teachers and schools have begun reorganizing their work to better promote and instill ‘grit’ in their students.

And yet, here’s Duckworth being interviewed by Alexander Russo last month:

Can you talk about how to teach grit in the classroom?
AI don’t know that anybody’s totally figured out how to teach it: What do you do exactly, even when we do have insights from research? How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set? That’s why, through a nonprofit I helped cofound called the Character Lab, we’re organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics. It’s not totally prescriptive, because the science is still developing.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the world’s leading expert on grit is saying that educators who are substantially altering their work to better teach grit are doing so without much in the way of scientific backing or guidance.

In other words, in their excitement over grit many teachers and school leaders have simply assumed – without justification – that it is a trait that can be taught and that they know how to teach it.

This is by no means a problem limited to grit. Before grit it was “21st century skills“, “social-emotional learning”, “critical thinking”, or “scientific thinking”. What unites these fads is that they all, to varying degrees, suffer from a lack of rigorous scientific evidence indicating that they can be taught at all, let alone that we have reliable ways of teaching them in schools. (“Fluid intelligence” may be next.)

Meanwhile, we have good evidence indicating that schools today are reasonably – if imperfectly – effective at teaching kids the less-glamorous knowledge and skills – e.g., in math, science, and history – that we associate with “traditional” education.

So while it’s a good idea for researchers and educators to experiment with methods for teaching other, “higher-order” or “non-cognitive” abilities, it’s also important to remember that it is probably premature to ask schools to move away from their core competencies if we can’t also give them a clear alternate path forward.


Must-Read: Sol Stern’s Quest to Improve His Sons’ Education

by Lisa Hansel
December 10th, 2013

Over at City Journal, Sol Stern has yet another terrific article—perhaps his best—on the importance of a content-rich, coherent education. Here are some of my favorite passages:

E. D. Hirsch is the most important education reformer of the past half-century. I came to this conclusion after writing about schools, teachers, and education policy for almost two decades. But the truth is, I first turned to Hirsch’s writing for practical and personal reasons. I was baffled by the educational practices I witnessed at PS 87, the famous New York City public school my sons attended from 1987 to 1997….

Also known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School, PS 87 is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side…. I soon received a crash course in educational progressivism….

The most troubling thing I discovered was that PS 87’s children were taught almost nothing about such foundational subjects as the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, and the Civil War. I can still vividly recall a conversation with my younger son and several of his classmates when they were in the fourth grade. I innocently asked what, if anything, they knew about the famous Union commander for whom their school was named. They gave me blank stares. After more inquiry, I realized that not only hadn’t the children been taught about the brave soldier who delivered the final blow to the slaveholders’ empire; they also knew almost nothing about the Civil War.

More disturbing was what PS 87’s principal said when I informed him of my conversation with my son and his classmates. “It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” he granted, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”…

Tired of the self-serving rationalizations offered by the school principal, I was desperate for an independent explanation of what was happening in PS 87’s classrooms. I found it in Hirsch’s first two education books, published during that period. After reading Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), I felt that Hirsch was accurately describing PS 87’s instructional culture, without ever having stepped foot in the school. Hirsch convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good….

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading. In The Schools We Need, Hirsch suggested that the education reform he advocated—a content-rich curriculum—had become the “new civil rights frontier.” This was long before politicians of both parties began using that phrase….

“American colleges and universities at their best are still among the finest in the world,” Hirsch wrote in 1989. “But in many of them the educational level of incoming students is so low that the first and second years of college must be largely devoted to remedial work. In the American school system, it is mainly those who start well who finish well. Business leaders and the general public are coming to recognize that the gravest, most recalcitrant problems of American education can be traced back to secondary and, above all, elementary schooling.” This was Hirsch’s portrait of American K-12 education almost a quarter-century ago. Remarkably, that grim assessment remains true today. According to a recent report from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), “average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year [1971].” There have been some improvements in reading and math scores in the lower grades, but these gains aren’t significant if they disappear in high school and if students entering college or the workforce—the end product of the public school system—need remediation in reading and writing.