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.