Why Deeply Diving Into Content Could Be the Key to Reading Comprehension

A first-grade teacher leads a lesson about bee colonies with her students. (Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

A lot of people are concerned that American kids aren't learning to read. And rightly so. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows only about a third of fourth-graders are proficient in reading. Much of the recent debate has been a return to an old battle between advocates of phonics instruction versus those who favor a whole-language approach to teaching the building blocks of reading. But that debate focuses on early learning and the mechanics of reading. Education journalist Natalie Wexler has a whole different argument to make that focuses on why kids often don’t comprehend what they read.

“There are really two different aspects to reading,” said Wexler on KQED’s Forum program. "One is decoding, just matching sounds to letters. That really is a set of skills that you need to be taught directly. But reading comprehension skills are different."

Wexler contends that most elementary schools teach reading comprehension as free-floating skills, detached from the content a child is reading. The teacher is focused on teaching students how to make inferences or find the main idea, regardless of the topic. For her book, "The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System–and How to Fix It," Wexler dove deeply into the cognitive science of reading. She found that cognitive scientists have agreed for decades that the most important element of reading comprehension is knowledge and vocabulary about the topic.

There’s an iconic experiment researchers like to cite from the 1980s about baseball. Researchers chose baseball because it’s the type of topic that kids who might not be all-around good readers would know something about. The goal of the study was to figure out what was more important to reading comprehension: general reading skills or knowledge of the topic.

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“What they found was the kids who knew about baseball did very well, regardless of whether they tested as good or poor readers,” Wexler said. And even more telling, the kids who knew more about baseball, but had been identified as “poor” readers, performed better on the baseball-focused reading comprehension task than children who were deemed “good” readers, but who didn’t know much about baseball. Wexler says that study has been replicated in many other contexts.

This “knowledge gap” that concerns Wexler also helps explain the achievement gap. Largely mirroring growing income inequality, the achievement gap has remained stubbornly wide, despite concentrated efforts to close it. Wexler contends it’s not just about being rich or poor, it’s about the education level of parents. And, generally speaking, wealthier parents are more highly educated.

“Children with highly educated parents are immersed in sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary from birth, so they start school with more of that type of knowledge,” Wexler said. And, when they get to school, they continue to build on all that they knew before, whereas less affluent children often start school with less exposure to knowledge, and the gap only widens.

“So if schools are not providing [content-rich curriculum] in a systematic way, they can get to high school with huge, really crippling gaps in their knowledge,” Wexler said.

The severity of this comprehension gap often doesn’t make itself fully known until high school, when teachers assume students have more knowledge, the content is more complicated, and the texts more complex. Worse, Wexler said, tests designed to measure reading play into the idea that reading comprehension skills are generalizable.

“I’m not against testing per se,” Wexler said. "Testing has uncovered a lot of deficiencies that were hidden before. It has revealed these gaps and that’s important information to have. The problem with reading tests is they seem to be testing these general skills.”

When kids sit down to take their standardized reading test, most often the passages aren’t about anything they’ve been learning in class. In fact, they’re designed that way, to prevent any group from having an advantage. But Wexler contends most elementary schools aren’t teaching kids much content anyway. Instead, they read one-off articles about a topic that allow kids to practice the “skills” of reading comprehension.

“If kids don’t have the vocab and knowledge to read the passage in the first place, they’re not going to be able to find the main idea, or whatever,” Wexler said.

She also points out that the type of knowledge she’s talking about, the kind that leads to really good comprehension, is a long-term project. Each bit of knowledge builds on something that came before, so it can’t be measured in one or two year increments. It’s something that continues from year to year.

“If we want change to occur, we can’t just rely on teachers alone to do it,” Wexler said. “They do need to be on board, but building knowledge is a gradual, cumulative process and one teacher is not going to be able to do it.”

That’s why she’s excited to see some states dipping a toe into content-rich curriculum. Ironically it’s Louisiana, a state at the bottom of most measures of educational quality, that is pioneering content-based curricula and tests that align to it. The state is also experimenting with giving a reading test to students that covers topics they’ve covered in English and social studies.

“This both levels the playing field for kids, and it also gives teachers an incentive to focus on content and not these illusory skills,” Wexler said.

While the results of Louisiana’s experiment aren’t known yet, France inadvertently provided a massive case study on content-rich curriculum in 1989. E.D.Hirsch details the change in his book, "Why Knowledge Matters." French lawmakers passed legislation changing elementary school education in France to a skills-based approach to reading. Prior to 1989, the national curriculum had been focused on content. French children performed fairly well compared to their international peers, and wealthy kids performed at about the same level as poorer kids.

After the switch, however, things changed. In just a few decades, French children’s performance on international tests overall declined and the gap between wealthier and poorer students grew.

What Should Teaching Reading Look Like, Then?

For Wexler, it would be ideal for elementary school classrooms to dig into one topic for several weeks. Teachers could use read-alouds to expose children to complex texts, ones with more complicated syntax and vocabulary. In this way, kids learn about the topic and become familiar with the vocabulary. Together the class could discuss those ideas and connect them to the information they’ve already learned. Then, students might read simpler texts on their own about the same topic, but they will already be primed with some background knowledge and vocabulary.

After students have learned a fair amount of background knowledge from the teacher, in discussion, and from their own reading, they might dive into an inquiry project to investigate an area of particular interest to them. Wexler is concerned that some progressively-minded educators throw students into project-based learning or an independent inquiry when they don’t yet have much background knowledge on the topic. In that case, it may favor kids from more affluent families.

“When kids or people generally don’t know much about a topic, it’s going to be very inefficient for them to learn by inquiry or discovery,” Wexler said. And, how would a child know if they’re interested in learning more about dinosaurs or space exploration if they haven’t been exposed to those topics before?

“There’s much more that even kids living in difficult situations could be learning in school,” Wexler said. “We’re not even trying to teach them anything substantive. And not only is that unfair to them and damaging for their future chances, but it’s really boring.”

For her research on “The Knowledge Gap,” Wexler spent time in two Washington, D.C., classrooms that primarily serve low-income children of color. The only real difference, she said, was that one class taught reading through the typical, skills-based curriculum approach, while the other used a content-rich curriculum.

“The kids in the content-focused classrooms were having these rich, interesting discussions,” Wexler said. “They were using vocabulary like revenge, opponent and labyrinth.” And many of these students didn’t speak English as their first language and were still mastering it.

Wexler doesn’t blame teachers for the gap between the research on reading comprehension and how it is taught. She points to an entire education system oriented toward curricula organized by skill, tests designed to measure those skills, and the slow pace at which learning science makes its way into real classrooms. She hopes informed parents can push for curriculum reform because it shouldn’t be the job of individual teachers to develop content-rich curriculum from scratch.

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“Where they need to really devote their efforts is in adapting a curriculum,” Wexler said. The district should provide them with a high-quality curriculum, support in teaching it, and freedom to adapt it to their needs and students.

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