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The Science of Reading Isn't Just "Phonics," But What Else Is It?
If we want all kids to become fully literate, we need to get more specific about "knowledge."
Journalists are increasingly recognizing that the “science of reading” extends beyond phonics to include building the knowledge that enables comprehension. But they need to get more specific about what that looks like.
Media coverage of the reading crisis has focused on problems with instruction in phonics, as have many literacy advocacy organizations. That has led to a raft of state-level reform efforts that have tried to address those problems without also addressing equally serious flaws in the typical approach to reading comprehension.
What are those flaws? Throughout elementary and sometimes middle school, teachers have students practice comprehension “skills,” like finding the main idea of a text, on random topics deemed to be at their individual reading levels, which could be well below their grade level. The idea isn’t for students to gain any particular knowledge but rather to master the skills.
But cognitive scientists have long known that knowledge of the topic—or academic knowledge and vocabulary in general—are far more important to comprehension than supposedly abstract skills. And yet subjects that could build that knowledge, like social studies and science, have been marginalized or eliminated from the curriculum to make more time for comprehension skills practice. That leaves many students ill-equipped to understand the texts they’re expected to read at higher grade levels—even if they get good phonics instruction, which is also crucial.
That aspect of the reading crisis has gone largely unreported. But this year—and especially in the last few months—there’s evidence that the situation is beginning to change.
At Ed Week, the preeminent news outlet covering education, reporter Sarah Schwartz wrote a story in January titled “What Is Background Knowledge, and How Does It Fit Into the Science of Reading?”
More recently, Schwartz provided an admirably complete—or at least admirably aspirational—description of the science of reading movement: it “endorses a systematic, explicit approach to teaching students letters and sounds, coupled with efforts to give all kids a broad base of content knowledge critical for comprehending what they read.” (Emphasis added.)
Just last week, the Boston Globe ran a story on reading instruction in Massachusetts—co-authored by Mandy McLaren, who did excellent reporting on reading instruction at the Louisville Courier Journal—that described the science of reading as “an approach which teaches kids to sound out words phonetically rather than guess, and helps them build a store of knowledge about the world early on, instead of skipping from topic to topic.” (My emphasis again.)
Other pieces that have expanded the lens beyond problems with phonics instruction include one by Karen D’Souza for Ed Source (“California’s literacy crisis: There’s more to the science of reading than phonics”) and Matt Barnum for Chalkbeat (“The science that’s missing from science of reading laws”), both of which came out in August.
The Ed Source piece is particularly notable, since last year the same outlet described a curriculum called Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) as having been “praised by advocates of ‘science of reading’ for its attention to phonics and other foundational skills.” While CKLA does cover foundational skills in K-2, what makes it truly unusual is its ability to build students’ knowledge and vocabulary.
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The more expansive media coverage may be both reflecting and furthering broader discussions in the science-of-reading movement itself. Through the grapevine I heard that at a recent conference of an organization called The Reading League—which has previously focused primarily on foundational reading skills like phonics—many of the presentations were about “knowledge.”
As someone who has been writing and speaking for years about the need to build kids’ knowledge to enable their reading comprehension, this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been hoping for.
So why do I feel uneasy? I’ll tell you.
Much of the commentary is vague, both about what exactly the problem is and what needs to be done to address it. For example, a recent piece in The Grade by Emily Hanford, who deserves enormous credit for bringing to light flaws in phonics instruction, urged journalists writing about the reading crisis not to “reduce the story to phonics.” That’s good advice. But Hanford didn’t specify what else the story should be about.
A recent op-ed by a couple of academics in the Washington Post was more specific—but still not specific enough. It made the point that knowledge is important to comprehension, and implied that schools aren’t doing enough to build it. But the reason, the authors said, is that schools are “preoccupied” with phonics.
I’m dubious. Yes, schools may be spending more time on phonics than they used to, at least in some parts of the country, but most are still spending lots of time trying to teach reading comprehension. They’re just doing it in a way that overlooks the need to build knowledge.
As for what schools should do to build knowledge, the authors of the op-ed made it sound like it would be enough for students to have lots of “probing conversations” about books. That’s important, but it’s not sufficient.
Even the more detailed coverage doesn’t describe what schools are currently doing to try to teach comprehension, and why that conflicts with scientific evidence. Much of the coverage implies that many children aren’t acquiring enough knowledge to fuel reading comprehension, but it’s not always clear why that’s the case.
A recent story in the Baltimore Banner mentions in passing that the city’s schools are now teaching phonics systematically, “along with a curriculum that will teach comprehension, vocabulary and knowledge of the world.” But the rest of the piece focuses entirely on phonics without delving any deeper into that curriculum, called Wit & Wisdom, and how it might differ from the district’s previous approach to comprehension.
