The PIRLS Reading Result–Better than You May Realize

by Dan Willingham
December 17th, 2012

This was written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of  “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

The PIRLS results are better than you may realize.

Last week, the results of the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were published. This test compared reading ability in 4th grade children.

U.S. fourth-graders ranked 6th among 45 participating countries. Even better, US kids scored significantly better than the last time the test was administered in 2006.

There’s a small but decisive factor that is often forgotten in these discussions: differences in orthography across languages.

Lots of factors go into learning to read. The most obvious is learning to decode–learning the relationship between letters and (in most languages) sounds. Decode is an apt term. The correspondence of letters and sound is a code that must be cracked.

In some languages the correspondence is relatively straightforward, meaning that a given letter or combination of letters reliably corresponds to a given sound. Such languages are said to have a shallow orthography. Examples include Finnish, Italian, and Spanish.

In other languages, the correspondence is less consistent. English is one such language. Consider the letter sequence “ough.” How should that be pronounced? It depends on whether it’s part of the word “cough,” “through,” “although,” or “plough.” In these languages, there are more multi-letter sound units, more context-dependent rules and more out and out quirks.

Another factor is syllabic structure. Syllables in languages with simple structures typically (or exclusively) have the form CV (i.e., a consonant, then a vowel as in “ba”) or VC (as in “ab.”) Slightly more complex forms include CVC (“bat”) and CCV (“pla”). As the number of permissible combinations of vowels and consonants that may form a single syllable increases, so does the complexity. In English, it’s not uncommon to see forms like CCCVCC (.e.g., “splint.”)

Here’s a figure (Seymour et al., 2003) showing the relative orthographic depth of 13 languages, as well as the complexity of their syllabic structure.

From Seymour, et. al. (2003)

Orthographic depth correlates with incidence of dyslexia (e.g., Wolf et al, 1994) and with word and nonword reading in typically developing children (Seymour et al. 2003). Syllabic complexity correlates with word decoding (Seymour et al, 2003).

This highlights two points, in my mind.

First, when people trumpet the fact that Finland doesn’t begin reading instruction until age 7 we should bear in mind that the task confronting Finnish children is easier than that confronting English-speaking children. The late start might be just fine for Finnish children; it’s not obvious it would work well for English-speakers.

Of course, a shallow orthography doesn’t guarantee excellent reading performance, at least as measured by the PIRLS. Children in Greece, Italy, and Spain had mediocre scores, on average. Good instruction is obviously still important.

But good instruction is more difficult in languages with deep orthography, and that’s the second point. The conclusion from the PIRLS should not just be “Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading.” It should be “Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading despite teaching reading in a language that is difficult to learn.”


Seymour, P. H. K., Aro, M., & Erskine, J. M. (2003). Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 143-174.

Wolf, M., Pfeil, C., Lotz, R., & Biddle, K. (1994). Towarsd a more universal understanding of the developmental dyslexias: The contribution of orthographic factors. In Berninger, V. W. (Ed), The varieties of orthographic knowledge, 1: Theoretical and developmental issues.Neuropsychology and cognition, Vol. 8., (pp. 137-171). New York, NY, US: Kluwer

The 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform. Ever.

by Robert Pondiscio
September 20th, 2012

The following is a version of remarks presented Wednesday at panel hosted by the Pioneer Institute in Boston, titled “Why Huck Finn Matters: Classic Literature in Schooling.” At the event, Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein presented a new paper, How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.  I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with Professors Stotsky and Bauerlein, and moderated by David Steiner, Dean of the Hunter College School of Education, to discuss the paper, which describes “deficiencies in Common Core’s literature standards and its misplaced stress on literary nonfiction or informational reading.

Those who know me will tell you I’m a fairly mild-mannered guy.   In the rough and tumble of education reform arguments, I don’t call people names.  I don’t yell, scream or grandstand.  I have an instinct toward the middle.   But I understand why I’m on this panel today.  Because I’m the guy who likes Common Core State Standards, which are supposed to be the death knell for literature in schools.   If this were a professional wrestling match, I’d be the heavy.

