OK, readers. It’s time for today’s “skills and strategies” lesson in reading comprehension. Today’s aim and standard is “finding the main idea of a complex text.” Please follow along as I do a “think aloud.” I will “model” for you the habits of proficient reading so that you can see what good readers do—just the way I was trained to do when I was an elementary school teacher. Then you can go off and practice these skills on your own until you can demonstrate proficiency on today’s standard. Our story today is by David Steiner and Jacqueline Magee.

Making inferences is an important comprehension strategy strongly emphasized in standards and assessments. I infer that Steiner and Magee think the emergence of curriculum as a “pillar of school improvement strategy” in the United States is important, since it says here that in “high-performing systems such as Finland, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and British Columbia….high-quality curriculum is always part of the story.” But they seem to think that just paying attention to curriculum isn’t enough to ensure student achievement. We need to have a sophisticated view of it and look at other factors. The authors describe an “ordinary school examining its 2018 summative student assessment results,” and seeking to address a decrease in student literacy the test reveals. Digging deeper, the school finds that students are “struggling to identify the main idea of a text.” Steiner and Magee describe what happens next: “Armed with their analysis of summative student assessment results, the school develops a plan to explicitly teach the skill of ‘finding the main idea.’”

Good readers make predictions when they read. I predict that explicitly teaching children to find the main idea will raise reading scores. That skill is a key goal of state standards and, in the authors’ example, a weakness the state tests have uncovered. But, wait! Steiner and Magee say the test scores did not improve! Teachers are “disheartened and unsure about what went wrong or what to do next.” But we want schools and teachers to be thoughtful, responsive, and data-driven, don’t we? What’s happening? It says that all the input and feedback this school is getting “encourage[s] teachers to place an unhelpful emphasis on the teaching of these skills.”

The authors seem to be telling us that it’s “unhelpful” because finding the main idea isn’t a skill. But then how are we supposed to teach children to find the main idea? Let’s look for evidence in the text. Here it is! “Good readers can find the main idea of a text when they know how to decode the words on the page in front of them, and when they have the content knowledge to understand the text they are reading.” Notice how I underlined that passage? When we read, it helps our understanding when we highlight and annotate important ideas. The idea that reading “skills” aren’t really skills at all is an important idea to remember. The authors are telling us that once children learn to decode, it’s content knowledge drives reading comprehension.

That’s the main idea!

Good readers “activate their prior knowledge” when they read. I know that David Steiner used to be an ed school dean, New York State’s education commission, and the architect of the widely used EngageNY curriculum; he’s now the head of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. That’s a lot of very-high-level experience. And Learning First, which Jacqueline Magee helps run, spreads good practice ideas from high-performing countries all over the world. Therefore we can all infer that states, school districts, policymakers, and people who run teacher preparation programs would be wise to read this paper very closely, just like we’re doing. The authors seem to be saying that American schools are wasting precious instructional time teaching skills and strategies like “finding the main idea.” But, again, let’s look for evidence in the text:

It is up to teacher preparation providers and school systems to support teachers to understand this important point. If these institutions do not cultivate an understanding of the importance of student content knowledge for reading comprehension, and if school systems continue to devise assessments that focus on “skills,” they will encourage the kind of well-meaning but ultimately poor practice described in the introduction to this paper, wasting countless hours of instructional time.

Good readers should be able to restate the main idea in their own words. So let me give it a try: Reading comprehension is not a “skill” you can teach, practice, and master. To understand what they read, children must be taught to decode. But they also need a school curriculum that is broad and rich enough to prepare then to read well on a wide variety of topics. That’s how you create strong readers!

Class dismissed, readers. Off you go!

SOURCE: David Steiner and Jacqueline Magee, “The problem with finding the main idea,” Learning First (January 2019)

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

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