Dear Alliance: You Almost Nailed It

by Lisa Hansel
August 21st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Is Creativity in Decline?

by Lisa Hansel
August 13th, 2015

For the past 25 years, creativity has been in decline. I’ve just started to look into it, so I won’t pretend to have an answer—but I do have a hunch. We’re trivializing creativity.

First the research. Kyung Hee Kim is a professor of creativity and innovation at The College of William & Mary. She’s found a couple of interesting things. One is that creativity and intelligence are only weakly correlated. The other is that although IQ scores have been rising throughout the last century, since 1990 creativity scores have gone down—and the most significant drop was for children in kindergarten through third grade.

Some people will assume that too much academic work has been pushed into the early grades. That’s possible, but it just doesn’t fit with my experience. In the relatively few early grades classrooms I’ve seen in which children are engaged in sophisticated academic topics, they enjoy learning “real stuff” about the world. I could buy that too many schools have pushed boring worksheets and test prep into the early grades, but I haven’t seen much of that before third grade.

As I learn more about creativity, I think part of the issue is that those of us in education—especially elementary education—don’t think about creativity the way researchers do. When I talk to elementary teachers (and parents) about children’s creativity, they focus on novel, wacky ideas. It falls in the kids-say-the-darndest-things category. But when researchers examine creativity, originality is not enough. The new tool, idea, artwork, etc. also has to be useful and worthwhile.

Kids do say the darndest things, but they are very rarely creative.

Kim’s research uses the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), which is very widely used and the best-available (although perhaps still not great) predictor of future creative achievement. The subscales on the measure are useful for thinking about what creativity involves:

  • Fluency: “ability to produce ideas.”
  • Originality: “ability to produce unique and unusual ideas.”
  • Elaboration: “ability to think in a detailed and reflective manner as well as … motivation.”
  • Abstractness of Titles: “abstract thinking ability and ability for synthesis and organization thinking processes and for capturing the essence of the information involved.”
  • Resistance to Premature Closure: “ability to be intellectually curious and to be open-minded.”

In short, creativity seems to be a mix of being able to think of new things and then being able and eager to analyze and improve on one’s thinking. When Ken Robinson touts kindergartners’ ability to think of new uses for paperclips—and then scolds schools for squashing their genius-level divergent thinking—he’s missing the boat on creativity. As Brent Silby wrote, “If I answer the question by suggesting that a paperclip stretching from here to the moon could be used as a road, would I be categorized a ‘genius’? It is possible that adults think of fewer answers to the question because they have the ability to filter out nonsense answers. This is a strength of education, not a weakness.”

Along these same lines, the very existence of art schools seems to indicate that fluency and originality are merely the starting places for creativity. Originality is the easy part—useful and worthwhile is the high bar. That takes knowledge, but knowledge itself is not sufficient either (as the minimal relationship between IQ and creativity indicates). Practice, reflection, and the drive to improve (including seeking out and acting on critiques) all seem essential.

So why is creativity in decline, especially among young children? Perhaps because our expectations are too low. Perhaps more academics—taught with interesting read-alouds, more challenging projects, and greater emphasis on feedback, reflection, and revision—would reverse the decline. I don’t know, but it’s worth trying.

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Was originality all that Van Gogh needed?

Interrupting the Cycle of Poverty

by Lisa Hansel
August 7th, 2015

Of all the reasons to continuously try to improve our schools, one of the most important is interrupting the cycle of poverty. Just imagine a world in which schools have a greater impact on achievement than families. That may be far off (though not impossible), but the work educators currently do every day has the potential to change lives—even generations of lives.

A new brief from Child Trends shows a small but absolutely critical impact of increasing math and reading achievement: fewer births to unwed teens. Unfortunately, there was no such effect for high-risk young women. But for low-risk teens, a one-standard-deviation increase in reading comprehension scores reduced the probability of unwed childbearing by 3.5%, and a similar increase in math scores reduced it by 3.3%.

