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Occasionally we write about what we’re currently reading, watching or listening to — not at the level of a full review, but simply to point out arguments, perspectives and issues worth considering. This is one of those articles.
The severe problems in the American public schools are plain for anyone to see. It’s telling that instead of aspiring to achieve outcomes that would equip students to thrive — such as building children’s knowledge, developing their capacity to think, instilling a love of reading and a passion for learning — the schools measure themselves by their ability to meet depressingly low prevailing expectations. And even then, they fail to reach bare minimum standards such as scores on the federal government’s reading evaluations: The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that less than 40 percent of students are “proficient” readers. Why have the schools failed so monumentally even at the basics? Where did things go wrong?
In her 2019 book The Knowledge Gap, education writer Natalie Wexler sheds light on the shocking degree to which American elementary schools have abandoned teaching knowledge of the world and makes the case that this trend, on top of being a problem in itself, is a major contributor to the ongoing reading catastrophe. Although Wexler is deeply frustrated by what she observes, I find her own evaluation of these events as the result of understandable mistakes overly charitable. Judging by what the book describes, the anti-knowledge trend should be regarded as a moral crime against generations of students.
The skill we often think of as “reading,” Wexler says, consists of distinct elements: decoding and comprehension. Decoding is the ability to translate letters into words. To be able to decode, a child has to learn that certain symbols on a piece of paper correspond to sounds, which can be put together to form words. Systematic phonics explicitly teaches children this ability.
Wexler agrees with many critics that the failure to use systematic phonics and the enduring popularity of “whole language” methods (including by advocates of “balanced literacy” who rely heavily on these techniques) is a major cause of the schools’ failure to teach reading. But, in her view, the dearth of content in most curricula — basic knowledge students need for life — is another factor holding students back from becoming successful readers.
Those responsible for emptying the curricula of information treat “reading comprehension” as a skill that has nothing to do with content, but it’s plain that the ability to actually understand a text is crucially aided by a base of knowledge. Consider the following description of a baseball game, taken from a 1987 study that Wexler cites: “Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.”
If you are a baseball fan, you probably found that passage easy to understand. But if you know little about baseball, you probably struggled to make sense of it. What is a “shortstop?” What does it mean for Haley to “throw to first”? A reader lacking that knowledge can try to fill in the gaps on the fly (for instance, by looking up unfamiliar words), but this makes reading slow and frustrating at best.1
This kind of problem confronts most educated adults only occasionally, but because children know very little about the world, a great many texts put them in the position of the non-baseball fan reading the above passage. This is even true of many texts that are written for children and geared to their age, and which often rely for comprehensibility on the child possessing a body of prior knowledge that most children do not actually receive. To illustrate this, Wexler takes a passage from a third-grade standardized test about the lifestyle of the Inuit people and obscures the words that are unlikely to be familiar to a third grader who has not studied the Inuit or the Arctic. What is left is virtually indecipherable.'If we want children to benefit from the ability to read well… we need to teach them a lot of knowledge so that they can become not just “proficient” readers, but excellent ones.' Click To Tweet
So, it should be evident and uncontroversial, but it needs to be underlined: If we want children to benefit from the ability to read well, to be able to follow the paths that a command of written language opens, to have access to the vast store of human knowledge, to experience the immense pleasures of great literature, we need to teach them a lot of knowledge so that they can become not just “proficient” readers, but excellent ones.
But much of the time students spend on reading instruction, especially as students get older, is dedicated to what (in my view) seems all but designed to extinguish rather than kindle a love of reading.
This is the idea of “reading comprehension” as a skill severed from content. In Wexler’s account, schools seek to achieve this goal not by giving children knowledge, but by teaching a set of reading comprehension “skills.” These “skills” are presented as techniques for making sense of a difficult text and go by such names as “drawing inferences” or “finding the main idea.” The supposition behind this approach is that the real reason children struggle to make sense of some texts is because they don’t yet know the techniques that skilled readers use, and thus should learn these skills in explicit terms and practice them regularly.
