• Joanne Jacobs

Once they can decode, the next step is knowledge

The mainstream media has declared a victor in the "reading wars," writes Robert Pondiscio. Both TIME and The New Yorker had stories last month on the efficacy of research-backed reading instruction instead of "balanced literacy."


Photo: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

But it's not enough for students to master foundational skills, such as phonics, he writes. To make sense of what they read, students need to build knowledge.


Pondiscio, who once worked for the Core Knowledge Foundation, was a co-founder of the Knowledge Matters Campaign, which is reminding people that reading comprehension, which requires background knowledge, is an essential part of the "science of reading."


"The most important job of public education in a diverse nation is to ensure that every child — rich or poor; Black, White, or Brown — has fair and equal access to the same body of knowledge in history, science, art, and literature," he writes.

Fashionable thought in education practice and policy has long run in the opposite direction, dwelling on socioeconomic differences between students, and nearly fetishizing personalized or culturally-affirming curricular content. . . . Our reluctance to state what kids need to know surely contributed to the dominance (and failure, mostly) of content-agnostic “comprehension strategies” instruction and “leveled” reading.

"We can't avoid choosing" which knowledge to teach, says University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham. "Incoherence . . . is bad for everyone and worst for children with limited opportunities to acquire background knowledge outside of school.”


"The explanation for education disparities isn’t access to effective teachers or the level of school funding," writes Natalie Wexler. The U.S. "spends more per pupil than many other countries where students do better on international tests."


All students need access to "academic knowledge and vocabulary" to build reading comprehension, she writes. If parents can't provide that at home, children need to get it at school. But most elementary schools don't spend much time on knowledge-building subjects such as history, geography, science, and the arts. Instead, "elementary schools spend the bulk of the day having students practice illusory reading comprehension 'skills' on easy-to-read books about random topics."

An increasing number of schools are switching to a fundamentally different kind of elementary curriculum, one that systematically build kids’ academic knowledge beginning in the early elementary years . . . At higher grade levels, schools are beginning to use explicit, carefully sequenced writing instruction to identify and compensate for gaps in knowledge that prevent students from learning what the curriculum expects. But these approaches are still far from being the norm.

"Yes, we need effective teachers—but the best way to enable teachers to be effective is to provide them with a knowledge-building curriculum and the training to implement it well," concludes Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap. "Yes, we need fair and adequate school funding — but unless we know how to spend it wisely, it won’t make much difference (and a good curriculum costs no more than a bad one)."


In U.S. News, Holly Korbey has advice for parents on how to spot whether their child's school is using a research-based reading program or "balanced literacy." Beware, she writes, of "Tryin' Lion."


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