May 17, 2016


Guest Blog Post: Don’t Be Tricked by the Reading Paradox

Today's guest blog post comes from Lisa Hansel and Robert Pondiscio of Knowledge Matters

A paradox lies at the heart of efforts to raise reading achievement: If elementary schools make more time for explicit reading instruction by taking time away from science, social studies, and the arts, they are more likely to slow children’s growth in reading comprehension than to increase it. This slowing might not be apparent right away; it might not be apparent in the elementary grades at all. But in later grades—when students are expected to read historical speeches or science textbooks or biographies of artists—they will struggle. 

Reading comprehension is not a “skill” like riding a bike or throwing a ball. The ability to make meaning from text is best thought of as a reflection of a child’s overall education. You need to know a little bit about the subject matter—and sometimes a lot—to make sense of what you’re reading about. Thus, broad reading comprehension depends on a broad education, rich in science, social studies, and the arts—not just reading.

At its heart, the reading achievement gap is an opportunity gap. Think of knowledge and vocabulary like compound interest: If one kindergartner comes to school having heard 30 million more words than a less-fortunate peer, the “interest” on her knowledge and vocabulary allows her to grow richer still; the child with less academic knowledge and vocabulary falls further behind day after day. Low-income children are equally capable of learning as their more-fortunate peers, but have far fewer opportunities to be immersed in academic subject matter and enrichment. 

As Nell K. Duke, one of the nation’s top reading researchers, and Meghan Block wrote in The Future of Children: “Perhaps the greatest obstacle to improving primary-grade reading is a short-term orientation toward instruction and instructional reform. When the aim is to show reading improvements in a short period of time, spending large amounts of time on word-reading skill and its foundations, and relatively little on comprehension, vocabulary, and conceptual and content knowledge, makes sense…. Yet the long-term consequences of failing to attend to these areas cannot be overstated.”

District leaders must do everything in their power to ensure all children, but particularly those in low socioeconomic status families, benefit from a knowledge-rich curriculum from the earliest possible moment. They must not be tricked by the reading paradox.

Lisa Hansel is director of Knowledge Matters, a new campaign to restore wonder and excitement to the classroom by building broad knowledge in science, social studies, and the arts. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine of education research and ideas published by the American Federation of Teachers. Robert Pondiscio is executive director of Knowledge Matters and also senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Previously, he was a 5th grade teacher at a South Bronx public school.

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