For example, Wexler describes a lesson she witnessed in a first-grade classroom in which the teacher sought to teach the students how to identify captions. The teacher, with increasing frustration and little success, repeatedly urges her six- and seven-year-old audience to recall the definition of a caption, then asks them to find captions in books. The problem is that the children are far more interested in learning about the sea creatures and planets shown in the images. One might ask whether the children are onto something, but the prevailing view insists that the teacher must ignore or resist her students’ desire for knowledge so that they can focus on captions.
In a second-grade classroom at a different school, Wexler observed a lesson on “figuring out topic.” To show them how to do this, the teacher shows the children a book and, instead of reading it, races through the text, skimming over much of the content and “mumbling” unfamiliar place names like “Chincoteague” and “Assateague.” While “reading,” she emphasizes the words “wild ponies” whenever they occur, supposedly to show the children how to recognize “wild ponies” as the topic. Allegedly, this lesson has prepared them to better understand books by finding the topic.
Wexler argues that this skills-based instruction is deeply flawed. Practicing these skills simply cannot make up for a lack of knowledge when it comes to reading any challenging work. Lacking any background knowledge of the subject, a child will obviously struggle to comprehend a book about ancient Greece that relies on prior knowledge of basic historical facts no matter how well he has learned to figure out from a caption that one picture shows “The Parthenon” and from word frequency that the topic is “ancient Greece.”
I think this is worse than flawed: It makes no sense to think of “reading comprehension” as a set of skills that can be divorced from content. A disturbing aspect of the examples Wexler cites is that the teachers seem to have been trained to regard the issue of whether a book is about horses or outer space or anything else as irrelevant; all that matters is whether it serves as a suitable arena for practicing the week’s “skill.” This approach divorces the act of reading not only from the content one actually thinks about when reading, but from the value of reading — which is also what motivates children to read. The first graders Wexler observed didn’t want to read in order to have practiced the skills of reading comprehension. They wanted to read in order to learn about sharks and space—and rightly so! What could be more unhelpful and demotivating than being told to disregard the meaning of the book and focus on the mechanics of a “reading skill”?
Severing “comprehension” from content exacerbates the struggle for students in another way, because it diminishes the importance of matching a book to a student’s age and development. If a teacher regards the content of a book as largely irrelevant, then she will likely end up asking children to read books that rely on knowledge that they do not have. As a result, the children will struggle to make sense of what they’re reading and will have to resort to guesswork. On the other hand, a teacher who recognizes the importance of knowledge can choose books that are appropriate to their students’ present body of knowledge, which the students will consequently be able to understand. This makes possible the important value of learning new things by reading. Children can gain knowledge from books when the book connects facts that are new to them to facts that they already know, building new knowledge on existing knowledge. It’s so much harder to learn by reading a book that assumes a body of knowledge you don’t have.'Children can gain knowledge from books when the book connects facts that are new to them to facts that they already know… It’s so much harder to learn by reading a book that assumes a body of knowledge you don’t have.' Click To Tweet
In reality, while children do need to learn the skill of decoding the letters of written languages into the familiar words of spoken language (phonics), they do not need extensive training in a battery of new “skills” in order to then comprehend those words, any more than they need such training to understand spoken language. If children are capable of decoding written language and have the requisite knowledge to make sense of a particular text, comprehension will follow quite naturally for them. If they lack that knowledge, they will struggle to make sense of the text regardless of what “skills” they’ve learned.
Wexler describes an educational system that has made the irrational and disastrous choice of tossing aside the irreplaceable value of knowledge in a doomed effort at isolated “skills” instruction. Children in such a system face a nightmarish situation. They want to be able to read and understand what they are reading. They know that this is an extremely valuable ability to acquire for life. It is their gateway to knowledge and success. But the American school system has abdicated the responsibility of teaching them how to read.
The consequences for children’s lives are tragically predictable.