Reading War II: Content Knowledge vs. Reading Strategies

by Robert Pondiscio
January 19th, 2009

If phonics vs. whole language was Round One of the reading wars, the new battle is shaping up to be reading strategies vs. content knowledge, says Dan Willingham at Britannica Blog.  “Like Round 1 of the battle, one side is mostly right (content knowledge) but there is some merit on the other side,” says Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Most of us think about reading in a way that is fundamentally incorrect. We think of it as transferable, meaning that once you acquire the ability to read, you can read anything. That is true for only part of what it takes to read. It’s true for decoding—the ability to translate written symbols into sounds….But being able to decode letter strings fluently is only half of reading. In order to understand what you’re reading, you need to know something about the subject matter. And that doesn’t just mean that you need to know the vocabulary—you need to have the right knowledge of the world.

Willingham produced a YouTube video that underscores the connections between content knowledge and comprehension.  His blog post points out what virtually every elementary school teacher knows: once children learn to decode, reading instruction is almost exclusively focused on comprehension “strategies”–asking students to find the main idea of passage, identify the author’s purpose, etc.  Reading strategies work “but it’s a one-time boost,” he notes.  “Fifty sessions of practice is no better than five sessions of practice” since strategies serve mainly to give students a better idea of what reading is for.

In early grades, there is tremendous emphasis on decoding, and there must be. But this emphasis leads kids to feel that if they’ve decoded a passage, then they have read it, whereas teachers want them to have the idea that they shouldn’t be satisfied with decoding—they need to understand. Reading strategies help drive home this new notion of reading—that it’s about communication. Small wonder that practicing reading strategies gives no added benefit. Reading strategies are an easily-learned trick, like checking your work in math. Useful, to be sure, but not something that needs to be practiced.  I’ve discussed this matter in more detail here.

This is important stuff, dimly appreciated inside schools and as a practical matter, not at all in the education policy and advocacy communities.  The message needs to be delivered early, often and loud: boosting class time spent on reading instruction is of little use, and could actively be damaging kids if that time is coming at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum.  The title of Dan’s video says it best:  teaching content IS teaching reading.

“The tragic irony is that schools desperately trying to meet AYP are reportedly cutting time from subjects like social studies and science to devote more and more time to reading. Unless they are using content-rich reading materials, that strategy not only won’t work, it will actually backfire,” Willingham writes.

Willingham is not sanguine about that “people will be persuaded by what is truly a mountain of data,” but if it takes Round Two of the reading wars to drive this point into the consciousness of parents, policymakers and educators, the fight will be well worth it.

“Universal Proficiency is Unattainable. Period”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 11th, 2008

The current economic climate make it unlikely that President-elect Obama can enact the full range of education intitiatives his campaign promised, but one pressing issue cannot be deferred, writes Diane Ravitch on  The reauthorization and redesign of NCLB.  Six years after its bipartisan passage, she notes, we have nothing to show for it.

NCLB has turned every school into a test-preparation factory, focused solely on reading and mathematics. They are the only subjects that count in a school’s ranking, so teachers routinely reduce attention to history, science, foreign language, literature, geography, the arts and other non-tested subjects. With this narrowing of the curriculum, students may be getting dumbed down even if their scores go up. Do we really want a society where our fellow citizens know nothing of history, literature, science and the arts?

First, Ravitch says, the Obama administration should “eliminate the goal of universal proficiency by 2014, because it is unattainable. Period. No state or nation has ever achieved 100% proficiency.” 

Second, it should recognize that the federal government is best at providing accurate information, such as what children in each grade need to know to be abreast of international standards (that is known as the curriculum) and whether our children are meeting those standards (that is, testing); third, the administration should expect states and districts to fashion appropriate reforms and remedies for their schools.

Congress, Ravitch concludes, is not the right place to decide how to fix our schools. And more money isn’t the answer if we don’t have the right vision for improving education.

Critical Thinking Not Possible Without Content Knowledge

by Robert Pondiscio
August 11th, 2008

Here’s a plan for eliminating the national debt: Charge a tax of one dollar on anyone who says ”teaching critical thinking skills” should be the goal of schools.  One person less likely to idly toss around the phrase in the future is none other than The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, arguably our most influential education writer.  He concedes today that critical thinking programs “don’t work very well, except as a measure of the gullibility of even smart educators.”  How did he come to see the light?

A remarkable article by Daniel T. Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist outlines the reasons. Critical thinking, he explains in a summer 2007 American Educator article, overlooked until now by me, is not a skill like riding a bike or diagramming a sentence that, once learned, can be applied in many situations. Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject–facts, concepts and trends–before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good.