My role is to break a chair over the hero’s head and sneer at the audience.  But you know in the end the good guys will win.  Professor Bauerlein will eventually pin me to the mat. And Professor Stotsky will leap from the top rope and finish me off with a somersault leg drop.  If I don’t tap out, Jim Stergios will stand over my body and count to ten.

These are serious people and important scholars.  I’m an enormous admirer of each and every one, especially Professor Stotsky.  But if I am to play the heavy, I will play my role to the hilt.  I will go down swinging.

In my opinion, the single most important piece of data in American education is the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Reading for 17-year-olds in the United States.  It is the de facto final report card on American K-12 education.   Educational Progress?   What progress?  Forty years.  No progress.   I can’t look at NAEP scores without thinking of the EKG of someone who has gone into cardiac arrest.  Flatline.  Just like 12th grade NAEP.

When the heart stops beating, several nasty things happen in short order.  The lack of blood flow to the brain causes loss of consciousness.  Left untreated for even five minutes, permanent brain injury is unavoidable.  The patient’s only chance of survival and neurological recovery is immediate and decisive treatment.

American education has been suffering a lack of oxygen to its collective brain not just for five minutes, but for five or more decades.   Brain damage is setting in.  Call a Code Blue!  Stat!  Who’s got  shock paddles?

David Coleman??

Coleman, as you know, is the primary author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.  Or as I like to think of them, the defibrillator.  The reason I see CCSS as the defibrillator – our last chance to shock American education back to life – boils down to 57 words.   These 57 words:

“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

E.D. Hirsch, as you surely know, is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and a frequent guest at Pioneer events like this. If you were to boil down his career to a single paragraph, these 57 words would come close.   In fact, I would go as far as saying these 57 words are the most important words in education reform since A Nation at Risk told us in 1983 that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

If time permitted I would explain the importance of these 57 words you.  I’d describe how broad general knowledge is indispensable to vocabulary growth and reading comprehension.  I would demonstrate how reading comprehension is not a skill at all, and how reading tests are basically tests of background knowledge.   And I would detail for you how this has been almost completely lost upon American education.

Until Common Core State Standards.

If time permitted, I would also describe for you the tedious, content-free reading instruction I inflicted for years upon my 5th graders in the South Bronx.   How the “best practices” I served up to Viviana, Rebecca, Francesca, Gabriel and Roberto was—I now understand–fundamentally flawed.  How I and others inadvertently denied those children the rich, broad knowledge of the world that we take for granted and that they need to become proficient in English and productive, self-sustaining citizens.

Wait.  Did I say need?  Sorry, not need. Needed.  Past tense.  It’s too late now.

Viviana dropped out in 9th grade and had a baby.  Francesca, too.  Rebecca dropped out and has two babies.  Gabriel and Roberto are in jail.  Our tax dollars support them all.

Huck Finn?  Are you serious?  You expect students like mine to make sense of Huck Finn with no foundational knowledge of 19th century America.  Of slavery?  Of riverboats?  Or rivers.  They don’t know where the Mississippi River is or whether it flows north or south.  They probably don’t even know which way is north.  They left elementary school without the most rudimentary knowledge they need to make sense of the even the most basic texts.

But no Common Core Standards?  Illegal, you say?  Coercive?  They de-emphasize literature and besides, your own Massachusetts states standards are superior.  All of that may be true.  I’ll concede those points.  In an as yet unpublished op-ed piece, E.D. Hirsch writes,

“It is not overstating the case to say that the most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class is to focus laser-like on the question: ‘Is this school policy likely to eventuate in a large increase in the vocabulary sizes of 12th graders?’”

He’s exactly right.

Implemented not just by the letter, but in its spirit, Common Core State Standards, by emphasizing the coherent, intentional accumulation of knowledge, will increase vocabulary and language proficiency.  You want to throw out the whole thing.  Fine.  Throw it out.  But keep those 57 words.  If we get that right in the early years, a lot of other problems melt away.  Lose those 57 words, and the rest probably isn’t going to matter anyway.

