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.

No Progress on Accountability, No Hope for Equity

by Lisa Hansel
April 7th, 2015

I try not to give in to despair, but in reading recent recommendations for the reauthorization of ESEA, I see America wasting another 50 years on unproductive reforms.

James S. Coleman said schools matter a great deal for poor kids, but we focus on the factors outside of school mattering more. A Nation At Risk warned of rigor’s disappearance, but we continue to pursue content-light strategies instead of content-heavy subjects. High-performing nations demonstrate that a national core curriculum (that specifies knowledge, not mere skills) enables improvement in everything from teacher preparation to student learning and assessment, but we refuse to do the hard work of selecting a core of knowledge for all our students. Our last decade under No Child Left Behind has shown that reading tests without a definite curriculum are counterproductive, but here we go again.

It was with high hopes that I began reading “Accountability and the Federal Role: A Third Way on ESEA.” A consensus document by Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and Paul T. Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, this third way makes important points about the need for assessment and accountability to stay focused on closing the achievement gap—and the need for flexibility in demonstrating student and school progress.

In particular, there are two points of agreement that I find very heartening:

Parents and the public need to know whether children are learning what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job….

Because a student’s level and pace of learning in any one year depend in part on what was learned previously and on the efforts of many professionals working together, the consequences of high and low performance should attach to whole schools, rather than to individual educators.

Here we have two essential points: there are specific things that children need to know and these specific things build year to year. I actually became hopeful that this consensus document would take the next logical step and call for a content-specific, grade-by-grade, well-rounded curriculum. That’s the only thing that would make it clear if “children are learning what they need” and that would enable professionals to work together to build knowledge across grades.

But my hopes were short lived. The consensus document retreated to politically safe, educationally useless ground: “Because what children need to know evolves with knowledge, technology, and economic demands, an accountability system must encourage high performance and continuous improvement.” Later they actually call for “rich subject matter assessments,” but then undermine the idea by ignoring curriculum and, once again, retreating: “Because science, technology, and the economy are constantly shifting, the measures and standards used to assess schools must be continuously updated to reflect new content and valued skills.”

I hear all the time that information is growing at a shocking rate, and that today’s knowledge will be out of date before students graduate. Obviously, students don’t need knowledge, they need to learn how to find knowledge.

Please people! “Information” is only growing with lightning speed if you count the cat videos being loaded onto YouTube. There is amazing research being done—but very little of it affects elementary and secondary education, or college, career, and citizenship. In a terrific new book, Urban Myths about Learning and Education, Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof tackle this silliness:

To name just a few things that we learned when we were children: the Pythagorean theorem still holds true…, as does the gravitational constant and the acceleration of a falling body on Earth…, there are still seven continents…, the Norman conquest of England took place in 1066, and a limerick has five lines and a sonnet fourteen. The fact is that much or most of what has passed for knowledge in previous generations is still valid and useful.

 

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According to Urban Myths, a former Google executive said, “Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes … of information created. We [now] create five exabytes every two days.” (Informational image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

 

What Darling-Hammond and Hill should have written is this: Because cognitive science shows that broad knowledge is essential to meet technology, economic, and citizenship demands, an accountability system must encourage a content-specific, well-rounded curriculum that inspires high performance and continuous improvement by testing what has been taught and thus providing data that teachers can actually use to inform instruction.

Darling-Hammond and Hill are thought leaders in the education arena. They know that skills depend on knowledge, and they know that there is a body of knowledge—from the Constitution to the Pythagorean theorem—that could form a core curriculum for the United States. In their third way, they are being politically realistic. And I am falling into despair.

Our kids don’t need more political pragmatism. They need excellence and equity. They need leaders to ensure that all children get an equal opportunity to learn “what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job.”

For yet more evidence that political pragmatism isn’t working, check out the latest NAEP report, which shows almost no meaningful growth in vocabulary. Vocabulary is a proxy for knowledge and critical to comprehension. As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary is the key to upward mobility. Cognitive science and common sense have given us a clear path forward: build knowledge and skills together with a content-specific, grade-by-grade, well-rounded curriculum. Let’s not waste another 50 years. It will be incredibly hard for Americans to agree on a core curriculum. But nothing else will work.

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.

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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.

 

What’s Working?

by Lisa Hansel
March 24th, 2015

Slowly, steadily building the knowledge and capacity of administrators and teachers—that’s what’s working in school systems around the world. As explained in a report by Geoff Masters, a leading researcher in Australia, the educational systems that are improving have invested in educator capacity, while those that are not improving (or are declining) have been tinkering with accountability and incentives (as US policymakers have been, with poor results for reading).

