Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Reading comprehension skills

A look at the failed promises of overemphasizing reading comprehension skills in today's elementary school environment. 

A version of the classic chicken or egg question here - which comes first? Do reading comprehension skills need to come first so that students know what to look for as they decipher and work their way through a piece of literature (in whatever form that may take on - a book, an article, a brochure, an advertisement, etc.), or must exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary come first in order to lay a decent foundation, set some context, and pique interest and curiosity to want to then go out and learn more about something? I'm placing all my chips on the table and betting on the latter.

Aaron S. Robertson


It's a fascinating question that's held a good amount of my focus for a little over a week now, all caused by having recently stumbled on an article whose headline really grabbed my attention and piqued my curiosity. It's entitled, "Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years," and it's written by Natalie Wexler. It was originally published on The Atlantic in April 2018, but I came across it on GetPocket.com. You can read the full article here. According to the author's byline, Wexler is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and she authored a book on this very issue, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System - And How to Fix It. I just purchased it, based on how fascinating I found her article to be. I can't wait to dive in.

My credentials

Now, I'm certainly not a reading specialist. I'm not even a certified teacher. At the age of 37, I'm about to wrap up my second school year working as a substitute teacher and special education paraprofessional at the high school level. Prior to my short time in K-12 education, I held various roles in private sector business and industry, and still maintain ties to business. And though I'm a Ph.D. student, my degree and dissertation focus are not in education. Nonetheless, as I continue my journey in education, working with, and monitoring the progress of, students from the front lines, I'm naturally intrigued by these subjects and policy debates, and this article really made me think back and reflect on both the what and how I learned in elementary school in the 1980s and 90s.

The problem

Wexler, citing a number of education researchers, argues that a major shift in focus, or rather, what I would contend in my layman's understanding is simply a return to the way things once were, needs to take place at the elementary school level. For quite a few years now, she points out, subjects like history, science, the arts, and literature have been kicked down the road to higher grade levels so that reading comprehension skills (along with math) can take center stage during the first several years of schooling. As Wexler explains in the article, "After all, the argument goes, if kids haven’t learned to read - a task that is theoretically accomplished by third grade - how will they be able to gain knowledge about those subjects through their own reading?" (para. 5)

It was essentially that argument, that mindset, that served as a main justification for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which would ultimately be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) some 14 years later, in 2015. As Wexler explains in her article, NCLB required that standardized tests be given each school year to students from third through eighth grades, followed by one more test in high school. NCLB imposed big consequences on schools that failed to raise test scores. While NCLB's successor law, ESSA, has reduced the sting of these consequences, it has retained a strong focus on testing.

Along with all this standardized testing comes the phenomenon of "teaching to the test," whereby teachers are increasingly pressured to focus on the skills that will be, or likely be, utilized on these tests, all in a vain attempt to raise test scores, or at least keep them from taking a dip. The problem with this strategy is that there's often a big misalignment, as Wexler explains, between the content (not the skills, but the content) covered on these tests and where the actual knowledge base of students is at.

When it comes to reading comprehension, for example, the passages that students must read and analyze on these tests may discuss subjects and incorporate vocabulary that they have no real understanding of. They lack repetitive exposure to, and hence true context mastery of, these subjects and words. Teaching the comprehension skills, alone, is not enough. We're clearly seeing it reflected in the test results. It can be difficult to answer questions like, "What’s the main idea of the passage?" and "What inferences can you make?" (Wexler, 2018, para. 9), when there are gaping holes in your knowledge base.

How to fix the problem

The solution? Wexler, along with a growing chorus of education researchers, is saying that exposure to subjects like history, science, the arts, and literature in those early years is absolutely critical for building general knowledge about the world, and hence, gaining vocabulary and context, which they say must come before we get to the mechanics of reading comprehension. I concur. Again, I'm certainly no expert. But I can understand and appreciate the debate as an educated layperson, and I can contribute anecdotal evidence from my era growing up in elementary school, the 1980s and 90s. You see, elementary school for me was exactly what Wexler and these other experts are calling for now.

