Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Content, Richness, and Reading (a month late, but still delicious)

I've been wanting to write a good long post about E.D. Hirsch's American Educator feature on the importance of teaching content in the early years. At about the same time that this article was published, a debate simmered in the education blogs over the question of whether schools are cutting everything but math and reading, and, if they are, whether that's a bad thing. In my experience, here in New York, schools are cutting art, music, science, and social studies classes in favor of more math and more reading, and it is a bad thing. While I understand that children who are behind in their reading and math skills may need more time on those subjects, I am horrified by elementary schools where children spend virtually no time on anything but math and reading. And it's not just elementary schools; in some middle schools, students take 2 1/2 hours of English Language Arts, 2 hours of math, and very little else.

My point of view is that content richness creates a need and desire to learn, increases the number of cognitive connections that students can make (which is a part of how learning occurs), lays the groundwork for success in high school and college, and often integrates math and reading skills in new contexts. The response I've read over and over again in blogger comments is that children who can't read can't read the textbook, so how can they learn anything else, and that it's most important to close the reading and math gaps before attempting to teach other subjects. There are many responses to this, but the one I keep coming back to is this: If the struggling reader were your own child, would you send him/her to a school where he/she did nothing but take reading classes for hours each day? I wouldn't. I'd make sure my child was getting good reading instruction, and extra help, but I'd also make sure my child had opportunities to excel and experience success in other areas and to learn new things and develop interests which might inspire and motivate reading. So, given that this is what I'd want for my own child, it's what I want for any kid who's struggling.

E.D. Hirsch makes a compelling case for teaching content in the early grades (and onwards). He points out that reading strategies (such as predicting, summarizing, finding the main idea, etc.) can only get you so far if you lack the vocabulary and context for understanding the words you are reading.
The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading. It is true that students benefit from learning and practicing reading comprehension skills, but a key point has gotten lost: More training in these skills is not necessarily better. A meta-analysis has shown that six classes of comprehension skill instruction has the same effect as 25 classes.

Children who know more words and more ideas understand more of what they read, allowing them to learn still more words and ideas quickly and easily. Those who begin school with smaller vocabularies understand less of what they read, causing them to learn fewer new words and ideas because they don't have the context in which to interpret the meanings of unfamiliar words. Hirsch terms this "the Matthew effect":
The Matthew effect in reading, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, is inevitable in the case of vocabulary and knowledge. As we’ve seen, experts say that we need to know at least 90 percent of a text’s words to understand it.15 Children who already have sufficient word knowledge will understand the text and begin learning the meanings of the other 10 percent of the words as well as acquire new knowledge through their reading. But those students who know only 70 percent of the words will not understand the text (and thus, will neither begin learning the other 30 percent of the words, nor acquire knowledge from the text). Now, after looking at the text, they are further behind the advantaged group than they were before they read the text. If this pattern continues, the gap between the two groups will grow with each successive language experience.

If Hirsch is right, then teaching content - both through subject area classes and by integrating social studies, science, and other areas into literacy units - is essential in the early grades, especially for students who enter school at a disadvantage.
Potentially, though, schools could alter this pattern because the rates of vocabulary growth in the two students do not have to be identical. If a student who is behind in word knowledge can be brought to know 90 percent of the words that she hears and reads in school, then she can pick up new words at a faster rate than the advantaged student who already knows 95 percent of the words heard and read in school. This is because the former child is getting more opportunities to learn new words since she is further from a point of diminishing returns.

Hirsch is not advocating for words or facts to be taught in isolation:
What is the most effective way to foster vocabulary gain? Is it better to read a child a short text of a different kind each day, or is it better to stay on a topic that stretches over several days or weeks? As we have seen, important research suggests that children can learn words much faster if we stick to the same topic for several sessions, because word learning occurs much faster—up to four times faster—when the verbal context is familiar.