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Teen mother courtesy of Shutterstock.

That reduction may not be very big, but the impact it has on the teen, her current family, and future generations of her family is enormous. Delaying childbearing until adulthood is one of the keys to breaking out of poverty—for the mother and her children.

These results are also heartening because the reduction in teen births is essentially a bonus. Increasing reading and math scores is a worthy goal in itself. Knowing that those increases have benefits that last more than one lifetime is extraordinary.

Math and Science Increase Wages–Even Without College

by Lisa Hansel
July 31st, 2015

In my last post, I mentioned a couple of reports showing huge disparities in the courses offered by high schools, with especially serious problems in access to advanced math, chemistry, and physics. I think such inequities are an embarrassment to the very idea of America. But I’ve met people who disagree. They see alternative courses in things like forensics and general science to be a practical means of engaging kids who aren’t going to college in the sciences.

I could argue endlessly about who might go to college if such inequities did not exist, but let’s skip that. Let’s just focus on this idea of different courses for those who are not going. Do they benefit from advanced math and science courses—traditional, rigorous, college-prep courses? Yes.

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A broad, rigorous education—with advanced math and science—is critical, even for those who do not want to go to college. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

They benefit not only from the inherent value of better understanding their universe, but in wages and job satisfaction, as a new report from the National School Boards Association shows. The report defines non-college goers as those who had not enrolled in college (two or four year) by age 26. These days, that’s just 12% of high school graduates. The results were striking:

What students do in high school is as important for non-college goers as it is for college goers. For on-time graduates who did not go to college, we found that they did much better in the labor market if they had completed high-level math and science courses; earned higher grades; completed multiple vocational courses focusing on a specific labor market area (occupational concentration); and obtained a professional certification or license. While each of these factors had a positive effect most of the time, they were especially powerful in combination. Compared to their peers who lacked any of these characteristics, the “high credentialed” non-college goers were:

• More likely to have a full-time job.
• Less likely to be unemployed.
• Less likely to be unemployed for more than six months.
• More likely to work for an employer that offers medical insurance.
• More likely to have a retirement fund.
• More likely to supervise other employees.
• Less likely to receive public assistance.

At 26, these high-credentialed non-college goers were also doing well compared with their college-going peers (though other data on college completers still show that earning a college degree is the best route—the problem is that so many college goers get trapped in remedial courses and never graduate). Here are a few of the highlights:

26-year-olds who reported they…

No college; low credentials

No college; high credentials

College goers

Had a full-time job (at least 35 hrs/wk)

46%

80%

70%

Hourly wage at most recent job

$10.28

$19.71

$16.71

Current employer offers medical insurance

43%

90%

75%

Had a retirement plan in 2012

8%

39%

46% 

Organizations like Achieve have long claimed that college and career both require the same rigorous, academic K–12 education. While some dispute the idea, evidence continues to mount. Equalizing opportunity to learn—to acquire academic knowledge—is morally, economically, and civically the right thing to do.

 

The (Knowledge) Rich Get Richer

by Lisa Hansel
July 28th, 2015

If I could accomplish just one thing in my career, it would be to have all leaders take equalizing opportunity to learn seriously. If knowledge equality were a top priority, much would change from early childhood through college.

One thing that would no longer be tolerated is denying access to essential courses. According to a 2014 report from the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, “Nationwide, only 50% of high schools offer calculus, and only 63% offer physics…. A quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry.”

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Can you imagine sending your child to a school that does not offer chemistry? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Of those schools offering courses called physics and chemistry, students may not have a real opportunity to learn. As Bill Schmidt has shown, even courses that seem well defined like Algebra I cover very different content.

Now, a new report shows huge disparities in course access in New York City:

Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry. More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science….

Roughly 21 percent of New York City high school students attend schools that don’t offer courses in both chemistry and physics….

Three years of science is a graduation requirement in all city high schools. Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet that requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, “living environment”—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.