“The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge),” Willingham says. “Thus, if you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.”

Willingham’s work builds the strongest case I know for why narrowing the curriculum to load up on reading and math at the expense of other subjects is ultimately self-defeating.  If we want kids to be critical thinkers, they need the broadest possible education.  Describing Willingham’s upcoming book, Why Don’t Students Like School? — A cognitive scientist answers questions about how your mind works and what it means for the classroom,  Mathews says “Willingham’s own work is, in my view, a triumph of critical thinking because he knows his content so well….We need to do our homework and remember that no matter how brilliant we think we are, we can be useful critics only after we master the facts.”

Cognitive Dissonance on NCLB

by Robert Pondiscio
August 4th, 2008

“I’ve always told people, I have the best job in the world,” writes Susan J. Hobart, a National Board Certified Teacher, in the current issue of The Progressive

Today, more often than not, I feel demoralized. While I still connect my lesson plans to students’ lives and work to make it real, this no longer is my sole focus. Today I have a new nickname: testbuster. Singing to the tune of “Ghostbusters,” I teach test-taking strategies similar to those taught in Stanley Kaplan prep courses for the SAT. I spend an inordinate amount of time showing students how to “bubble up,” the term for darkening those little circles that accompany multiple choice questions on standardized tests.

Yes, another one of those NCLB-is-destroying-education pieces written by a teacher.  I predict that by the time the sun goes down, a smart guy like Jay Greene will have a line-by-line rebuttal on his blog explaining why this teacher is all wet.  Why there’s no evidence that curriculum narrowing is occuring under NCLB.   I’m sure it’ll make perfect sense.  Heck, I’ll probably even agree with most of it.

Then I’ll remember my own 5th grade classroom, where I never had social studies textbooks–or time for social studies and science after our two hour ”literacy block” and 90-minute math workshop–but always had a fresh supply of shiny Kaplan test prep books every year.  Where my students rarely got art, music or gym.  Where we were trained by Teachers College to teach a unit on “test-taking as a genre” of literature.   I’ll also remember the school assemblies and pep rallies where we tried to get the kids excited about the tests and shared all our “positive energy.”  And I’ll remember one TFA corp member grad student, who was mandated to do two hours of test prep a day starting in September for the state tests in March. 

Did I just dream all that? 

I can do without the shrill rhetoric about the “assault on public education” and “one size fits all testing.”  Still, every time I hear a veteran teacher describing with sadness how the job they loved became a joyless grind I find myself thinking, “Yeah, me too. ”  How did this happen when testing, accountability and NCLB was what we were supposed to be doing all along anyway?  Was I simply caught up in one of the greatest cases of mass hysteria since the Salem Witch Trials?

Principal Apologizes for “Excellent” Rating

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2008

The principal of Rocky River Middle School in Ohio is sorry.

His school made AYP, earned an “excellent” rating from the state, and passed the 2008 Ohio Achievement. But principal David Root gave Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett a remarkable two-page, single-spaced apology, addressed to students, staff and citizens of Rocky River, detailing the cost of those accomplishments. Among the things Root is sorry for:

  • That he spent thousands of tax dollars on test materials, practice tests, postage and costs for test administration.
  • That his teachers spent less time teaching American history because most of the social studies test questions are about foreign countries.
  • That he didn’t suspend a student for assaulting another because that student would have missed valuable test days.
  • For pulling children away from art, music and gym, classes they love, so they could take test-taking strategies.
  • That he has to give a test where he can’t clarify any questions, make any comments to help in understanding or share the results so students can actually learn from their mistakes.
  • That the integrity of his teachers is publicly tied to one test.
  • For making decisions on assemblies, field trips and musical performances based on how that time away from reading, math, social studies and writing will impact state test results.
  • For arranging for some students to be labeled “at risk” in front of their peers and put in small groups so the school would have a better chance of passing tests.
  • For making his focus as a principal no longer helping his staff teach students but helping them teach test indicators.

“We don’t teach kids anymore,” Root, a 24-year veteran principal, tells the paper. “We teach test-taking skills. We all teach to the test. I long for the days when we used to teach kids.”

The Smartest Bears in the Zoo

by Robert Pondiscio
June 19th, 2008

One of the most revealing aspects of Fordham’s report on high-achieving kids in the era of NCLB is the accompanying teacher survey:

The national survey findings show that most teachers, at this point in our nation’s history, feel pressure to focus on their lowest-achieving students. Whether that’s because of NCLB we do not know (though teachers are certainly willing to blame the federal law). What’s perhaps most interesting about the teachers’ responses, however, is how committed they are to the principle that all students (regardless of performance level) deserve their fair share of attention and challenges.

