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.

7 education myths

Seven Myths about Education, a “short, pungent e-book” by British schoolteacher Daisy Christodoulou, is a 
must-read
, writes E.D. Hirsch, Jr. on Core Knowledge Blog. Both the British and American educational systems “are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas — brilliantly deconstructed in this book,” writes Hirsch.

The seven myths — not unions, low teacher quality or government dictates — are the real problem, Christodoulou argues.

. . . potentially effective teachers have been made ineffective because they are dutifully following the ideas instilled in them by their training institutes. These colleges of education have not only perpetuated wrong ideas about skills and knowledge, but in their scorn for “mere facts” have also deprived these potentially good teachers of the knowledge they need to be effective teachers of subject matter.

After training as a teacher, teaching for three years, attending numerous in-service training days and following educational policy closely, Christodoulou had no idea she “could be using hugely more effective methods” than those she’d been taught. “I would spend entire lessons quietly observing my pupils chatting away in groups about complete misconceptions and I would think that the problem in the lesson was that I had been too prescriptive,” she writes.

Her seven myths:

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

No Child Left Behind failed because “American educators, dutifully following the seven myths, regard reading as a skill that could be employed without relevant knowledge,” writes Hirsch. They wasted time on “strategies” for test taking.

Hirsch fears Common Core State Standards, which he supports, will fail too if teachers are “compelled to engage in the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like ‘text complexity’ and ‘reading strategies’.”