Replacing biology, chemistry, and physics with living environment, forensics, and general science is an outrage. But no one seems to care. Do they believe the myth that science skills can be developed equally well with chemistry or forensics? Do they care more about engagement than knowledge? Do they think some kids can’t do physics?

Do those who shrug off this outrage not know that the traditional, academic math and science classes are essential for a wide range of occupations? Drawing from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report lists courses required for some popular careers:

Accountant: pre-calculus
Architect: pre-calculus, physics
Dental hygienist: biology and chemistry
Electrician: algebra 1
Emergency medical technician: biology, chemistry
HVAC mechanic: physics
Lab technician: chemistry and biology
MRI technician: biology, chemistry, physics
Registered nurse: biology, chemistry

Fortunately, this is a problem that at least some leaders are trying to solve. The Foundation for Excellence in Education highlights 10 districts and charters in seven states that are working to expand course access. Working in rural and urban areas, they are creating new venues for high-quality online, blended, and in-person courses.

“Knowledge Capital” Determines Economic Growth

by Lisa Hansel
July 14th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking Confirmation

by Lisa Hansel
July 9th, 2015

Of all the problems with school reform, one of the biggest seems to be the tendency to seek bits of evidence that confirm preconceived notions. Silver bullets, tunnel vision, blind faith—call it whatever you want—somehow, those of us interested in school improvement have to stop searching for THE change. There is no one change that will get the job done.

The whole system has to improve.

Curriculum, materials, instruction, leadership, preparation, and professional development all matter. Funding, facilities, parental involvement, and community support all matter. Health care, nutrition, after school, and summer learning all matter.

Once we give up on searching for the one most important factor, we can make a long-term plan and finally achieve our goals. Just like Finland did.

Huh? Didn’t Finland just tackle teacher quality? Or just minimize assessments? Or just create a strong family welfare system? Or …

No. Unlike the US, Finland spent more than three decades pursuing a coherent, comprehensive improvement plan. But, to put it politely, many reformers eyeing Finland are missing the forest for their favorite trees.

In a recent policy paper, the director of assessment research and development for Cambridge Assessment, Tim Oates, puts it less politely:

Due to myopia and elementary errors in enquiry, what foreign analysts have taken from Finland frequently has amounted to ‘Finnish fairy stories’….

In the course of the 2010 UK Curriculum Review, a number of high-performing jurisdictions were scrutinised for the form and content of their national curriculum specifications. Following its emergence at the top of the first PISA survey in 2000, Finland was included in the countries examined….

The children in PISA 2000 were 15 years of age. We assumed that it was unlikely that 1985 was the first year of the school system being of an interesting form, so we looked back at what was happening in the 1990s, the 1980s, and the 1970s. What we found was a period of genuine improvement in educational outcomes and a determined set of reforms to schooling – but what we discovered was that the vast bulk of educational tourists had arrived in Finland 2001 and made a serious error. They got off the plane and asked the Finns about the system in 2000 – not what it was like during the 1970s and 1980s, when standards were rising. During the time of sustained improvement, the system was very different; policy formation was distinctive, the way in which this policy was implemented was distinctive – and very different from the way things were in 2000.

This elementary error of analysis has been compounded by non-Finnish analysts who have asked questions only about the things in which they are interested; they have ‘found’ what they have been looking for, and not understood the importance of things which they have not asked about. Combined together, these two errors have given a very misleading picture of what Finland genuinely appears to have achieved, and how.

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Tunnel vision courtesy of Shutterstock.

Oates goes on to explain that Finland’s transformation was centrally planned, implemented, inspected, and evaluated. From teacher preparation to curriculum to school leadership to measurement, the national government was conducting the orchestra. While the US is too large and too different from Finland for national or federal education reform, state leaders could learn a great deal from Finland (and from the one state that undertook a multi-decade, planned reform: Massachusetts).