Before those who oppose accountability and market-based reforms declare victory, they’ll need to take a careful look at what Masters means by building capacity. The sad fact is, very few school systems, and few very reformers, in the US are doing the things Masters identifies as essential to increasing student achievement. What he describes is not your typical professional development—it’s a more fundamental commitment to quality and equity:

In some countries, reform efforts tend to have been focused first on building the capacity of school leaders and classroom teachers to deliver high quality teaching and learning, and on ensuring that excellent teaching and leadership are distributed throughout the school system. In other countries, including a number of English-speaking countries, greater reliance has been placed on using systems of accountability and incentives to drive improvement….

Table 1 Two general approaches to school reform
[Reformatted for blog]
________________________________________

Belief
Improvement will occur if schools are given incentives to improve (rewards, sanctions, having to compete for students).
Strategies
- stronger performance cultures
- better measures of outcomes
- personal accountability for improvement
- performance pay linked to test scores
- greater public transparency
- financial rewards for school improvement
- sanctions for failure to improve
- increased competition for students
- greater autonomy to compete
- more parental choice

Belief
Improvement will occur by building the capacity of teachers and school leaders and by ensuring high quality practice throughout the system.
Strategies
- attract more able people into teaching
- train approximately the number of teachers required
- place a high priority on building teachers’ content and pedagogical content knowledge
- develop school leaders’ capacities to build and lead cultures of continual improvement in teaching and learning
- ensure that high-quality teaching and leadership are equitably distributed across all schools
________________________________________

There has been growing recognition that more effective than setting ambitious targets for improved student performance, or attaching money or other consequences to student test results, is to work directly on developing the teaching and leadership practices that result in improved student outcomes….

Systematic studies of what school leaders do to achieve whole-school improvement reveal a high degree of consistency in the priorities set by leaders of turn-around schools. These priorities are summarised in the National School Improvement Tool (Masters, 2012) and can be thought of as a set of micro-strategies for whole-school reform. They include:

- setting an explicit school improvement agenda;
- systematically monitoring progress in achieving desired improvements;
- establishing and sustaining a culture of support and high expectations;
- targeting the use of school resources to address student needs;
- encouraging teachers to work as a team to improve teaching and learning;
- establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum;
- sustaining a strong focus on addressing individual learning needs;
- implementing effective pedagogical practices including diagnostic practices; and
- using local community resources to better meet student needs.

Reading down this list, these strategies seem like common sense—which makes it all the more frustrating that they are not common practices.

The only suggestion I’ll make is to put “establishing a coherent, sequenced, shared school curriculum” at the top of the list. Almost all of the other strategies require a shared curriculum as their foundation—you can’t set expectations, monitor progress, address needs, or work as a team without a grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject map of the specific content and skills students must master.

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Without a detailed map of what students are supposed to learn, how can we know if they are ahead or behind, much less how to help them? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Thanks to Marc Tucker for drawing attention to this report. I admire Tucker—if we’d been listening to him for the past few decades, we’d have one of the world’s best, most equitable school systems. So, when Tucker wrote that Masters has “written a paper you need to read,” I started reading (you should too).

 

 

 

 

 

Raising Readers—Not Test Takers

by Lisa Hansel
March 18th, 2015

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

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

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

The result is an unfair assessment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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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.)

“Houston, we have a problem”

by Lisa Hansel
July 23rd, 2014

We do indeed have a crisis on our hands, but year after year we fail to diagnose and address it. With 21st century skills, learning styles, comprehension strategies, blame-the-teacher “reforms,” and dozens of other fads clouding our thinking, research-driven common sense improvements get little attention.

It’s frustrating, but our Core Knowledge community is dedicated to spreading the word on rigorous academics. For anyone out there who needs yet more evidence of the desperate need for building broad knowledge and skills, two new reports are worth examining.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Cold, hard facts are what we get from ACT and Mathematica Policy Research. We learn (yet again) that there are massive disparities in preparation for college and kindergarten.

ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness tackles the high school problem with stark graphics. The one below, showing the massive gaps among youth by race and ethnicity, is especially striking:

ACT 7-22-14 A

Then, a ray of hope. Taking a “core curriculum” in high school appears to greatly increase the odds that a young adult is well prepared. In the chart below, “Core” stands for core curriculum, which ACT defines as “4 years of English and 3 years each of mathematics, science, and social studies” in high school.

