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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

We’re teaching reading wrong

We’re teaching reading wrong, writes Natalie Wexler in The Atlantic. U.S. schools spend a lot of time on reading skills in the early grades, very little teaching history, science or the arts. If students struggle with comprehension, “history and science may continue to be relegated to the far back burner through middle school.”

Reading proficiency hasn’t improved in 20 years on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), writes Wexler. The latest results showed gains for high achievers in eighth grade; low achievers are doing even worse.

A panel of experts convened by NAEP blames the focus on teaching skills, year after year, without teaching the background knowledge and vocabulary students need to build comprehension, reports Wexler.

Literacy experts Timothy Shanahan and Marilyn Jager Adams also called for giving students grade-level reading with help to make sense of it. “Giving children easier texts when they’re weaker readers serves to deny them the very language and information they need to catch up and move on,” said Adams.

Wexler concludes:

The failure to build children’s knowledge in elementary school helps explain the gap between the reading scores of students from wealthier families and those of their lower-income peers—a gap that has been expanding. . . . wealthy children are far more likely to acquire knowledge outside of school. Poorer kids with less-educated parents tend to rely on school to acquire the kind of knowledge that is needed to succeed academically — and because their schools often focus exclusively on reading and math, in an effort to raise low test scores, they’re less likely to acquire it there.

In countries with a national curriculum, children are tested on what they’ve learned in school, writes Wexler. In the U.S., students are asked to read passages on topics they’ve never studied, “life in the Arctic, for example, or the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.” A student who happens to know about the Arctic has a big edge.

The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next: for example, Native Americans and Columbus in kindergarten; the colonial era and the American Revolution in first grade; the War of 1812 and the Civil War in second grade, and so on.

Louisiana is experimenting with a reading test linked to curriculum in five districts and charter networks, writes Robert Pondiscio.

“Reading tests have contributed to the false impression that reading is mainly about having skills such as being able to summarize, and not about background knowledge,” said Louisiana Superintendent John White. “By not requiring knowledge, tests create no incentive for particular knowledge to be taught.”

Teachers also ignore the importance of background knowledge in Canada, Writes Michael Zwaagstra in the Vancouver Sun. Color coding books by reading level is a mistake, he writes. “Students who know a lot about a particular topic can read almost any book about it, no matter its assigned reading level. Conversely, students who know little about a topic will struggle with books at even the simplest reading levels.”

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