My memories of elementary school in the 1980s and 90s

During my time in elementary school, kindergarten was largely what Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D., recalls in his 2016 book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups - we spent a lot of time learning and practicing Fulghum's Rules, so named after the author of the famous book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In other words, we learned social skills. We learned how to get along, how to play nice, how to clean up our own messes, how to be patient and wait our turn, and how to take responsibility for our actions.

Along with Fulghum's Rules, we learned about ourselves and the world around us through story time, little art and science projects, history lessons appropriate for our grade level, music, gym, field trips, and a good amount of unstructured play time. We learned our alphabet, numbers, colors, money, and how to tell time. We had the classic show-and-tell time, where we in the audience got to absorb all sorts of fun knowledge and interesting insights from our classmates, while the presenter received the chance to hone his or her speaking skills and gain confidence. Top that all off with a little math, vocabulary, spelling, reading, and writing for good measure, and we received a well-rounded, largely low-pressure education that would help lay a solid foundation for life. And, as I recently argued in another post, inspired in turn by arguments and observations made by Dr. Sax, that's exactly what the real purpose of K-12 education is, or should be, all about - laying a foundation for life, not college.

In first grade, one of the major highlights I recall is that we learned how to write in cursive. That was certainly a big thing. And along with it, we added a little more math, vocabulary, spelling, reading, and writing to the mix, all while reviewing what we learned the year before in kindergarten, so that we were reinforcing that foundation as we were starting to build on it. We continued to learn about ourselves and the world around us through story time, art, science, history, music, gym, field trips, show-and-tell, and unstructured free time.

The remainder of elementary school operated out of the same playbook: continue to add a little more with each passing year while reinforcing what we were already taught. And while I don't remember the exact moment I realized I could read, I also don't recall there being a lot of time and special focus set aside by my teachers solely dedicated to reading. I don't recall there being any real pressure. The reading, along with the comprehension skills, just seemed to naturally grow and evolve over time with a great degree of ease.

Wexler goes on to state in her article that,
The implication is clear. 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 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. That approach enables children to make sense of what they’re learning, and the repetition of concepts and vocabulary in different contexts makes it more likely they’ll retain information. Not to mention that learning content like this can be a lot more engaging for both students and teachers than the endless practice of illusory skills (para. 15).
This is exactly how I remember elementary school, no kidding. By second grade, I easily recall knowing about Native Americans, Christopher Columbus, colonial times, the Revolution and the founding of the United States, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. I remember my third grade teacher, a young African-American woman, educating us on the lessons of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s at every opportunity. I realized at an early age that I loved history and social studies subjects. I recall both buying books and borrowing books from the school and local libraries on various history/social studies subjects all throughout grade school. I remember taking my social studies textbooks home on the weekends for the heck of it, even though I may not have had any homework in that subject. I would read ahead, bounce around, look at pictures and illustrations and read their captions. And when I think about it all these years later, at the age of 37 - the reason why I did all this reading was because I was given a small taste of these subjects in school. The lessons in school piqued my interest and curiosity, and I just naturally wanted to learn more.
"We had the classic show-and-tell time, where we in the audience got to absorb all sorts of fun knowledge and interesting insights from our classmates, while the presenter received the chance to hone his or her speaking skills and gain confidence."
It also helped that we had regular interactions and bonds with adults in our lives outside of school, something that is largely missing in today's society, where kids are teaching kids how to be adults. And while we certainly had video games - and believe me, we spent countless hours on them - we didn't have cell phones and technology addiction to worry about, distractions that are literally robbing today's 20-some-year-olds of social skills.

