If we want all kids to become fully literate, we need to get more specific about "knowledge."
Thank you for putting words and research to a problem I’ve been seeing for a few years now. It wasn’t until I became a 3rd grade public school teacher in Washington State in 2019 that I realized the extent to which knowledge has gone out the window in favor of skills, to the detriment of both. Simply put, the shift away from knowledge building in ELA and, by extension, social studies and science curricula (if you could still call them that) is one of the biggest losses in US education of the last 20+ years. Having had a great, even life changing, experience as a child at a rural elementary school that used the core knowledge curriculum, I was dismayed at how little I was now being provided to teach my students in terms of coherent and substantial knowledge/content.
I completed 3rd grade having attained a basic understanding of the histories of ancient Rome, the Vikings, Native Americans, exploration of the Americas by Europeans, and pre-Revolution colonial North America. By 4th grade I had added over twice as many subject areas in history along with a handful of literary texts including Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, Treasure Island, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I was never taught reading comprehension. I was given content. And I grew to love knowledge because of it. (Note, I looked up the current core knowledge curriculum to make sure I included the full list, and was pleased to see that the list of content remains mostly intact from my childhood, but with updated editions. Before doing the research I couldn’t tell you from the top of my head every subject area and book I studied in 3rd through 6th grade or which year I studied them in, but I could list ~60% of it.)
When you compare what I experienced as an upper elementary school student to what I was expected to teach my 3rd graders, there is not so much a gap as a chasm between the two approaches. What reading we did in social studies, science, or pure literature was cursory and scattered. We jumped from topic to topic without giving the opportunity for students to sink their teeth into a meaningful chunk of knowledge. And here’s what stands out to me the most: I could see that my students were craving something more. They wanted to dive in and learn something deeply. They would try to follow along with what we were learning in ELA, and naturally their minds latched onto the knowledge we covered (“we learned about planes yesterday!”) rather than the skill I was trying to instruct them in (they were supposed to be learning to identify the main idea). And instead of continuing to learn about airplanes, we would jump to a new topic, a new text, a new source. When we did cover a consistent topic (we had a whole unit on frogs) there was a huge lack in coherence and relatability. I spent 2-3 months in 3rd grade learning the entire history of the Roman empire. My students spent the same amount of time on frogs. I should add that my classrooms featured 11 different spoken languages with students representing over 15 different countries or cultural backgrounds. I had them for 7 hours a day, and felt like we wasted most of it. I have a feeling they felt similarly, and I wonder how a content rich curriculum may have changed that.
Sadly I am no longer a teacher, and while I was dismayed over the lack of content in my curriculum at the time, I was as yet unaware that there were many others like Natalie who recognized this problem and were talking about how to solve it. Core knowledge, for example, is still around and seems to be gaining momentum in some regions and districts. I hope that our schools can make this shift. I have a toddler now and another kid on the way. My friends with older children are increasingly choosing to homeschool their children. Some of it’s political (those who choose to homeschool or mostly conservative and we live in the Seattle area), but they’re also concerned about the lack of content in schools in general. Their children are bored. My students were bored. This really isn’t a political issue. We need to bring back the focus on knowledge, or all students will (continue to) suffer.
Both as a Brit of a certain age, and as an academic historian, and one unusually familiar with US education at every level, I get very frustrated with the very slow conversation happening around K12 public ed. When parents of all economic levels increasingly vote with their feet and flee the system, those of us who are educated and concerned are reduced to expressing surprise at truisms, or, as i might better express it, the bleeding obvious.
Of course kids need plenty of general knowledge to understand what they're reading. I doubt this helps, Natalie, but I feel a bit like we need Tom Paine to explain, and that's a reference most Americans should get, but thanks to mediocre history education, may not.
What exactly constitutes this "general knowledge"? For reading and mathematics in K-12 education there's the Common Core standards that specify precisely the required skills and knowledge. For AP exams the College Board publishes detailed specifications. Is there some sort of more-or-less canonical set of standards for "general knowledge" that is broadly accepted within the Science of Reading community?
The other elephant on the room here is assessment- high-stakes standardized tests in particular. Even though my district adopted a knowledge-building curriculum (ARC) for some schools, they do not understand the qualitative shift in instructional and assessment practices required for successful implementation. ARC contains in-depth, engaging science and social studies content that builds on itself year-to-year, but the district curriculum maps for English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science are not aligned to each other by calendar or grade level. The district-level C&I leadership still operate out of their own silos. District and state testing is still framed around CCSS knowledge and skills that are not aligned to ARC or to specific content taught in each grade. Furthermore, there is an expectation that effective teachers are laser-focused on data-driven instruction and intervention, yet all the data (standardized tests and MTSS data from online assessments such as iReady) are based on discreet CCSS skills and strategies.
I think that reading is a complicated process, so it's amazing when some people learn how quickly!
WORD ANALYSIS is an area that is crucial -- and it is more advanced than phonics. It focuses on root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Readers also learn how to use syllables, and to recognize words with multiple meanings or multiple spellings.
Sometimes we directly blend the sounds in words: catch, trees, land, with, sprint
** Sometimes we combine word parts: faster, nation, happiness, preamble, concentrate, computer
** Sometimes we differentiate words using context: mind/mind, fast/fast, pair/pear
Sometimes we learn by seeing them many times: of, know, caught, both, would, only, here.