A couple of pieces—those in Ed Source and the Globe—mention that it’s problematic to limit students to books at their individual reading levels. The Globe article, for example, notes that “low-quality” curricula have teachers divide students into “skill-level groups,” often based on unreliable tests. The result, the authors point out, is that the weakest readers are limited to the simplest texts, which deprives them of the opportunity to acquire the sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary they need to move up.
But aside from the Globe’s reference, quoted above, to “skipping from topic to topic,” none of the stories explains that the standard approach also prioritizes comprehension skills over knowledge. Nor, for the most part, do they explain why that approach conflicts with evidence that building knowledge requires digging deeply into one topic over a period of weeks.
Some of the articles make it sound like the way to build knowledge is just to expose kids to more nonfiction—or fiction. In the Washington Post op-ed, when the authors suggest children should have “lively discussions” about books, the examples they give are The Cat in the Hat and Hansel and Gretel. Although there’s nothing wrong with those books, they’re unlikely to build knowledge as effectively as more complex texts that cover historical and scientific topics in engaging ways.
Reading about random nonfiction topics—and combining that with a primary focus on comprehension skills—isn’t enough to build knowledge either. But the Chalkbeat article quotes a district administrator who seems to be advocating that. “They have to read about something,” the administrator says. “You might as well read about something in science–sound or how plants grow–or social studies–the area, the people, the Constitution.”
The articles don’t show us what knowledge-building looks like in the classroom. To the extent that they include classroom scenes, these pieces focus on children learning to sound out words. That’s nice, but as I’ve heard from many teachers and seen for myself, kids can get very excited about acquiring knowledge, too. Why not show some scenes of what that looks like? Or what it sounds like to hear kids using sophisticated vocabulary they’ve gained about a topic like the human digestive system or fossils?
Only one piece—the one in Ed Source—mentions the importance of having teachers read aloud to kids, and then only in passing, as a way to help “if a text is too complicated for some children to parse on their own.” That implies that teachers might just want to use the technique occasionally. But evidence suggests that the most effective way to build knowledge of a new topic, before students are fluent readers, is by having a teacher read a complex text aloud and lead students in discussing it. Once they’ve acquired background knowledge of the topic that way, they’re likely to be able to read about it themselves at a higher level.
Few of these pieces mention that the most effective way to build knowledge is through a coherent, content-focused curriculum. It’s important for teachers to know about the science of reading, but it’s not enough. They need a curriculum grounded in that science to enable them to translate their knowledge into effective teaching.
The Ed Week piece published in January and the recent Globe piece discuss curriculum more than others. But the Ed Week piece raises doubts about knowledge-building curricula, including language that could be read to suggest that some are just “focused on acquiring facts” rather than providing opportunities to learn deeply about concepts.
That’s not the case. And while none of the knowledge-building curricula are perfect, we have ample evidence—in the form of stagnant and declining test scores—that the current focus on comprehension skills isn’t moving the needle. So why not use that evidence to cast doubt on the standard approach?
The Globe piece focuses the most on literacy curricula, distinguishing between “high” and “low” quality ones. The reporters did a major public service by surveying the state’s school systems to see what materials they were using—something many states, including Massachusetts, don’t do themselves. They found that, as of last year, nearly half were using curricula the state defined as “low quality.”
That may sound like bad news, but the actual news is even worse. That’s because the state’s definition of quality is based on ratings by an organization called EdReports, and their assessments have become increasingly unreliable. Another organization called the Knowledge Matters Campaign has identified eight effective knowledge-building curricula, and many of those given high marks by EdReports don’t appear on its list. (Note: I serve on the board of the Knowledge Matters Campaign’s parent organization.)
For example, in looking over the list compiled by the Globe, I found a Massachusetts district that I have visited twice to speak with teachers and administrators about the importance of an effective knowledge-building curriculum. I was dismayed to find that the district was using a curriculum called Into Reading, which got a seal of approval from EdReports but which I and others have found to be sadly lacking in the area of knowledge-building.
I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon. Why can’t I just be happy that more people are talking about the importance of knowledge?
The answer is that it really matters what they’re saying about knowledge. The risk is that without specific, accurate information, educators will use approaches or curricula that they believe are building knowledge but actually don’t work—just as they’ve been using approaches to teaching phonics that don’t work.
And that could lead to students reaching higher grade levels without the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand complex, grade-level text. At that point, educators could just abandon the whole idea of building knowledge.
That would be heart-breaking. As Texas school district leader Dr. LaTonya Goffney told me when I interviewed her for a recent podcast series, “I just know ... that this is the right direction for the country. And I know that we've gotten it wrong so much that we’ve really got to get it right. ... Because people will say oh, I tried it, it didn't work.”
We all have a responsibility to communicate what’s wrong in a way that enables educators to “get it right.”
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a somewhat different form.