If opposition to Common Core gives us another forty years of flatlining, of intellectual brain death, we are not doing the country a service.  We will have another of Mark Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generations.  And another.  And another.  And another.

Every teacher in elementary school in the land must understand that without imparting a coherent, knowledge-rich, language-rich ELA curriculum – which Common Core cannot even mandate but strongly recommends – most of our children will not meet any meaningful standard.  I will give you text complexity, evidence-based writing, a 50-50 mix of fiction and non-fiction in the upper grades.  Hundreds of pages of standards and publishers criteria and exemplars and assessments and I will not fight you on any of them.

But I will not give up these 57 words.  The foundation on which American education rests must be intentional and coherent.  It must be not just literature rich but knowledge rich and language rich.

That is the hill on which I’m prepared to die.

If we overthrow Common Core–if we fail to rigorously, intentionally, coherently implement those 57 words, that is also the hill on which competence, educational attainment, upward mobility, and informed, engaged citizenship also dies.



Hot! Popular! Swears Like a Longshoreman!

by Robert Pondiscio
May 23rd, 2012

If you’ve read more than a handful of young adult (YA) novels, you’re probably well past the point of being dismayed by the thematic darkness and swear words.  A new study by Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne finds that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity between the covers or almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.

But the number of curse words is less interesting than who’s got the potty mouth.  The characters who swear the most tend to be rich, attractive and popular, Coyne found  “From a social learning standpoint, this is really important because adolescents are more likely to imitate media characters portrayed in positive, desirable ways,” Coyne tells Science DailyScholastic blogger Morgan Baden puts it simply:  “all the cool kids are doing it.”

This is not the first time the content of YA fiction has come under the microscope.  Recall the Wall Street Journal a year ago published a piece which eviscerated the genre, noting that “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”  The medical journal Pediatrics published another bit of research by Coyne six months ago that found a link between profanity in media and teen aggression, Science Daily notes.

Scholastic’s Baden defends the blue language in YA books “where the characters are so vivid, and so well-written, that I couldn’t imagine them speaking any other way than the way the author chose them to speak.”  The readers of YA novels, she points out are “in the process of forming their identities, and sometimes that includes testing out ways of speaking and exploring just how much impact their voices can have.”

“F— it,” says the website Jezebel, which its signature insouciance.  “Let’s just be happy that kids are reading at all and not get our panties all twisted up about the fact that the books they’re choosing to consume accurately reflect how their friends actually talk.”

Easy to say, but woe unto the teacher who fields the angry call from a parent that starts, “My daughter says she chose this book from YOUR classroom library…”   Realistic fiction? Literary quality? Yeah, good luck with that.

Should there be warning labels on YA novels?  Shrink wrap them and put them on the highest shelf? “Unlike almost every other type of media, there are no content warnings or any indication if there is extremely high levels of profanity in adolescent novels,” Coyne says. “Parents should talk with their children about the books they are reading.”

Coyne’s study appears in the journal Mass Communication and Society.

Second Thoughts on Pineapplegate

by Robert Pondiscio
May 4th, 2012

Writing in his TIME Magazine column, Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham offers up a largely exculpatory take on Pineapplegate.  The media jumped all over a bowdlerized version of the test passage, he notes.  New York state officials should have been clearer in explaining that nothing makes its way onto standardized tests by accident.  And in the end, Andy writes, what is needed is “a more substantive conversation rather than a firestorm” over testing.

Very well, let’s have one.

In the unlikely event you haven’t heard, a minor media frenzy was ignited a few weeks back when the New York Daily News got hold of a surreal fable, loosely modeled on the familiar tale of the Tortoise and the Hare, which appeared on the just-administered New York State 8th grade reading test.  In the test passage, a talking pineapple challenges a hare to a foot race in front of a group of woodland creatures, loses the race (the pineapple’s lack of legs proving to be a fatal competitive disadvantage)  and gets eaten by the other animals.

