No Excuses for Low Literacy

BY LISA HANSEL | If you paid attention to the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results released a few weeks ago, you’re aware of a disturbing trend: we’re making progress in math, but not in reading. And if you recall the 4th and 8th grades results released several months ago, you know that in math, large gains in 4th and 8th grades are followed by small (but still significant) gains in 12th grade, but in reading, small-to-moderate gains in 4th and 8th grades are followed by small (but still significant) decreases in 12th grade.

Even in high-performing and “no excuses” schools, educators find that it is much easier to increase math achievement than reading achievement. Writing for the New York Times, for example, Motoko Rich noted that the much-lauded charter networks like Uncommon Schools and KIPP are openly frustrated with their lesser impact on students’ reading. Rich quotes Brett Peiser, chief executive officer of the Uncommon Schools network, asking some important questions about why students struggle with reading comprehension: “Is it a vocabulary issue? A background knowledge issue? A sentence length issue? How dense is the text?”

All of these are facets of comprehension that take time to improve, but the problem is both easier to understand and harder to address than most educators realize.

In response to Rich’s article, Mike Goldstein, founder of the Match Charter School, noted on his blog that “At Match, we too have always had larger math gains than English gains.  Not just on MCAS, also on SAT.” He continues:

Two years ago I tackled this topic, and Tom [Hoffman] commented:

One problem with our testing regime is that it makes math look like half of the goal of a school. Math as a discipline is constructed and taught differently than all others. If your school is constructed to optimize math instruction, you’re not half way there; you’re more like 1/5th of the way.

Good thought.  I don’t know of any schools where kids have, say, 4 English classes and one math class.  And if we didn’t have the phrase “English class” — if instead we only had the component parts called “Literature class,” “Non-fiction class,” “Writing class,” “Vocabulary Building and Grammar class,” and so forth, you could imagine a school designed that way, with 4X the amount of time devoted to English.  And then instead of one test for English, we’d have 4 exams and one math exam.

I’m not saying this is a good idea given other tradeoffs, I’m saying that might result in more equal sized gains.

It might, but only if those extra classes are based on a much stronger understanding of how reading comprehension works. At the Core Knowledge Foundation, we think of reading as a two-lock box—a box that takes two keys to open. The first key is decoding, i.e., being able to turn letters into sounds and words. The second key is vocabulary and knowledge; once you’ve decoded the text, the more relevant knowledge you have, the deeper your understanding will be.

To me, the NAEP results show that our schools are getting better and better at teaching decoding, but have not made much progress in teaching advanced vocabulary and knowledge. The 4th and 8th grade gains followed by 12th grade declines show schools have achieved basic literacy; almost all students can decode and understand texts on very common topics. But schools are not giving most students opportunities to acquire the advanced knowledge and vocabulary needed to understand the broad range of academic topics that may appear in the 12th grade exam—or in any given college course (or in a presidential debate, newspaper, etc.).

The natural reaction might be to focus on building vocabulary and knowledge in the middle grades and high school—indeed, many “no excuses” schools started with the middle grades. Sadly, that’s too late. As Rich explained in the Times, disparities in children’s vocabulary and knowledge are already substantial before they start school:

Teachers and administrators who work with children from low-income families say one reason teachers struggle to help these students improve reading comprehension is that deficits start at such a young age: in the 1980s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that by the time they are 4 years old, children from poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children with professional parents.

By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school.

“Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations,” said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. “But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.”

Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.

If Goldstein wants to give “4 English classes and one math class” a try, he better plan on allocating one class to reading and writing skills, and three classes to building vocabulary and knowledge. A “Non-fiction class” and a “Vocabulary Building and Grammar class” would not be very efficient. Far better would be ensuring that children have rigorous science, social studies, and arts classes throughout their entire K–12 years. As Daniel Willingham explained in a short video, “teaching content is teaching reading.”

And, as E. D. Hirsch described in greater detail, vocabulary is most efficiently learned not with vocabulary lists, but in context while studying specific domains of knowledge. Key terms may be discussed as needed, but most vocabulary is acquired through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. For more advantaged children, those exposures happen every day at home and at school. To close the gap, school with less advantaged children have to systematically plan read-alouds, discussions, and activities that will immerse students in domains of knowledge and give them multiple exposures to academic vocabulary.

I saw an example of this recently at P.S. 104, the Bays Water School in Queens, NY, which is doing a terrific job of bringing Core Knowledge Language Arts to life. Second graders had recently listened to, discussed, and written about a series of texts their teacher read aloud about leaders—like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr.—who had fought for a cause. Along the way, they learned the word “injustice.” I happened to be sitting in when the teacher started reading aloud from Charlotte’s Web: “Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result, she now has a pig.” Hands flew into the air as the children were eager to relate what they already knew about injustice to this new example.