ACT 7-22-14 B

That gives us one clear step to take in closing college- and career-readiness gaps. But things are never so simple. You see, most students are already taking a core curriculum:

ACT 7-22-14 C

Clearly, all core curricula are not created equal. But we know better that to lay all blame at the high school doorstep. And in case we forget, Mathematica’s Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry: An Analysis of the ECLS-K reminds us. This study is interesting because it does not look just at the usual race/ethnicity and income factors. Instead, it focuses on four specific “risk factors”: “the child lives in a single-parent household, the child’s mother has less than a high school education, the child’s household income is below the federal poverty line, and the primary language spoken in the home is not English.”

You may be surprised to see that nearly half—44%—of entering kindergartners face at least one of these risk factors:

Mathematica 7-22-14 A

Sadly, you may be even more surprised to see how devastating even just one risk factor is in terms of reading, math, and working memory:

Mathematica 7-22-14 B

Mathematica 7-22-14 C

(Note: IRT stands for “item response theory.” The children were given two-stage assessments in which their performance in the first stage determined the difficulty of the test items they were given in the second stage.)

If these two new reports tell us anything, it’s that we must intervene early. Gaps that exist at kindergarten entry still exist at the end of high school—ripe for replication when our underprepared young adults have children of their own.

“May the Force be with you”

Schools with coherent, cumulative curricula that build academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills are intervening. Curriculum is not the solution, of course, but it is a necessary part of the foundation for student (and teacher) learning. Unfortunately, far too many school, district, and policy leaders are unaware of how to make their curricula stronger, much less how to harness a rigorous curriculum for benefits such as early identification of students’ needs and increased teacher collaboration. For those looking to take the first step, I strongly recommend Harvard’s Lead for Literacy series. In 16 one-page memos, Lead for Literacy clearly identifies best practices for literacy programs, assessments, professional development, and program selection. The series may not be as powerful as the Force, but they’ll give leaders a good shot at dramatically increasing students’ knowledge and skills, and enabling them to learn more both in and out of school.

Even in Kindergarten, Advanced Content Advances Learning

by Lisa Hansel
July 8th, 2014

In a must-read post last week, the Albert Shanker Institute’s Esther Quintero explored several studies showing that bringing more academic content into the early grades is beneficial for children. The final study she summarized, by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago and Mimi Engel and Chris Curran of Vanderbilt University, particularly caught my eye. As Quintero wrote, this nationally representative study of kindergartners “found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, ‘likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.’ ”

That’s great, but it raises an obvious question: What is “advanced” content?

Quite reasonably, the researchers distinguished between basic and advanced content by assessing what the kids know:

Specific mathematics and reading content is considered to be basic or advanced depending on whether the majority of children had mastered that content at kindergarten entry. If over half of children entering kindergarten have mastered a particular content area, we define it as basic. Content that most children have not yet mastered is defined as advanced.

Using that gauge, here’s what was deemed basic and advanced:

Basic Math:

Count out loud

Work with geometric manipulatives

Correspondence between number and quantity

Recognizing and naming geometric shapes

Using measuring instruments

Identify relative quantity

Sort into subgroups

Ordering objects

Making/copying patterns

Advanced Math:

Know value of coins

Place value

Reading two-digit numbers

Recognizing ordinal numbers

Adding single-digit numbers

Subtracting single-digit numbers

Adding two-digit numbers

Subtracting two-digit numbers, without regrouping

 

 

Basic Reading:

Alphabet and letter recognition

Work on learning the names of the letters

Practice writing the letters of the alphabet

Writing own name

Advanced Reading:

Matching letters to sounds

Work on phonics

Common prepositions

Conventional spelling

Using context cues for comprehension

Read aloud

Read from basal reading texts

Read text silently

Vocabulary

That’s not as much detail as I’d like to see, but it is helpful. Kindergarten teachers could use it as a minimal checklist when first exploring new programs or revising their curriculum. Anything that does not cover at least this “advanced” content is not likely to be a good use of school time because advanced content benefitted all students—those who had and had not attended preschool, and those from high- and low-income families:

We find that all children, regardless of preschool experiences or family economic circumstances, benefit from additional exposure to advanced reading and mathematics content in kindergarten. Complicating these results, we find that most children gain less in mathematics and stagnate (at best) in reading with additional exposure to basic content…. Our study suggests that exposing kindergartners to more advanced content in both reading and mathematics would promote skills among all children.

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Advanced content courtesy of Shutterstock.

For making the most of the kindergarten year, an important first step may be ensuring that all teachers are aware of the benefits of advanced content. One component of this study is a survey of kindergarten teachers regarding their content coverage; it revealed that they spend far more time on basic content than on advanced content.