Rotherham points out that the passage picked up by the paper was not the actual test passage, but a second-hand version plucked from an anti-testing website. “The passage the paper ran was so poorly written that it would indeed have been inexcusable,” he wrote.  Perhaps, but the correct passage wasn’t exactly a model of clarity and coherence either.  Indeed, the fable’s author mocked the decision by the testing company, Pearson, to create multiple choice questions about his story on a state test.  “As far as I am able to ascertain from my own work, there isn’t necessarily a specifically assigned meaning in anything,” Daniel Pinkwater told the Wall Street Journal. “That really is why it’s hilarious on the face of it that anybody creating a test would use a passage of mine, because I’m an advocate of nonsense. I believe that things mean things but they don’t have assigned meanings.”

Ultimately the real version of the test passage was released by the state to quiet the controversy.  But it did little to reverse the impression that this was a questionable measure of students’ ability.  Rotherham’s big “get” in Time is a memo from Pearson to New York State officials detailing the question’s review process as well as its use on other states’ tests as far back as 2004.  The message:  nothing to see here, folks.  Show’s over.  Go on back to your schools, sharpen those No. 2 pencils and get ready for more tests.

“Standardized tests are neither as bad as their critics make them out to be nor as good as they should be,” Rotherham concludes.  Perhaps, but they’re bad enough.  The principal problem, which Pineapplegate underscores vividly, is that we continue to insist on drawing conclusions about students’ reading ability based on a random, incoherent collection of largely meaningless passages concocted by test-makers utterly disconnected from what kids actually learn in school all day.  This actively incentivizes a form of educational malpractice, since reading tests reinforce the mistaken notion that reading comprehension is a transferable skill and that the subject matter is disconnected from comprehension.   But we know this is not the case as E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham have pointed out time and again, and as we have discussed on this blog repeatedly.

So this is not a simple case of an uproar based on bad information and sloppy damage control.  What Rotherham misses in a somewhat strident defense of standardized tests and testing is that we are suffering generally from a case of test fatigue. The entire edifice of reform rests on testing, and while the principle of accountability remains sound, the effects of testing on schools has proven to be deleterious, to be charitable. Thus the conditions were ripe for people to overreact to perceived absurdity in the tests. And that’s exactly what happened here.

Was the story was blown out of proportion by some people playing fast and loose with the facts?  Perhaps.  But the facts, once they became clear, were more than bad enough.

Love a Book? Don’t Tell Your Kids!

by Robert Pondiscio
May 3rd, 2012

When you were a kid, did you ever read a book that changed your life?  Well, don’t tell your kids if you want it to have the same effect on them. “Remember how a parental recommendation was the kiss of death when you were a kid?” asks legendary children’s author Judy Blume. “That hasn’t changed — no matter how well-deserved the kudos are.”

Blume made the comment at the recent LA Times Festival of Books.  I’m mightily inclined to agree.  One of my teaching pet peeves has always been the tendency to wax rhapsodic over books and make our kids feel that they are somehow missing out–if not outright defective–if they aren’t as enraptured by a well-loved book as we are.  In a world in which kids can immerse themselves in “Call of Duty” and “Halo,” telling them “reading is magical” like telling them they should love spinach.  Don’t tell them. Show them.  Class readalouds of a compelling book have probably done more to spread the notion that reading is enjoyable than any earnest talk about the power of books to take us on journeys in our minds.

Other bits of advice on engaging readers from Blume, per the Huffington Post.

“As great as you think those nostalgic old book covers are, get your kids the new editions. The covers will draw them in. They want the new stuff.”

“Before you give your child the beloved book, leave it lying around the house, preferably on your nightstand. Then, when your daughter asks about the book, tell her that you picked it up for her, but now you’re not sure she’s old enough for it.”

“Try not to be judgmental of what your child is reading and don’t censor their book selection.”

Blume “hates it when books list what age reader the book is for.” She remembers pulling an illustrated copy of Lysistrata off the shelves when she was about 12, notes HuffPo. “She was very curious about the adult world and books gave her a look into that world.”

