Beyond decoding, kids need content

A high-poverty Baltimore school raised third-grade reading scores dramatically, writes Education Trust’s Karin Chenoweth in The Importance of Teaching Content. She wonder what had worked — and why fifth-grade scores weren’t going up too.

Dedicated teachers had worked hard to teach kids “the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently.”

A student “read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression,” she recalls. But the assistant principal said the school wasn’t teaching students anything about China.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding — which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren’t teaching kids an awful lot of content — that is, history, science, literature, and the arts — the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests — not because they can’t decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they’ve decoded them. And they can’t understand them because the words haven’t been taught.

Children with educated parents come to school with background knowledge and rich vocabularies, she writes. Others need to be taught so they can understand the world around them — not just to pass fifth-grade reading tests. 

In Seven Myths of Education, teacher Daisy Christodoulou describes her struggles to teach in a high-poverty school in England. She’d been trained to set up discussions and group projects and encourage problem solving — but not to teach content systematically.

Then she discovered cognitive science research “demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems,” writes Chenoweth.

Christodoulou’s seven myths are:

– Facts prevent understanding
– Teacher-led instruction is passive
– The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
– You can always just look it up
-We should teach transferable skills
– Projects and activities are the best way to learn
– Teaching knowledge is indoctrination.

E.D. Hirsch calls the book a “game changer.”

Here’s a review and an interview with Christodoulou.

About Joanne


  1. If you read the article you’ll see that the author asked the principal what the students learn about China…the principal tells her that they do not teach anything about China because kids pick up this kind of stuff from TV. I’m feeling quite sad not just because it is such an awful thing for a principal to think, but that there is nothing surprising about her believing it.

    This will be the last time I click on a link and let it load when it connects to Huffington Post due to the amount of porn advertised along the side of the article. Assuming its the same for everyone unless you have better filters than I than you may not want to go to this link if you’ve got kids nearby.

    • palisadesk says:

      “This will be the last time I click on a link and let it load when it connects to Huffington Post due to the amount of porn advertised along the side of the article. Assuming its the same for everyone unless you have better filters than I ”

      The advertising you see is not determined by the site you visit, nor by “filters” — it is determined by tracking cookies on your computer which use sophisticated algorithms to target advertising your way. If you are seeing porn ads come up, someone using your computer has visited sites that suggest to advertisers tracking you that there is a market chez vous. Google “internet tracking” or “web tracking cookies” for further info. Meanwhile, you can block most, or all, of these tracking devices by add-ons to your browser (Chrome, Firefox, etc.) and/or by using tracking blocking software. Two effective free ones are and

      After I installed blocking software I was amazed how many tracking companies had been tracking me — hundreds! I have disabled almost all of them, with the result that the ad that appeared when I clicked the HuffPo link was for Crayola crayons. No porn. I have not disabled all the tracking devices for particular interests (school products and herpetology).

    • Cranberry says:

      You might want to clear the cookies on your computer. If HuffPost uses Ads influenced by your browsing habits, someone in your household might be visiting inappropriate sites.

      Or if it’s a computer at work, you might be receiving insight into your coworkers’ internet habits (assuming they share an internet router with you.)

  2. greeneyeshade says:

    I’ll never forget the way Judith “Miss Manners” Martin (whose politics I don’t know or, though I think I can guess, much care about) put it in a nutshell: “Facts are a necessary framework for supporting thought.”

  3. I think that it was on this website that I read about the tree octopus internet hoax. It sounded good on the surface, but anyone with background knowledge could tell it was fake. “It’s primary predator is the sasquatch” was a dead giveaway.