Putting what some mistake for autonomy into its Finnish context, Oates adds, “Finland has a 120-year history of structured educational reform, using centrally specified curriculum requirements. Far from a history of autonomy, there is a culture of negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education.”

Pause there: “negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education.” While it’s easy to focus on the “centrally specified” part, the “negotiated … agreement” is equally important. Perhaps central planning works in Finland because it is actually collective planning. The path forward is neither autonomous nor top down. It’s mutually agreed-upon action.

Finnish educators Pasi Sahlberg and Jukka Sarjala see such agreement as essential. They trace Finland’s educational improvement to the new consensus that emerged after Finland was devastated in World War II. Finland never tried to attain the highest scores; it built an education system devoted to supporting democracy, ensuring economic sustainability, achieving equality, and increasing cooperation. It saw centrally planned, consensus-driven curriculum, materials, teacher preparation, assessments, and family supports as necessary elements. And it recognized that systematic changes would take many years and much support.

Such comprehensive, collective transformation would be a struggle in any US state (perhaps that’s why none has followed in Massachusetts’s high-performing footsteps). But there’s no solid evidence that anything less is effective at scale.

Districts Could Do More for the Most Vulnerable Students

by Lisa Hansel
June 23rd, 2015

In my last post I highlighted two districts that are equalizing opportunity to learn and increasing teacher collaboration through districtwide curriculum and assessments. Across schools, the same knowledge and skills are being taught, and the same expectations are being met.

Imagine what it would be like to have to transfer schools mid-year in one of those districts. Making new friends, getting to know new teachers, and dealing with whatever family upheaval caused the move are hard enough. The one good thing about the transfer is that you would not be lost in class. Your new teachers would be teaching the same curriculum, and they would have detailed information on your prior performance.

It’s a shame this level of coordination is so rare—for schools transfers are not rare, especially in urban areas. A new report summarizes the available data, finding that two-thirds of elementary school students change schools, with 24% changing schools two or more times. The effects are devastating:

One paper … summarized the findings from 16 studies (9 of which were identified as methodologically strong) conducted since 1990. The study found that even one non-promotional school move both reduced elementary school achievement in reading and math and increased high school dropout rates, with the most pronounced effects for students who made three or more moves….

One study that tracked a cohort of preschool students in Chicago for 25 years found that students who made non-promotional school changes between kindergarten and 12th grade were less likely to complete high school on time, completed fewer years of school, had lower levels of occupational prestige in their jobs, experienced more symptoms of depression, and were more likely to be arrested as adults. The impacts of mobility were above and beyond the impacts of associated risks such as poverty and residential mobility, and were more severe for transfers between the fourth and eighth grades….

A high school student who participated in a comprehensive study of mobility in California commented:

Moving and changing schools really shattered my personality. I feel like there’s all these little things I picked up from all of the different schools and I feel all disoriented all the time. There’s no grounding. I always just feel like I’m floating.

And, … one study in Texas found that student turnover, especially during the school year, adversely affected student achievement not just of mobile students, but everyone in the school. Moreover, the effects were larger for poor and minority students.

Would a districtwide curriculum solve these problems? No. But it would certainly help with the intra-district transfers. A statewide instructional framework—which specifies certain topics for each subject and grade, but leaves room for discretion at the local level—would also help. Maybe that teenager from California would not feel so fragmented if he had the opportunity to read whole novels, conduct whole science experiments, and create whole art projects, even while changing schools. Maybe he would have more in common with his new classmates if they had some shared knowledge. Maybe his teachers would be better prepared to support him if they had some notion of what he had studied in his other schools.

Maybe someday more districts and states will realize that an education is not a collection of skills to be cultivated with any content. An education is a curated, systematic exploration of the best humanity has to offer, resulting in a broad body of knowledge and content-specific abilities that enrich life. At least, that’s what it should be.

