(3) reading: knowledge vs skills

My goal is to figure out the best way to educate my son, Walker, who for most of his life now has been stuck at home with me and his mother because of the pandemic. Approaching two years old, Walker is beginning his education at a time when conventional schooling has been turned on its head. God willing, COVID-19 will be long gone by the time he’s school age. But I wonder what lies ahead for him. Will education return to normal after this? Should it?

As I noted last time, for years now the predominant method of teaching kids to read has been balanced literacy, an approach intended to settle the “war” between whole language and phonics by combining the two. Criticisms of balanced literacy begin by noting that student reading has not improved at all during its reign. One reason for this perhaps is that balanced literacy in practice places too much emphasis on “cueing” and not enough on “decoding.” That is, it teaches kids to guess at a word they don’t recognize by looking for contextual cues rather than by sounding out the word’s letters. As a result, many students struggle to recognize on the page even words they’re quite capable of using when they speak. The main promoter of balanced literacy, Lucy Calkins, has herself recently acknowledged the need for “rebalance,” and has taken measures to include more phonics instruction in her curriculum. 

But there’s another complaint against current reading instruction that says kids don’t need skills like cueing and decoding so much as foundational knowledge. They need to already know something about the topic of a text in order to comprehend it. 

Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System–and How to Fix It, started out trying to explain why high school reading levels are so poor. Her search led her all the way back to the instruction kids receive in elementary school. She discovered that they spend very little time with content-rich subjects such as science, social studies, history, or geography. Rather, in most places the curriculum focuses almost exclusively on reading and math. And where reading is concerned, the pedagogy assumes that reading skills are independent of content knowledge: If students apply certain strategies, the thinking goes—pre-reading, graphic organizers, finding the “main idea,” looking for context cues, and so forth—they’ll be able to comprehend whatever material they encounter regardless of topic. These skills, Wexler says, are “largely illusory” and teaching them results in a lot of wasted effort.

Wexler finds instead that knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. She cites a study that tested students on their understanding of a passage about baseball. The students who knew something about baseball could make sense of the reading, whereas students without much baseball knowledge didn’t fare as well. In fact, “poor” readers familiar with baseball grasped more of the passage than “good” readers with no baseball knowledge. 

Wexler argues that the way to improve student reading thus is to provide more content-based instruction right from the start—not baseball, of course, but broad, basic knowledge about the world. People need to know something about history, culture, economics, geography, civics, and so forth to make sense of the variety of texts produced for a general reader. You can’t comprehend much of a newspaper article on a local election, for instance, if you don’t understand the basics of how government works in a democracy. As Wexler reports, plenty of students come out of school not even knowing the difference between a city and a state. They can’t locate the United States on a world map. They have no idea when World War II happened or what Reconstruction was.

What’s needed, Wexler says, is a coherent, content-focused curriculum that builds sequentially as students progress through the grades. Such a focus on content will help more students become better readers. What’s more, it will help close the “achievement gap,” the huge difference in the academic performance of affluent students compared with economically insecure students. Higher income students, according to Wexler, tend to acquire at home the broad base of knowledge and sophisticated vocabulary that help them become good readers. Students from lower-income homes don’t have the same opportunities.

This “knowledge gap” gets compounded at school: the better readers are assigned more sophisticated texts, which add to their knowledge base, which advances their reading ability, and so on. Meanwhile, struggling readers are consigned to rudimentary texts that don’t contribute to their storehouse of knowledge and so don’t improve their ability to comprehend, which leads to more dumbing down, et cetera. 

By high school the difference in reading abilities between the two groups is quite pronounced and very difficult to close. And the gap is getting worse by the day, Wexler says, now that so many students are home-bound: Whatever foundational knowledge many of them did acquire came from their time at school. 

Wexler’s argument about the importance of foundational knowledge sends me down a number of pathways as I think about how best to help Walker learn to read. First, yes, I certainly buy the argument that underlying knowledge about a topic is an aid to reading comprehension, and that a broad level of general knowledge is important not just for literacy but for a person’s overall ability to function socially and civically. 

In my observation, knowledge and vocabulary build fast in a young kid in response to reading, reading, reading, and talking, talking, talking—both of which happen incessantly in our household. Thanks to what I’ve learned about the connection between knowledge and reading comprehension, I imagine going forward I’ll be more intentional about adding breadth to Walker’s storehouse of knowledge, by introducing a greater variety of materials and topics, and not holding back on vocabulary. He understands tons of words even if he can’t say them, so why limit him to “baby talk?” Just knowing who he is, what he likes, it feels very natural to keep shoveling words and explanations and stories and information into that busy little brain.

A question arises for me, though, as I think about a school curriculum aimed at “foundational knowledge”: Who gets to decide what’s foundational? How do we define the body of information a person must possess in order to be “literate?” I feel confident making decisions for my own son, but how do you do it across a nation as big and diverse as ours?

And didn’t we already go through this back in the eighties? It seems to me that the “culture wars” of old were fought precisely over the question of what counts as “foundational” and who gets to decide. E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy made essentially the same argument in 1987 that Wexler makes today: the reading ability of students in the U.S. is alarmingly poor because they aren’t taught the shared body of basic information needed for literacy in American society. 

Cultural Literacy touched off a torrent of debate: Whose culture are we talking about? Whose definition of literacy? 

Are we any more capable of settling such questions now than we were three decades ago? 

I must admit, too, that I recoil reflexively from the suggestion that poor kids have home lives deprived of basic knowledge while affluent kids bathe in it. Maybe this is an inescapable reality, but what’s the evidence? Is the achievement gap in reading really about income? Or is parents’ education the driver? Or a combination of the two? And is the home really where the problem begins, or should we look to differences in school funding? And what about race? Is the focus on income in some measure a smokescreen for racist assumptions about families and academic performance?

Finally, I suspect that our obsession with standards-based accountability testing plays a part in some of the curriculum problems Wexler identifies, such as elevating skills over content and reading and math over all other subjects. I know from my own work experience that testing too often drives curriculum, and that large-scale standardized tests are not built for assessing content knowledge. Do schools overemphasize skills simply because that’s what a standardized test can measure?

I’ll pursue these topics and others in my next few posts.