As I explained in another post that I just published, Building intergenerational connections, we kids had a large circle of adults - parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, other relatives, friends of family, family of friends, coaches, neighbors, etc. - that we learned from outside of school. We learned social skills, manners and etiquette, and how to get along with others from them, all things reinforced in the kindergarten classroom and vice-versa. We heard stories handed down and sometimes even first-hand accounts about immigrating to the United States, living during the Great Depression, World War II, etc. We were exposed to a wide variety of music, film, games, hobbies & interests, sports, and ethnic & cultural traditions by these adults. There were plenty of company picnics and tours where we got to learn about the kinds of work the adults in our lives did for a living. We learned where we came from. We learned about the history of our neighborhood and city. In short, a lot of general knowledge and vocabulary came our way from these adults, and if something came along that really caught my interest, just as the history/social studies lessons from my teachers did, I simply went out and read more about the topic. I wanted to learn more.

Let's really get philosophical here for a moment

Even as an adult now, I can verify anecdotally that I still require exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary about a subject first, in order to learn about it through reading or other forms of media. If I don't learn of the existence of something first, then I can't go out and learn about it, because I don't possess any prior knowledge to know that it exists. It's through conversations with others; or through stumbling across new information while reading something else; or through watching a movie, documentary, or the nightly news; etc., that I acquire general knowledge about something. If that something catches my interest, or if I find it useful in some way to know more about, I'll dive deeper and research it further.

Placing such a strong emphasis on teaching reading comprehension skills in those early elementary school years first, on the premise that, "...if kids haven’t learned to read...how will they be able to gain knowledge about those subjects through their own reading?" (Wexler, 2018, para. 5), does not guarantee that students will, in turn, use those skills to initiate reading on their own accord, either for practical or leisure purposes. It may even turn many of them off to reading. However, exposing kids in those early elementary school years to history, science, the arts, and literature (and, I might add, Fulghum's Rules) at least guarantees that they were given basic exposure to these subjects. The students are now aware that these things exist. They now know that there's an entire world out there to explore, and if they want - or need - to take a closer look at something in it, they can - and will - do so through reading on their own accord. The reading and the comprehension will naturally follow and flow from this exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary about the world around us.        

Concluding with a look at kindergarten in Finland

A little while back, I came across another article, also from The Atlantic, about kindergarten in Finland. It was written by Timothy D. Walker and published in October 2015. Entitled, "The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland," you can read it here.

In short, play time - and lots of it - is still the main order of the day for kindergarten students there, and the students usually have the choice in regard to how they spend that time. The day is just four hours long. Reading usually starts in first grade, unless teachers get a sense that individual students may be ready and willing to start learning in kindergarten. There's no pressure. Each student is at his or her own pace, with learning fully tailored to where the student is at and wants to go. In fact, as Walker notes in his article, "Throughout Finland, kindergarten teachers and parents meet during the fall to make an individualized learning plan, shaped by each child’s interests and levels of readiness, which could include the goal of learning how to read" (para. 26).

And yet, this approach, this philosophy, which may appear lax or even outright irresponsible by modern-day American standards, doesn't seem to hinder the intellectual growth and capabilities of Finnish students years down the road. As Walker points out, "Finnish schools have received substantial media attention for years now - largely because of the consistently strong performance of its 15-year-olds on international tests like the PISA" (para. 9).

I'll end here with this passage from Walker, which I believe does a tremendous job of summarizing our side of the debate. Here, he is quoting two experts:
“...there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,” Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years.

Research by Sebastian Suggate, a former Ph.D. candidate at New Zealand’s University of Otago studying educational psychology, confirms Carlsson-Paige’s findings. One of Suggate’s studies compared children from Rudolf Steiner schools - who typically begin to read at the age of seven - with children at state-run schools in New Zealand, who start reading at the age of five. By age 11, students from the former group caught up with their peers in the latter, demonstrating equivalent reading skills.

“This research then raises the question,” he said in an interview published by the University of Otago. “If there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier?” (para. 30-32)

Sax, L. (2016). The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups. New York: Basic Books.

Walker, T.D. (2015, October 1). The joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/the-joyful-illiterate-kindergartners-of-finland/408325

Wexler, N. (2018, April 13). Why American students haven’t gotten better at reading in 20 years. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://getpocket.com/explore/item/why-american-students-haven-t-gotten-better-at-reading-in-20-years

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