In an unrelated post, Dan Willingham notes that teachers are avid readers who “love books not only for the purpose of reading them, but as physical objects.”  He links to a section of Reddit called BookPorn.  Amazing pictures.  Enjoy.  But don’t tell the kids.

How to Make Kids Hate Reading

by Robert Pondiscio
May 1st, 2012

Building reading instruction around comprehension strategies is not only ineffective, it also takes the joy out of reading, writes Dan Willingham in his latest blog post.

The UVA cognitive scientist has long argued that while reading strategies have some value–principally in helping students understand that what they read should have some communicative value–it’s a huge mistake to think of reading comprehension as a transferable skill that can be learned, practiced, and applied to any text.  Practicing reading strategies ad nauseam doesn’t confer any particular advantage.  Data are hard to find on just how much time is spent in practice on “finding the main idea,” “determining the author’s purpose”  and other such strategies in the average classroom. “But whatever the proportion of time, much of it is wasted, at least if educators think it’s improving comprehension,” Willingham writes, “because the one-time boost to comprehension can be had for perhaps five or ten sessions of 20 or 30 minutes each.”

Moreover, Willingham notes that the wasted time “represents a significant opportunity cost.”   Why? Because building reading instruction around strategies “makes reading really boring”:

“How can you get lost in a narrative world if you think you’re supposed to be posing questions to yourself all the time? How can a child get really absorbed in a book about ants or meteorology if she thinks that reading means pausing every now and then to anticipate what will happen next, or to question the author’s purpose?

If one of the goals in reading instruction is to develop a love of reading, strategies instruction is not merely unhelpful, but counterproductive, he argues.  “Reading comprehension strategies seem to take a process that could bring joy, and turn it into work,” Willingham concludes.

Loose Canons

by Robert Pondiscio
April 5th, 2012

The top 40 books read by U.S. high school students – whether assigned in school or chosen by kids on their own – are on average written at a fifth grade level.  In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Sandra Stotsky blames a curricular approach to literature that worships almost exclusively at the altar of student interest, a practice nearly unique to teachers of English.

“Suppose that a school’s math curriculum director said it didn’t matter in what grade kids actually studied fractions. What’s important is that they “own” fractions if they choose to study them. That way, they will like math better.

“Suppose that the same school’s history curriculum director said it didn’t matter when kids studied the Constitution — or if they did at all. Instead, let them decide what history to study so that they like studying history.”

Stotsky cites a new report that shows The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (reading level 5.3) topping the list of books read by high school students, whether assigned by their teachers or chosen independently. “What high school kids choose to read on their own is one matter,” writes Stotsky. “But, surely, school librarians should recommend and English teachers should assign as many texts above their grade’s reading level as on it. If we don’t actually challenge students, how can we expect serious learning to take place?”

Even books that almost certainly were assigned demonstrate a relatively low level of challenge:  Of Mice and Men (reading level 4.5), To Kill a Mockingbird (5.6), and Night (4.8), for example. All fine works, writes Stotsky, “but these easier-to-read selections must be balanced by other works also with adult themes but much higher reading levels.”  Stotsky faults the “damaging notion that students of all grades should be allowed to read chiefly what they want in the English classroom” for the decline.

“Thus the K-8 reading curriculum came to feature a sequence of culture-and-content-free skills, with a variety of “trade” books for kids to choose from — no oppressive Western canon full of Dead White Males (or Females, for that matter) or even any coherent sequences of culturally or historically significant authors and texts. High schools had no choice but to respond accordingly — you can’t just foist Austen or Dickens on a student who’s been reading fifth-grade-level texts. Few even try: Most of the top 40 books in grades 9 to 12 today are easy “contemporary young adult fantasies.”

The well-intentioned idea behind the ‘just let ‘em read’ approach is that it will create adult readers with a lifelong love of books and reading.  Only there’s no evidence that’s actually happening, Stotsky notes.  “We’ve tried a literature curriculum chosen by students’ or teachers’ whims,” she concludes. “Now it’s time for that unfortunate experiment to end.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

“Opinion Is to Knowledge as Dessert Is to Vegetables”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 16th, 2012

As a society, writes Liel Leibovitz, we have “rejected the thick weave of common culture for the gossamer of individual opinions” both as readers and writers.  His essay in the online magazine Tablet offers a noisy defense of a common literary canon.  Unless we commit to being serious readers, Leibovitz argues, we might as well just stop reading at all.

