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More on the "wug study" and the courage of the educators I spoke with.
The first two episodes of the podcast I’m hosting on reading comprehension dropped on June 28th, and the reaction so far has been gratifying. The material that made it into the podcast, though, is just a fraction of what could be said about this complex topic.
Not that I’m going to go into everything that could be said about it in this post. After all, you could write a book. (In fact, I did write a book about at least some of it.) But some comments I’ve seen have gotten me thinking about a couple of things I didn’t get a chance to say on the podcast, given that we were trying to keep things brief and pithy.
(Four more episodes of the podcast are coming out, by the way, one on every Wednesday in July. And on July 5—the day Episode Three drops—I’ll be joining a “happy hour” at 8 p.m. ET with the Facebook group called “The Science of Reading, What I Should Have Learned in College.” Anyone can register for free, here.)
The Wug Study
A couple of people on Twitter have expressed interest in what I referred to in episode two of the podcast as an “ingenious study” that sheds light on the key role of knowledge in comprehension. Sometimes known as the “wug study,” it’s not as well known as the “baseball study,” which I describe at greater length in episode two. But in some ways it’s even more powerful.
The baseball study, conducted in the late 1980s, was done with seventh- and eighth-graders. The researchers wanted to know what was more important to comprehension: a supposedly general skill like “finding the main idea” of a text, or knowledge of the topic you’re reading about?
The researchers divided students into four groups, depending on how they’d scored on a standardized reading comprehension test—which purports to measure general comprehension ability using passages on a random variety of topics—and how much they knew about baseball. Then the researchers gave all the kids a passage to read describing a baseball game and tested their comprehension of that passage.
They found that the students who were baseball experts did quite well when reading about baseball. In fact, the “poor readers”—according to the test—who were also baseball experts did far better than the “good readers” who knew little or nothing about baseball.
That study and others like it demonstrate the benefits of having relevant prior knowledge of the topic of a text. The “wug study” goes a step further. It shows what happens when that helpful prior knowledge is taken away. And it sheds light on the reason for the gap in test scores between high- and low-income students.
The study, published in 2014, was conducted by a team of three researchers: Susan B. Neuman, Tanya Kaefer, and Ashley Pinkham. Their subjects were four-year-olds from families at two different levels of socioeconomic status, or SES, which is based on factors like income, type of job, and education. Some kids were from low-SES families and others from middle-SES families. The researchers described the study here, but I’ll summarize.
The study had three parts. First, the researchers assessed the children’s knowledge about birds using a series of questions. They found that the lower-SES kids knew much less about birds than the higher-SES group.
Next, they created an illustrated storybook about four types of birds, all of them named for extinct species—like the “moa.” For example, there was a picture of a funny-looking bird poking its head into a nest. “A moa builds a nest because it is a bird,” the accompanying text read. “The moa looked in his nest and found his hat.” (Years ago, I found sample pages from the storybook online, but I can’t seem to find them now. Fortunately, I made copies of the images.) When the researchers tested the children’s comprehension of that book after reading it to them aloud, they found the higher-SES group had much better comprehension.
So far, we’re basically where the baseball study left us: greater background knowledge of the topic was correlated with better comprehension—with the added factor that greater background knowledge was itself correlated with family SES.
Equalizing Background Knowledge
But then the researchers equalized background knowledge for both groups. How? By coming up with made-up animals they called wugs.
Once again they created a storybook. It was similar to the earlier one about birds, but this time all the characters were wugs. For example, there was a picture of a funny-looking creature—actually, a creature that was identical to the “moa” bird in the previous book—poking its head towards a beehive. The accompanying text read: “A moa builds a hive because it is a wug. The moa looked in his hive and found his hat.”
You might not think the change from birds to wugs would make a huge difference, but it did. This time, when neither group had background knowledge to draw on, there were—to quote the researchers’ summary—“no significant differences between SES groups in children’s word learning, comprehension, or ability to make inferences.”
True, as some may point out, that’s only one study—and I don’t know of any others that are similar. But if you ask me, it’s a pretty powerful one.
The Courage of The Educators I Spoke With
Another thing I’ve been thinking about is how grateful I am to the educators who were willing—even eager—to be interviewed for the podcast. Their descriptions of their own experiences with knowledge-building curricula are far more compelling than anything I could say myself.
And all of them were willing to say: I used to do things differently, and then I realized something was missing, and I needed to change. That’s not always easy.
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The problems with reading instruction aren’t any individual’s fault; they’re systemic. Still, if you’ve been teaching for years in the good-faith belief that you’re helping children, and someone comes along and challenges that belief, that can be painful. It’s only human to raise defenses against taking in that kind of message. And what continues to amaze me is how many educators, across the country, nevertheless have the courage and fortitude to embrace it. To me, that speaks to how much they care about their students.
Most of the interview clips in the first episode were recorded by me, with a small hand-held microphone, at events where I was speaking (and praying silently that I was operating the microphone correctly). Over the past three or four years, I’ve spoken at maybe 100 events—for school districts, state literacy conferences, meetings organized by education-related organizations, etc.—and I’ve often had illuminating conversations with educators who have approached me or have lined up to get copies of their books signed.
So, shortly before we started recording the podcast episodes, I bought a microphone and took it with me to four or five speaking engagements, hoping for more of those conversations—and hoping that people would let me record them. I wasn’t disappointed.
As you know if you’ve listened to the first episode, those educators told me some terrific stories. There are many more to come in future episodes—and they’re even more in-depth. I hope you’ll stay tuned.