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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

The great reading rethink: What does it mean?

Once students have learned phonics, what's next? Reading comprehension relies on a blend of decoding, vocabulary and general knowledge, writes Daniel Buck, a teacher turned Fordham fellow, in a Think Again policy brief.

Leveled readers

But many schools use the outdated "workshop" model, he writes. The teacher introduces a skill, such as making inferences or predicting what comes next. Then students choose a book from the bin labeled with their "level" and practice the skill on their own.

That leaves little time for knowledge building.

Teaching some comprehension skills can be helpful, Buck writes, but only in moderation. "We must consider the opportunity cost of skills-based instruction."

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has likened reading strategies to academic habits such as learning to “check your work” in math class. There’s not much to it once you’ve instilled the habit, so we shouldn’t expect increasing the dosage to lead to greater returns.

"American elementary students spend more time in English language arts than in any other subject — about twice as much as they spend on math, up to four times as much time as they spend on social studies or science, and upwards of 40 percent of their total class time," Buck writes. Yet, "much of the typical literacy block is spent reading independently."

Since 1980, eleven separate meta-analyses have found little or no benefit to silent reading in class, he writes. (I remember reading this decades ago.) Other activities wold have a higher payoff for students.

"Leveled" readers are very popular. In theory, children are reading at the "just right" level. But the research base for their effectiveness is very weak, Buck writes.

"Many states now require districts to adopt K–3 curricula that align with the science of reading, but too often these requirements focus exclusively on phonics while neglecting content knowledge," he concludes.

Teaching knowledge-rich curricula, explicitly and systematically, would build reading comprehension, especially for the children of less-educated parents.

Buck suggests embedding content in reading tests: "Second-grade tests could include passages about ancient civilizations." Louisiana is piloting this idea.

Teacher education programs should focus on decoding and vocabulary and knowledge to prepare teachers to teach reading effectively, he concludes. It's time for a "rethink."

On Minding the Gap, Natalie Wexler suggests ways for teachers to integrate skills and knowledge teaching: Students learning about Greek civilization could "compare and contrast" Athens and Sparta, for example.

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Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Malcolm Kirkpatrick
May 24

As ever, "What works?" is an empirical question, to which an experiment will deliver more valid and reliable information that will Divine (bureaucratic) Inspiration. In public policy, "experiment" means competitive markets in goods and services and/or federalism (many local policy regimes.

Markets and federalism institutionalize humility on the part of State (i.e., government, generally) actors. America needs a competitive market in education services.


May 22

Reading about stuff? What a novel idea!


May 22
May 26
Replying to

I'm in the process of re-reading The Schools We Need (and why we don't have them) by Hirsch. I read it every few years, just to remind myself that there is a better way while going to school and being told by the curriculum director that "what we are doing isn't working and here's the "better" way that we're going to do next". What is the "better way"? It's always slightly more progressive, slightly more "inclusive", slightly less rigorous, but, I'm told, it will reach the underserved populations better. Why don't I rebel and start my own school? Energy, enthusiasm, resources, family roots, comfort mostly. I just try to do the best I can in my classroom for the st…

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