Time on content (days per month)

Basic math

9.79

Advanced math

6.46

Basic reading

18.06

Advanced reading

11.41

To be clear, these researchers are not calling for advanced content all the time. They note that basic content must be introduced often even just to segue to advanced content. Their recommendation is rather modest:

Our results indicate that shifting the content covered in a kindergarten classroom to 4 more days per month on advanced topics in reading or mathematics is associated with increased test score gains of about .05 standard deviations. While this is a modest gain, changing content coverage might be an inexpensive means of intervening…. Further, the consistently null (reading) or negative (math) effects of basic content in our study indicate that the often tricky issue of ‘‘finding the time’’ to implement curricular changes might be accomplished with relative ease in this case. Time on advanced content could be increased while time on basic content is reduced without the need to increase overall instructional time.

Four more days sounds reasonable to me. In reading, such a change would merely result in a roughly 50-50 split between basic and advanced content.

Although the researchers do not delve into it, there’s one more result from the kindergarten teacher survey that jumped out at me—the paltry amount of time devoted to science and social studies:

Time on subjects (minutes per week)

Lessons on math

186.18

Lessons on reading

292.33

Lessons on science

68.11

Lessons on social studies

74.74

You can check out pretty much any other post (including Quintero’s) on Core Knowledge’s blog to see why that’s of concern. If you’re interested in using an early grades reading program that is filled with “advanced” content and addresses science and social studies, we’ve got you covered.

Challenging Content In The Early Grades: What’s Not To Love?

by Guest Blogger
June 30th, 2014

By Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post first appeared on the Shanker Blog.

The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that “all children need high quality early science learning experiences” and “science supports children’s learning and school readiness in other areas.” The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, “science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; “in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3.”

These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what’s underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it’s what allows us to read with understanding — or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:

It’s important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places,” and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.

In fact, the idea of teaching “literacy” versus teaching “science” constitutes an unnecessary dichotomy and perhaps not the most useful lens to understand what is needed in early childhood education. Children need challenging content in every domain — be it science, math, English language arts, social studies, music, or the fine arts. Unfortunately, the ECS report notes, “very little science happens in early care settings, and what does happen tends to consist of single activities, disconnected from what came before and what will come next.”

This lack of curricular sequence and coherence is a problem because children learn faster and more independently when they are taught concepts that are related. When children learn words in isolation, with little attention paid to how they words fit within broader ideas, they do not understand their relationships and tend to forget them just as quickly as they learn them. By contrast, as Susan B. Neuman and Tanya S. Wright have argued in All About Words:

When we teach words in meaningful clusters, it creates a self-teaching device that supports independent learning. In a sense, you are building a powerful schema for children that will enable them to attend better to new words, understand them, and retain them in a way that is easily accessible for future reference.

For example, when we teach words such as coyote, giraffe, leopard, and rhinoceros in a meaningful semantic cluster, and teach children that they are all wild animals with a number of common features, children can begin to make the following generalizations about these animals: Wild animals are animals that live outside and away from people. Wild animals are not tame.

Then when children are introduced to a new wild animal, they already have a frame of reference where they can easily slot the new information, and make inferences and generalizations about it.

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Polar bears courtesy of Shutterstock.

A recent paper by Aubry L. Alvarez and Amy E. Booth (2014) from Northwestern University adds to this discussion in several ways. The authors looked at whether the inherent attraction of causal information could be used to motivate preschoolers’ task engagement. The researchers conducted an experiment where they looked at whether children would persist in a boring task for longer if they were assigned to different experimental conditions: children were given causally rich information as a reward, causally weak information as a reward, stickers, or no reward at all.

Results revealed a powerful influence of causally rich rewards on the number of times children were willing to complete the boring task.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that “providing new knowledge per se as a reward was not enough to sustain children’s engagement.” Recall how ECS report pointed the disconnected nature of science activities in many early childhood settings. In these classrooms, children are probably receiving information that is new but not the kind of information that, according to the Alvarez and Booth study, would promote persistence and engagement.

According to the authors, this research “reveals the viability of causally rich knowledge-infused reward as an effective tool for enhancing task engagement in preschool-aged children,” “reinforces long-standing views of children as hungry to acquire causally rich information,” and “suggests a new approach to rewarding young children that has the potential to encourage (rather than detract from) a mind-set that embraces the pleasure and challenges of learning.”

My take away from this paper is that perhaps we should not think about academic content and student rewards separately. Wouldn’t an age-appropriate curriculum that is rich, challenging and carefully sequenced be a ‘rewards embedded curriculum’?