“If you consider reading simply a pastime, stop reading. Watch movies: They are less demanding on your schedule, tend to have considerably more nudity, and are generally easier to bring up in conversation. Let the faculties of your mind previously dedicated to parsing text commit themselves instead to better, more needful uses, like mastering Angry Birds. Let reading go gently into the good night and take its place alongside archery and woodcarving in the pantheon of pastimes past, previously popular and currently the domain of the few and the carefully trained.

“But if you’re serious about reading—or, for that matter, about your education—see to it attentively. Revisit Homer and read your way through human history. Don’t stop until you hit Kafka. Or, better yet, don’t stop until you see the entire vista of our culture spread before you and feel yourself every bit a part of it.”

The devaluation of knowledge in schools and lack of a common canon has created a culture of “poor readers, middling writers, and unfortunate human beings,” argues Leibovitz, whose most recent book is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ideals of Divine Election, co-written with Todd Gitlin.  He is particularly scornful of the current vogue for memoirs. If you’re Winston Churchill and you won World War II and the Nobel Prize for Literature, then by all means write your memoirs. “Heck, make that two,” Leibovitz quips. “But if one’s designs on posterity involve writing an inane and intermittently amusing account of traveling somewhere banal and meeting some, like, really crazy people, one ought to take a cue from Sir Winston and first live a life truly worth writing about.”

Leibovitz acknowledges that his own opinions “might send many readers into fits of modern indignation.” Why not read for pleasure and share your points of view with a waiting world?  “The blunt answer is that points of view do not matter in the least,” he concludes.  “Points of view are to knowledge what dessert is to vegetables: You earn one only by first consuming the other.”

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

Reading and Language Growth: What It Takes

by Robert Pondiscio
March 14th, 2012

Note:  This piece also appears on the Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet.

For several years, I taught 5th grade in the lowest performing elementary school in New York City’s lowest performing school district.   Four out of five of my students scored below grade level—often far below grade level—on their state tests.  You could easily look at the test scores of my students and conclude, “these kids can’t read.”

In fact, I never had a single student who couldn’t “read.”  Put a piece of text in front of them and they could all (some with greater fluency than others certainly) verbalize the words in front of them, or “decode.”  What they couldn’t seem to do consistently and competently was to discuss or answer questions about their reading.  They “read it” but they didn’t “get it.”  They could decode, but not comprehend.

Separating decoding and comprehension is critical to any discussion of reading.  Decoding is a skill that can–and must–be taught in the early grades.  Students taught with an explicit, systematic phonics approach in the early grades should be able to master all the decoding skills they need.  Decoding is a prerequisite skill but it’s not reading.   We’re readers only when we understand the words we decode, and comprehension is not a skill, despite our persistent attempts to teach and test it like one.  “We tend to teach comprehension as a series of ‘reading strategies’ that can be practiced and mastered. Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way,” University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has written on this blog. “The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.”

This week, the Core Knowledge Foundation, where I work, announced the results of an intriguing pilot program that sees reading for the complicated, cumulative process it is.  Children in ten New York City schools learned to read with the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program, a comprehensive literacy curriculum emphasizing phonics, coherent content knowledge, and oral and written language development across a wide range of subjects.  CKLA has two distinct instructional components: a “skills” strand that teaches decoding; and a “listening and learning” strand that builds background knowledge and vocabulary, primarily through readalouds. Students in ten demographically similar control schools received more traditional reading instruction—the kind of balanced literacy, content-agnostic, comprehension skills-and-strategies approach I was trained to use with my South Bronx 5th graders.  The CKLA students showed significantly higher reading achievement from kindergarten to 2nd grade than the control group in nearly all measures.

