Teaching Reading in the United States, Reconsidered

Note: In a session at Impact Florida’s 2019 Summit, Dr. David Steiner talked about the importance of building knowledge in the teaching of literacy. Below, he expands on his thoughts about what is needed to improve student success in reading.

Policymakers in the United States often focus on the achievement gap in reading competencies between more advantaged and more disadvantaged students. But what causes the gap? I maintain that, especially for middle and high school students, the achievement gap is largely a knowledge gap – students can’t successfully comprehend a text if they have no relevant background knowledge about its subject matter.

Teaching so-called skills such as “find the main idea” to such children becomes more and more counter-productive with every passing year of school; the pursuit of disaggregated skills takes valuable time away from building the knowledge base that alone enables meaningful understanding of new texts.

In my presentation to Impact Florida, I cited one very powerful demonstration of this point – namely, what happened in France in the 1990s. With the passage of the Loi Jospin in 1989, France moved away from its historically content-rich, national curriculum, toward a new situation in which teachers would be free to focus on skills and “learning how to learn.” During the next decade, children from every economic background saw their reading skills decline. But the declines were greatest among children who were the least well-off. The pedagogical move from content to “skills” meant that low-income children were aggressively, if unintentionally, punished for being poor.

France’s recent move toward skills is strikingly similar to current instructional norms in the United States – and with similar achievement gaps. What if we could work in reverse, by implementing a content-rich English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum? What if we abandoned curricula that consist merely of vocabulary words to be spelled and decontextualized passages to be deciphered? What if we came to believe that rigorous, high-quality content is for every child, not just the children of the wealthy?

To get there, we would have to overcome our fear that such material is simply too difficult for the less privileged child. When faced with those whose reading is below grade level, we would need not only to meet those children where they are, but to accelerate their learning with intellectual scaffolds rather than to dumb the content down.

This requires more than just adopting a “standards-aligned” curriculum that is “greenlighted” by EdReports. We have plenty of evidence from RAND and our own Johns Hopkins Institute research that, even when given a high-quality curriculum, many teachers continue to draw instructional materials from multiple internet sources. Teachers spend many hours each week mixing these materials together with the district-approved curriculum – an extraordinarily difficult task for which we offer zero preparation in schools of education or in professional learning. Finally, in many cases, they water down the more rigorous elements of the higher-quality curricula, thus undermining the impact that such curricula could have in the classroom.

We need a fundamental mind-shift: Teachers should regard a content-rich curriculum as their floor – as their basic tool set. They should expect, and states and districts should generate, usable professional learning on how to scaffold those materials for students who are below grade level. Then, as teachers gain years of experience with the new materials, they can gradually and judiciously adapt the materials, as is called for by student differences in their classrooms.

A great actress such as Meryl Streep doesn’t expect to write her own script; she wants the best possible script so that her acting skills can be exercised to the fullest effect. We must work together with schools of education, professional associations, districts, and publishers to make the same mind-set axiomatic for K-12 teachers.

There is a second aspect to this shift. Just because texts are high-quality and full of important knowledge about the human condition or our world, it doesn’t necessarily mean that teaching those texts in the traditional way will enable students to benefit from that knowledge. Our ELA Common Core Standards include much that is extremely valuable, especially in the early grades. But the architect of those standards, David Coleman, has pressed upon us the view that the best reader is “a detective.” This understanding of reading – embedded now into so many professional development sessions on “standards-aligned instruction” – makes every text a crime scene, a puzzle to be solved.

But what is the “solution” to, say, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? Teaching rich content is about helping students open up the complex terrain of excellent writing, not simply boiling it down to bullet points. Children love stories, and older children deserve to wrestle with the rich questions, ambiguities, imaginative risks, and provocative invitations to thought that, with strong teaching, the best texts make vibrant and engrossing.

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