Another recent study supports the idea that exposing young children (in this case kindergartners) to more advanced rather than basic content “might promote the skills of all children and has the potential to sustain the benefits of preschool attendance.”

Using a nationally representative sample of kindergarteners, Amy Claessens (University of Chicago) Mimi Engel (Vanderbilt University) and Chris Curran (Vanderbilt University) explored “whether the reading and mathematics content taught in kindergarten might help to sustain the gains acquired through preschool participation.” The authors found “a consistent and positive effect of exposure to advanced content for all children in both reading and mathematics” and “a negative or, in the case of reading, often null effects of exposure to basic content.”

Although the researchers had predicted that children who did not attend preschool might benefit from receiving instruction that focused on basic content, the data did not support this hypothesis. Conversely, they found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, “likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.”

The authors concluded by noting that:

Shifting to more advanced academic content coverage in kindergarten classrooms is a potentially low-cost means for helping preschoolers sustain the academic benefits they acquired through preschool attendance while simultaneously garnering positive effects for children who begin kindergarten without that advantage.

In sum, teaching children interesting “stuff” that is challenging and coherently presented:

  • Sets the foundation for reading with understanding;
  • Supports children’s ability to learn faster and independently;
  • May make children more perseverant and more engaged in their learning;
  • May benefit all children, while also helping to sustain the benefits of pre-k into elementary school.

So, what’s not to love about a fun, challenging, well thought out and well taught curriculum in the early years?

 

Summer Slide: Denial Is Dangerous

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2014

I’ll guess that pretty much all educators are aware of the “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.” Even if there is a teacher who hasn’t heard those terms, all teachers have to deal with the consequences—wasting 2 to 5 weeks each fall reteaching content and skills. Naively, I thought the reteaching ritual was so widely lamented that parents, too, were aware of the summer slide. So I was shocked to see that 61% of parents do not believe that their children decline in reading ability over the summer.

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Summer slide courtesy of Shutterstock.

The finding comes from a new survey of 1,014 parents with children ages 5–11. Conducted by Harris Interactive, it kicks off the summer campaign by Reading Is Fundamental and Macy’s to provide books to needy children.

Sadly, that 61% foreshadows all of the findings.

For example, playing outside is the top priority: “By a wide margin, parents of 5-11 year olds identify playing outside (49%) as the most important activity they want their child to do this summer. Reading books (17%) takes second place, followed by: relax and take it easy (13%), improve athletic skills (10%), travel (4%), work at a summer job (1%), and other activities (6%).” If forced to choose, I would also rank playing outside #1 and reading #2; I was lucky enough to do both pretty much every day as a kid. But reality settles in when we look at how kids are actually spending their time: “Parents of 5-11 year olds report that their child spent an average of 5.9 hours per week reading books last summer. This is lower than the time spent playing outdoors (16.7 hours), watching TV (10.8 hours), or playing video games (6.6 hours).” There’s a curmudgeonly voice in my head wondering how many of those outdoor hours were spent like this:

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“Playing outside” courtesy of Shutterstock.

Six hours a week is definitely not enough time reading. Sadly, I think it shows how few children are finding books they love and having that magical experience of being absorbed in another world. With the right book, six hours a day doesn’t feel like enough. But according to the survey, I’m in the minority here: “Nearly six in ten parents of children age 5-11 say their child does just the right amount of reading during the summer (59%).”

But wait; it gets worse. There’s a 7% gap in what parents most want their sons and daughters to do over the summer. The number jumped out at me because 7% is the spread between female and male college degree attainment (i.e., in 2013, among 25- to 29-year-olds, 37% of females but only 30% of males had a bachelor’s). In this survey of parents, 7% is the pro-reading bias of parents for daughters (i.e., 21% of parents said reading was the most important activity for their daughters, but only 14% said as much for their sons). Coincidence? Only kinda sorta. There are stark differences in girls’ and boys’ summer activities: “Girls … spent an average of 6.6 hours per week reading books last summer, significantly higher than the average time spent by boys (5.2 hours). By contrast, boys spent an average of 8.0 hours per week playing video games last summer, compared to just 5.2 hours among girls.”

In discussions of the summer slide, most emphasis seems to be on the disparities between more- and less-advantaged children. That emphasis is necessary: while advantaged children tend to make gains in reading each summer, disadvantaged children tend to fall behind. Research shows these disparities to be due not just to differences in parenting, but also differences in the libraries and book stores available in different communities. What this parent survey shows is a need to also emphasize disparities between boys and girls. Hour after hour, summer after summer, boys are falling behind.