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For Reading, Knowledge Matters More Than Strategies, Some Experts Say

Washington

Improving reading comprehension is not about giving students good "strategies," it's about increasing their knowledge base about the world. 

That was the major message of a panel held today at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank here.

"Many teachers are teaching strategies—they're teaching rereading, questioning, summarizing," said Susan Neuman, a professor of literacy education at New York University, who was on the panel. "But it's recognizing that comprehension is not a generic skill. It's particular to that content area."

For example, to understand a passage about orca whales, students first need broad basic knowledge about marine life. 

"You have to have background knowledge to read, it's not just decoding," Neuman said. "But how do you activate what you don't have?" This is particularly a problem for students from low-income families, she said, who tend to have less broad experiences.

Classroom Implementation and the Common Core

Panelist Amanda Pecsi, the curriculum director for the Center City charter schools in the District of Columbia, said her elementary schools have started to make the shift to curricula focused on topics, such as the War of 1812, rather than what she called "skills," or strategies. 

I've written before about some of the curriculum changes happening in the Center City charter schools. Teachers there are organizing units thematically and using text sets, or packages of readings about a single topic, so that students see the same words again and again.

The Common Core State Standards have helped with that push, Pecsi said, by asking students to read and analyze "complex texts," which require extensive background knowledge. "The common-core standards give us an opportunity to bring authentic knowledge back to the classroom," she said.

However, as an audience member noted, many people see the common-core standards, which don't actually prescribe any content knowledge for reading, as focused exclusively on skills. The anchor standards, for instance, discuss behaviors like analyzing the structure of texts, making inferences, and evaluating arguments.

Neuman agreed that the standards "don't say it strongly."

"I think we need to get to the publishers," she said. "They're creating materials that are just mind-numbing. They're saying teachers shouldn't provide background knowledge. ... We need to say, honestly, you're damaging our opportunity to move this needle." 

Why Not Google It?

The idea that content, or knowledge, is more important than skills is still very much up for debate. Many educators say that teaching science and social studies and other content is less important in the Google age, when students have access to all types of information at their fingertips. Instead, they say, schools should focus on skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and technology use. (Will Richardson, for instance, has been banging this drum for a while.)

When asked to respond to the Google argument, Robert Pondiscio, the vice president for external affairs at Fordham, who moderated the panel, put his head on the table, indicating his frustration with the notion that learning content is unnecessary.

Pecsi emphasized that skills are not absent from the classroom. "It's the balance," she said. 

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