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A new school need not mean a new curriculum (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

Collaborating on Curriculum and Assessment: Two Districts Lead the Way

by Lisa Hansel
June 18th, 2015

“Educators and policymakers must avoid the trap of limiting their discussions to questions which the existing data can readily answer, a practice reminiscent of the old joke about looking for lost car keys under the streetlight because that is where the searcher can see, not where the keys were lost.” Chrys Dougherty, a principal research scientist with testing giant ACT, includes this little warning in his recent policy brief. He certainly isn’t stuck under the streetlight—he shows educators, district leaders, and state leaders how data could be used to ensure all children get a rich, well-rounded education and all teachers have meaningful opportunities to learn from each other.

While almost all states and many districts jump right from standards to assessments, Dougherty emphasizes the importance of “a content-rich district curriculum that states clearly what students are expected to learn in each grade and subject” including “science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts.” For all those leaders who have yet to grasp that standards are not curriculum, he offers a great synopsis of what a strong curriculum ought to provide, in addition to stating precisely which topics are to be taught:

By providing greater detail, the curriculum can align content across grade levels more precisely, so that what students learn in preceding grade levels prepares them to understand what is taught in subsequent grades. The curriculum can address the levels of student learning that are expected— for example, by the use of model student assignments and samples of student work. The curriculum can allocate learning time across topics in a given subject so that students are given enough time to learn each topic in sufficient depth and detail. The curriculum can also allocate learning time among subjects so that sufficient time is devoted to each subject in every grade. The curriculum can take advantage of connections across subjects, so that, for example, if the students are learning about volcanoes in science, they might read a story about Pompeii in language arts and perform computations about volcanic activity in math class.

Informing this policy brief is a case study of two districts that are focused on using data to enhance their curriculum and instruction. In both, the districtwide curriculum and curriculum-based assessments gave students a more equal opportunity to learn:

Educators in the two case study districts took special care to ensure [their benchmark] assessments matched what had been taught… School leaders in the case study sites also encouraged teachers in each grade level to administer common assessments every two or three weeks to provide even more up-to-date information on the students. The timeliness of these assessments make them particularly useful in identifying student needs, modifying instruction to meet those needs, placing students in short-term interventions, and setting and monitoring goals for students and teachers.

It takes a lot of care and flexibility to ensure that all teachers have the same goals and all assessments test what was taught, as a teacher explained with an example from Algebra I:

The district specialist writes the district benchmark and … all the Algebra I teachers get into a room with her. They all take the test together. That’s our way of vetting the test. They take the test so they can see what’s on the test. The test doesn’t leave the room. That way we’re not teaching the test. But they have an idea of where we’re trying to go. Then that happens at the beginning of each nine weeks. And then three weeks before we actually administer the test the teachers look at it again and they say to the district specialist … “That week we had homecoming and a parade and a pep rally … and we missed three days of instruction over this. And so we didn’t get that far. So that test item needs to come out.” So we’re working really hard to keep those benchmarks to be a true reflection of what we’ve taught.

Of course, collaboration like this doesn’t just happen; the districts created time and space for it:

The districts in our case study regularly convened teachers of the same course- or grade-specific content in different schools—for example, Biology 1 or third-grade social studies—to review curriculum and assessments and to share instructional ideas. The timing of these meetings was based on the six- or nine-week grading periods in the district curriculum so teachers could look at results from the latest benchmark assessment. Less frequently, district leaders convened vertical teams of teachers from different grade levels—for example, elementary, middle, and high school teachers of US history. Interviewees in the study expressed a desire for increasing the frequency of these vertical team meetings.

Students and teachers in these two districts are benefiting greatly from focusing on districtwide curriculum, assessment, and professional development. What a shame that such efforts are so rare!

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A strong districtwide curriculum connects teachers across schools, grades, and subjects. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Knowledge For Literacy

by Guest Blogger
May 18th, 2015

By Marilyn Jager Adams

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

Liteacy Ladders Cover

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

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

Comprehension Depends on Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topical Units Can Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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* 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.