Gratifying stuff, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The primary takeaway from the research, tailored for our 140-character age, was “new study finds nonfiction curriculum enhances reading comprehension skills.”  That’s part of the story.  Yes, there is more nonfiction in Core Knowledge than is typically taught in the early grades, but fiction and poetry are equally represented.  If there’s a secret sauce in the curriculum, it probably has as much to do with its emphasis on building background knowledge orally.

Oral language precedes written language; we learn to speak and listen long before we can read and write.  Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own. This oral language advantage persists for years. A child’s ability to take in information through reading typically doesn’t catch up to his or her ability to do so by listening until the 8th grade.  Teachers generally understand this, which is why class readalouds are a staple of elementary school classrooms.  But this oral comprehension advantage can also be used to build background knowledge in a systematic, coherent way over many years. Readalouds are more than just an opportunity for a class to enjoy a great story together.  Content-rich, nonfiction readalouds, often in narrative form, are a central feature of the CKLA program and a powerful way to build a child’s store of vocabulary and knowledge–critical components of mature reading comprehension.

This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language.  They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment.  If this gap remains unaddressed in school, then demographics becomes, if not destiny, then a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

Finally, another important issue to keep in mind is time.  The greatest casualty of the education reform era has been patience.  We expect two to three years language growth per year to catch disadvantaged children up.  The inevitable result is quick fixes that overpromise and underdeliver.  Today’s miracle becomes tomorrow’s scandal with depressing regularity.  To understand the nature of language growth and the critical role of knowledge to is to understand that there can be no quick fixes.  The only way to raise achievement and to narrow gaps is through a slow and steady investment in the vocabulary and knowledge that are the prerequisites of language growth and competence.

This patient, coherent investment in background knowledge—so critical to success yet so often missing from language arts instruction—needs to be nurtured and grown for the entirety of a child’s time in school.  It can work.  It is working.  The New York City pilot study is an encouraging first step.  We’re getting kids in the game.  With care and patience, we can keep them there.

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

An Inconvenient Truth About Teacher Quality

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2011

If teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in student outcomes, then why are math scores rising, while reading scores stay flat?  Do we just happen to have really good math teachers and really lousy reading teachers?  That can’t be: in the case of 4th grade teachers, the exact same teachers are responsible for both subjects.

Or maybe it’s not the teachers. Could it be the curriculum?

That’s the question posed by Dan Willingham and David Grismer in an op-ed in the New York Daily News this morning.  They point out intriguing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that has been hiding in plain sight:

“Reading scores over the last 20 years have been flat. But in math, scores have increased markedly. A fourth-grader at the 50th percentile in 1990 would score at about the 25th percentile compared to the kids taking the test in 2009. That’s an enormous improvement.

“This raises an uncomfortable question for teacher quality advocates: If teachers are so vitally important, why have fourth-grade math scores dramatically improved, but reading scores have flatlined, given that — at least at the elementary level — the same teachers are responsible for each?

Perhaps the secret sauce is not who’s teaching but what’s being taught.  It’s a lot easier to align standards, curriculum and assessment in math. “There is little controversy as to the subject matter to be covered, and the order in which one ought to tackle subjects is more obvious,” Willingham and Grissmer write.  “Indeed, substantial effort has been made over the last 25 years to develop coherent math standards and curricula from K-8.”

In reading? Not so much.

As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, there’s no direct correlation between the subject matter that gets taught and tested in reading.  We teach random, incoherent content that bears no relation to the passages children ultimately encounter on their reading tests.  We insist on teaching and testing the “skill” of reading comprehension when it’s clearly not a skill at all.  Willingham and Grissmer conclude:

“Yes, overall teaching quality would improve with a more sensible method to usher hapless teachers out of the profession. Better teacher training would help too. But in addition to these longer-term goals, policymakers ought to focus on ensuring that the unglamorous but vital work of curriculum design is done properly. The popular perception is that America’s teachers are largely ineffective compared to international peers. But the data show that when given a clear, cogent curriculum to work with, they’re a lot stronger than we think.”