This precisely describes my experience teaching 5th grade in the South Bronx. A teacher in a school where the majority of kids read below grade level is unlikely ever to be asked what he or she is doing for kids who are at or above grade level. The immediate concern is triage.

Read the rest of this entry »

O’Connor: NCLB Has Squeezed Civics Off the Curriculum

by Robert Pondiscio
June 9th, 2008

“One unintended effect of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is intended to help fund teaching of science and math to young people, is that it has effectively squeezed out civics education because there is no testing for that anymore and no funding for that,” she said. “And at least half of the states no longer make the teaching of civics and government a requirement for high school graduation. This leaves a huge gap, and we can’t forget that the primary purpose of public schools in America has always been to help produce citizens who have the knowledge and the skills and the values to sustain our republic as a nation, our democratic form of government.”

So says retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor channeling E.D. Hirsch. Speaking at the Games for Change conference in New York City last week, O’Connor discussed an interactive, web-based civics curriculum she is developing for seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade students called Our Courts. Yep. Madame Justice is becoming a gamer.

O’Connor noted that two-thirds of Americans can name at least one of the judges on American Idol, but fewer than one in ten can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”

Our Courts is scheduled to launch a site for teachers in September 2008, and in September 2009 for kids. Preview the site at

Groundhog’s Day

by Robert Pondiscio
March 7th, 2008

Here we go again with curriculum narrowing. It’s happening…it’s not happening…it’s happening, but the problem is overstated. The edusphere erupts over whether a reported 16% of schools cutting art for more reading and math can be characterized as “many schools,” or whether narrowing under NCLB happens “often” or only sometimes. Still to come, whether “many,” “some,” “a handful” or “just a few” angels can dance on the head of a pin, or whether angels dancing on pins is a troublesome, but overstated trend.

The important point continues to go undiscussed: Given that a broad, content-rich education is the key to reading comprehension—hence raising test scores—narrowing the curriculum in any form is not just unacceptable but counterproductive and foolish. If you want to see test scores up, start arguing for curriculum reform. This is the common ground that ought to unite friends and foes of NCLB alike.

Everything else is angels dancing on the heads of pins.

Thinking Outside the Bubble

by Robert Pondiscio
March 3rd, 2008

Core Knowledge board member Diane Ravitch is advocating testing that goes well beyond simply bubbling in answers to multiple choice reading and math tests. Our pre-eminent education historian is worried about history education. “I also worry about the future of literature, the arts, and all the other subjects that are left out by today’s policymakers,” says Ravitch. “Is the answer to test them all? I would say not. With so many tests, there would be no time for instruction or reading or projects or discussion or activities.”

History News NetworkWriting for the History News Network, Ravitch notes the time available for history and other subjects “is being squeezed by legislative efforts to boost reading and math skills in grades 3-8, as well as the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects in middle schools and high schools.” Hence Ravitch’s co-chairing Common Core, which debuted last week “to advocate on behalf of the subjects that are neglected by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and by pending STEM legislation.”

“The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education,” Ravitch writes. “For myself, I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.”

“American education is in serious trouble today,” Ravitch concludes. “The people in the drivers’ seats mistakenly think they are running a business, with a bottom line. They have forgotten—or maybe they don’t know—that our schools are responsible for educating future citizens who will need and hopefully use far more than basic skills.”

Romer on Curriculum Narrowing

by Robert Pondiscio
February 25th, 2008

ED in ‘08 / Strong American SchoolsEd in ’08 chairman Roy Romer weighs in helpfully (mostly) on the issue of curriculum narrowing and NCLB.

A report from the Center on Educational Policy last year showed 44% of school districts had increased instructional time spent on ELA and/or Math in elementary schools since the passage of No Child Left Behind, cutting time from science, social studies, art and music, physical education, recess, or lunch. According to a followup report this week, districts increasing time for ELA and Math had done so by an average of three hours each week. To make room for the added time, they’ve cut of about two and a half hours each week from one or more other subjects.

“I don’t believe that time should come at the expense of other academic areas like science, history, or the arts,” blogs Romer. “We at ED in ’08 have long advocated for more time for learning in America’s schools. States like Massachusetts have already followed the lead of many other developed nations and put in place a longer school day, and their students are proving all the more successful from it. That extra time is helping to balance out the school agenda so that students all receive the diverse range of subjects – and support – they deserve.”

All well and good, but it would be even more helpful in Governor Romer and others concerned about the narrowing of curriculum would look more closely at the link between content knowledge and reading comprehension, rather than continuing to treat reading as an independent academic subject.

Teaching content IS teaching reading.