How To Teach Reading

It turns out that kids would be better readers if teachers would just teach them stuff. By “stuff,” I mean content—for example, information about things, facts and theories, people and places, and the like. Even though some of that stuff might end up being forgotten in 30 or 40 years, there are still a lot of things that most parents want their elementary school kids to know—for example, how the 13 colonies won their independence from England, what civil rights are, where the continents and oceans are, what makes up our solar system, how the human body’s systems work, what happens during an earthquake, and so on.

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So, what’s the question? The question puzzling researchers and experts is whether students can become better readers by teaching them reading strategies and skills (like skimming, re-reading, and summarizing) or by teaching them content. While it is probably obvious to every parent that kids likely need to be taught both reading skills and subject matter content, some teachers have been following the skills approach at the expense of content. That has now become a problem.

Susan Neuman, a New York University professor of literacy education, was quoted in Education Week as saying, “You have to have background knowledge to read. It’s not just decoding. But how do you activate what you don’t have?” (See Liana Heitin’s recent article: “For Reading, Knowledge Matters More than Strategies, Some Experts Say.”) Professor Neuman noted that missing background knowledge is a particular concern for lower-income students, who often do not have as many enriching out-of-school experiences to draw on as their classmates do. Of course, teachers who teach a curriculum full of content can help make up for those missing experiences, some experts would argue.

A colleague of mine once went to a talk for educators by Nobel Prize winner James Watson, known for his work as one of the discoverers of the double-helix structure of DNA. Someone asked Watson this question: “What kind of student becomes the best scientist?” Many teachers in the room probably thought that he would say something like “the student who is the most curious, who is most able to collaborate with his peers, or who is the best critical thinker or problem solver.” But what he said was this: “The student who knows the most science.” It turns out that knowing a lot of science—vocabulary, facts, figures, theories, laws, lab procedures, and so on—makes a student most able to advance in the study of science and to go on to discover the next thing. At least according to Watson. As I am fond of saying to teachers who are interested in producing critical thinkers, “You can’t think about what you don’t know.”

And evidently, now researchers are saying that you can’t read about what you don’t know, either. Well, you can, but just not as well. You know this from your own reading. Even in this Internet age when students can find information in a flash by searching it out electronically, it still pays to know some stuff—at least the fundamentals of all of the subjects that kids study in elementary and secondary school, so that students can continue to improve their reading ability and so that they are ready to do the demanding reading they will meet in their college classes or on the job.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your school teach reading in the elementary grades and literacy in the middle and high school grades:

  • All parents: Ask your school board whether the board has a policy on reading instruction, which it should, given the importance of reading to most parents and to most elementary school teachers and administrators. Ask the board to discuss its policy with you. Keep in mind that the board will speak in policy language, which is designed to guide the superintendent in overseeing the creation of a reading program for the district. The policy should leave room for the superintendent, central office instructional staff, and perhaps principals and teachers to make and implement more detailed decisions about reading instruction. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent about the policy’s implementation before the meeting.
  • Elementary school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss your school’s reading program. How does it carry out board policy? How are reading skills taught in each grade? What materials are used? Is reading taught using subject content from other subjects, like social studies and science? What evidence is available to show that reading instruction in your school is successful?
  • Middle and high school parents: Ask your principal and teachers to explain how literacy is taught in English language arts, math, science, and social studies in your school. Is literacy taught in other school subjects as well? How do these practices carry out board policy? What evidence is available to show that literacy instruction in your school is successful?

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