Imagine the potential for elementary school teachers - with the help of subject area specialists (or "cluster teachers") - to create serious units of study that focused on essential topics in science, social studies, and the arts, devoting part of each day to practicing reading and writing using texts relating to these topics, and part of each day teaching additional lessons within these subject areas, doing experiments, looking at artifacts, listening to music from an era, painting in the style of Miro, etc. The day would be rich, would broaden the children's knowledge of the world, and would provide both motivation and context for reading and writing more and better.

Oh, wait.

That's what many elementary school teachers already do. That's what elementary school was like when I was a kid. I wrote a report on Switzerland in third grade (my mom made fondue for my presentation), and another on Uranus, and in fourth grade, I made a poster about Hawaii. I remember third grade lessons on the human body (there was some guy who wore a body suit with all the organs printed on it...), and more in fifth, when I made a poster showing how the eye works.

Should these kinds of classes be reserved for those who already read well, denied to those who struggle to understand? Should students have to spend tedious hours reading just to read, adding just to add, before they earn the right to find out who we are, what came before us, where we are in the universe, what we're made of?

I hope not. Go read the article, and the rest of the issue, which is all about content richness and reading fluency.


Blogger Doug said...

This is such an important point, that you're making. The critical pieces that students need in order to make meaning from difficult texts are, as you say, background knowledge and vocabulary. Since words are symbolic markers for concepts, it stands to reason that they would accompany one another as part of a person's sense-making ability.

Many people don't realize how many vocabulary words kids are learning all the time. Some estimates range from 3000-10000 per year. Those students who work at the bottom of the range are the ones who suffer the "Matthew Effect." Bloggers might recongnize this phenomenon as another version of The Long Tail, but in this case it has to do with neural links - not hyperlinks. It stands to reason that nobody could explicitly teach that many words. The way to promote word learning is to teach kids to strategically deal with new words, and as you say, to provide them with rich learning opportunities in content area subjects.

I hope I'm not going on too much here, but your post was very provocative for me, I guess. This is pretty much my area of specialization, I guess.

Just one more little thing: As you point out, a lot of elementary level teachers shy away from textbooks because the kids have a hard time reading them. An alternative for us all to think about is using content area material for reading instruction - even math books - which are just about the most inconsiderate texts that anyone could want to read. Secondary school level teachers, too, should consider doing more reading instruction in their subject areas.

I want to leave you and your readers with a link to what seems to be a decent resource, they are CRISS reading strategies, which come from an organization called Project CRISS (Creating Independent Student owned Strategies). I don't have any stock in the organization. I took some workshops sponsored by them after I finished my reading specialist's coursework, and what they've done is boil down all the theory into a set of practical ideas that rely heavily on using graphic organizers, note-taking skills, vocabulary learning, and discussion methods that encourage metacognitive activity. The answer isn't a choice of teaching either reading and math or language arts. We should be doing both at once.

I hope this wasn't too much for a first comment on your blog. I've been reading for a while, and enjoy your commentary, but I haven't felt compelled to jump in until now. You touched a nerve, I guess. One more thing, thanks for the link in your blogroll. :)

Doug Noon

1:27 AM  
Blogger Real Live Woman said...

Slim Goodbody :-)

11:25 AM  
Blogger graycie said...

It's ALL about connections: connecting knowledge to words and words to tell about the stuff you know about and then you get more words to know about more stuff. EVERYTHING is connections.

Teaching reading without "stuff" to reads about is foolish, at best. I've been teaching since the early 1970s, and the diminishment of general background knowledge is downright scary. Nobody knows anything any more, and when they don't know, they don't care. When they don't care, they won't learn the words for it, and when they don't know the words, . . . you see?

3:59 PM  
Blogger The Rain said...

The explanation piece is important. I've been reading The Boxcar Children with my high readers recently, and none of them had any idea what it meant when one of the girls was hemming a tablecloth. I had one of the paras who knows how to sew come in and show them what hemming meant, and now that they've got the context it'll be there for them forever.

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:41 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home