What’s the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind? We can’t answer that question without first understanding what “grade level” means. Math and reading are quite different when it comes to assessing grade level, and I’m going to focus on reading.
The concept of grade level—like the concept of an individual reading level—is largely an illusion. Reading tests purport to measure general reading ability, using passages on subjects that may or may not be familiar to students. But, as cognitive scientists have long understood, students’ reading ability depends primarily on their knowledge of the topic. In a study done over thirty years ago, researchers divided seventh and eighth graders into groups according to how well they had scored on a standardized reading test and how much they knew about baseball. Then they gave all the kids a passage to read about a baseball game, followed by a comprehension test on the passage. The result? Kids who knew a lot about baseball all did well, regardless of how well they’d scored on the standardized test. And those who didn’t know much about baseball all did poorly. In fact, the “poor” readers who knew a lot about baseball did significantly better than the “good” readers who didn’t.
The baseball study has been replicated in numerous other contexts, and there’s plenty of other evidence from cognitive science to support the idea that knowledge—rather than generally applicable skill—is the most important factor in reading comprehension. Nevertheless, the vast majority of American schools continue to measure reading ability as though it were a matter of free-floating skills. We administer standardized tests with passages on random topics, turning the tests into de facto assessments of general knowledge—and unintentionally privileging students from educated families, who are the most likely to pick up that kind of knowledge at home.
That content-agnostic approach extends to teaching as well. We spend precious hours every week trying to teach kids supposed skills like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences”—the skills that appear to be measured on the tests. Children then practice these “skills” on books at their presumed individual reading levels, which are also determined without taking into account their prior knowledge of the topic. And we direct students to baskets of “just right” books that, again, cover a random variety of topics—never enabling them to spend enough time on any one subject to acquire knowledge and the vocabulary that goes with it.
To make matters worse, knowledge of the topic doesn’t just enable readers to understand the text better; it also equips them to absorb and retain new information relating to their existing knowledge. Kids who start out with more knowledge and vocabulary are able to read more complex books and thereby acquire more knowledge. Meanwhile, kids who start out at a disadvantage are consigned to simpler books and fall farther behind their more privileged peers every year. And in high-poverty elementary and middle schools, potentially knowledge-building subjects like social studies and science have been marginalized or eliminated in a largely futile effort to boost reading scores. By the time students get to upper grade levels, the gap between what the more and less advantaged kids know is hard to narrow—as is the gap between what we expect kids to know and what some actually do know.
The best way to prevent the phenomenon of students who are several “grade levels” behind is to immerse them in a knowledge-building curriculum beginning in the early grades, as more and more schools are now doing. That’s not to say that such a system would enable all students to perform on exactly the same level—just that we probably wouldn’t see the enormous gaps we do now. But given that our system has inadvertently produced these gaps and will continue to produce them for the foreseeable future, what can we do? I have a few suggestions:
First determine whether the problem is decoding or comprehension—or both. Reading has two basic components: decoding, or sounding out words; and comprehension. In many schools, children are taught to decode in a way that conflicts with an overwhelming body of scientific evidence, with the result that many never learn to read fluently. Standardized reading tests don’t distinguish between decoding and comprehension, so it’s impossible to tell whether a low score means a student couldn’t read the passages or couldn’t understand them. When students have reading difficulties, they should be given tests that specifically assess their ability to decode—and if the problem is decoding, they should be given systematic instruction in phonics and other foundational reading skills, regardless of their grade level.
Give all students access to the same complex content through listening. Students’ listening comprehension exceeds their reading comprehension through middle school, on average. But for the most part, American schools have limited students to the knowledge and vocabulary they can acquire from texts easy enough for them to read on their own. If students are going to acquire knowledge of the world and become familiar with the conventions of written language, it’s crucial for them to hear those concepts and conventions in complex text before they’re expected to understand them independently.
This is a possible role for technology: providing audio books or recordings that students can listen to, perhaps while following along in the text. But especially in classrooms where many readers are struggling, a better approach is to have the teacher read a complex text aloud to the whole class, pausing periodically to ask questions focused on the content and to guide discussions.
Allow students to grapple with common content in ways that are tailored to their abilities—preferably through writing. This is where personalization or differentiation should enter into the equation. Perhaps the most powerful lever for building knowledge is to have all students write about what they’re learning. Writing taps into two phenomena that research shows can provide huge boosts to comprehension and retention: retrieving information that has been slightly forgotten, and putting that information into your own words. But writing is also a tremendously difficult task, and inexperienced writers can be overwhelmed by lengthy assignments—depriving them of both the opportunity to build knowledge and the chance to learn to write coherently.
That means that all students should be exposed to the same content, but they shouldn’t necessarily all be asked to write about it in the same way. All students might read (or listen to) the Gettysburg Address, for example, but some might be asked to write an essay about it, others to outline a paragraph, and others to complete a sentence-starter that focuses their attention on a crucial aspect of the document. This approach to building knowledge should be used not just in English class but across the curriculum, including in math and science classes.
Assess ability through tests tied to content that has been taught. At some point, students need to have acquired enough general knowledge and vocabulary to enable them to understand texts on topics they don’t already know much about, as long as the topics aren’t too abstruse or technical. But in any given case—especially for students who haven’t acquired much sophisticated knowledge outside school—it’s hard to say exactly when that point will be reached. It can be demoralizing for both students and teachers to have achievement measured solely on the basis of general knowledge of random topics. Students may know a lot about Ancient Greece or the human digestive system, but if the passages on the test are on Amelia Earhart or the lives of the Inuit, they may not yet have acquired the critical mass of knowledge and vocabulary that will enable them to demonstrate their “skills.” More states should follow the lead of Louisiana, which is piloting a new kind of reading test in which topics are connected to the state-created curriculum, in both English language arts and social studies.
The bottom line: If we want to help students who are several “grade levels” behind in reading, we need to stop treating the problem as though it were one of decontextualized skills and start recognizing that we need to focus on building—and assessing—students’ knowledge.