It may be fairly obvious that building knowledge also builds vocabulary and enables comprehension. But, going back to Peiser’s questions, what about comprehending dense texts with long sentences? Relevant prior knowledge unlocks even complex texts. Recent research by Diana AryaElfrieda Hiebert, and P. David Pearson shines some light:

The present study was designed to address the question of whether lexical or syntactic factors exert greater influence on the comprehension of elementary science texts. Based on previous research on text accessibility, it was expected that syntactic and lexical complexity would each affect students’ performance on science texts, and that these two types of text complexity together would additionally impact student performance. In order to test this hypothesis, 16 texts that varied in syntactic and lexical complexity across four different topics were constructed. Students read texts that ranged in complexity, each from a different topic.

Contrary to our hypotheses, syntactic complexity did not explain variance in performance across any of the four topics….

Lexical complexity significantly influenced comprehension performance for texts on two of the four topics, Tree Frogs and Soil, but not for texts on Jelly Beans and Toothpaste. This finding was consistent across all participant groups, including ELLs.

In writing about this research, E. D. Hirsch noted that “These results are at odds with the notion that the usual measures of sentence structure (and/or length) and vocabulary are reliable ways to determine the ‘right’ reading level of a text for a child. On the other hand, their findings are consistent with other work in language study, as Arya, Hiebert, and Pearson were quick to point out…. Given enough familiarity with a topic, children are able to make correct guesses about words they have never seen before. They are also able to disentangle complex syntax if their topic familiarity enables them to grasp the gist of a text.”

So, for comprehension, the primary question is this: How can we ensure that students are familiar with a broad range of topics? You don’t need four English classes or strategies for dense texts—you need a content-rich, carefully organized, grade-by-grade curriculum. Introduce young children to the world through literature, science, history, geography, and the arts. Even in middle school, read to them texts that are too challenging for them to read themselves. Engage them in discussions and substantive writing every day.

And be patient.

Patience is the hard part. Our high-stake accountability systems not only expect yearly gains, they reward bad practices. While drilling students in comprehension strategies can get a bump in scores, it will not lead to meaningful increases in literacy. Building broad knowledge (and thus broad vocabulary and the capacity to grasp dense texts) takes time. With a content-rich, sequential curriculum, schools can build the necessary knowledge over time. What they can’t do is show big yearly gains on tests that are not matched to their curriculum (which is a hazard of all state tests in which the topics of the passages are not revealed and thus can’t be studied).

Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute has proposed an interesting solution: a two-part accountability system that allows schools to create their own measures. Here’s his pitch (Duncan, Congress—are you listening?):

  1. First, as the default system, we keep something like we have today, but with better standards and tests. (Yes, common-core standards and tests.) Students are tested annually; schools are held accountable for making solid progress from September to June, with greater progress expected for students who are further behind. States and districts give these schools lots of assistance—with curriculum development, teacher training, and the like. Such a default system won’t lead to widespread excellence, but it will continue to raise the floor so that the “typical” school in America becomes better than it is today. (NB: I’d scrap any state-prescribed “accountability” below the level of the school. In other words, no more rigid teacher evaluation systems; leave personnel issues to the principals.) And it would provide taxpayers an assurance that they are getting a “public good” from their investment in public education (namely, a reasonably educated citizenry).
  2. Then we offer all public schools—district and charter—an opt-out alternative. They can propose to the state or its surrogate that they be held accountable to a different set of measures. My preferences would be those related to the long-term success of their graduates. School “inspections” could be part of the picture, too. These evaluation metrics would be rigorous, but designed to be supportive of, rather than oppositional to, the cause of excellent schools. And they might be particularly important to educators of a more progressive, anti-testing bent.

This plan would allow schools to focus on building knowledge instead of artificially boosting scores with drills on comprehension and test-taking strategies. Schools could commit to a strong curriculum, then measure progress in reading comprehension through curriculum-based tests of students’ growing knowledge of literature, science, history, geography, music, the arts. Such tests could involve reading, writing, and speaking to ensure that students are progressing in all aspects of language as they develop broad knowledge of the world.

Developing and teaching a content-rich, coherent curriculum is hard to do. It’s also the only approach that works.


This is an updated version of an essay first published in the Core Knowledge Blog

Lisa Hansel is the director of communications at the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2013, she was the editor of American Educator, the quarterly journal of educational research and ideas published by the American Federation of Teachers. In that role, she often published articles by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and Daniel T. Willingham that explained why reading comprehension, critical thinking, and problem solving depend on relevant prior knowledge—and why, as a result, all students need a rigorous, coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum that builds broad knowledge. Lisa has a B.S. in Psychology from Washington and Lee University and an Ed.D. in Education Policy from George Washington University, where she was also an adjunct professor and the writer and editor for the National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform.

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