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Teaching Reading Via Background Knowledge: Will ESSA Shift Tactics?


E.D. Hirsch has been arguing for decades that students need to know more about the world to be better readers. 

The retired professor's colleagues are elevating his argument once again with a new campaign called Knowledge Matters. They're also finding ways to link the reading philosophy to the major policy lever of the day: the Every Student Succeeds Act.

At a panel discussion in Washington this week, reading and policy experts came together to discuss how states can use their new flexibility under ESSA to begin to increase students' reading achievement. K-12_Dealmaking.gif

Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, kicked off the event by describing the new Knowledge Matters effort, for which he is the executive director. For too long, people have been "stubbornly incurious about the actual content of our kids' education," he said. "Knowledge Matters is devoted to the proposition that what kids learn in school all day and do is actually important." 

By teaching more science, social studies, and arts, teachers can  "restore the sense of wonder and awe to children and at same time raise reading achievement." And now that states can choose how schools are held accountable, Pondiscio said, they can push to get these subjects back into classrooms.

He pointed to a recent speech by Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. favoring a "well-rounded education" rather than a tight focus on math and reading as evidence that the policy tides are turning.

On the panel, Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan, discussed research showing that expertise in a subject can improve reading comprehension. She cited a 1988 study showing that when poor readers and good readers are both shown a passage about baseball, the poor readers who know a lot about the sport will perform better on a comprehension test than the good readers who do not.  

Background knowledge helps students understand unfamiliar words, learn new words, and make inferences while they're reading, she said. That doesn't mean teachers should never teach reading "strategies," such as making predictions or visualizing. "There is a strong research base for strategy instruction—the problem is it's overdone and done poorly," she said. "Even when we're trying to teach strategies, it ought to be richly embedded in content."

What States Can Do Differently Under ESSA

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the need to teach knowledge is an issue that can bring liberals and conservatives together. Because ESSA put a lot of decisionmaking back in the hands of the states, he said, now is a chance to make policy changes. 

In terms of testing, "we've largely valued reading and math assessments exclusively," he said. "We do have an opportunity in states to value some other things." However, he added the caution that states "need be careful not to add so many metrics that it just becomes a jumble."

Since states are largely moving to online tests, Minnich also suggested giving students choices about what passages they read on their assessments. "That's a simple thing we could do," he said.

In addition, he urged states to do more to help districts choose appropriate materials. "I have too many conversations [with state leaders] who say we don't have any responsibility for curriculum in our state," he said. "I think they do. They don't need to decide it but they need to influence it." 

As the discussion moved to how preservice training can get teachers ready to teach more content, Duke said she thinks a lot of the onus should be on districts to provide job-embedded professional development, especially for elementary teachers who teach all the subjects. "The reality of teacher prep in the United States is we have four years," she said. "Stop and think for a minute how many years you think it would take to have really solid knowledge in all the histories, really strong science knowledge, engineering knowledge, mathematics knowledge. ... What we can accomplish in those four years is going to be inadequate." On-the-job professional development will need to be stepped up, she argued.

While the point of view wasn't represented at the event, it's worth noting that many educators disagree with the notion that schools should teach knowledge over strategies. Many say that skills like collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and technology use are more important in the digital age than knowing facts that anyone can look up on the Internet. 

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the think tank that hosted the event, held a similar panel in October linking the push for background knowledge to the Common Core State Standards

Also read: Under Common Core, Students Learn Words By Learning About the World

For more news and information on reading, math, and STEM instruction: 

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