In her compelling new book, The Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler relates a story about a young girl in an elementary school in Washington, D.C., who, for over ten minutes during reading class, is busy drawing a picture on her reading worksheet. When Wexler asks what she’s doing, the little girl replies that she’s drawing clowns. “Why are you drawing clowns?” Wexler asks. “Because it says right here, ‘Draw clowns,’” the girl explains, pointing to instructions that say, “Draw conclusions.” An unread article is sitting face-down on the child’s desk.
This story is sweet; it’s funny; and it’s heartbreaking. We can see in it the challenges that students have with both decoding and comprehending—challenges that were on display, writ large, in the fourth and eighth grade 2019 NAEP results—challenges that have prompted the Council of Chief State School Officers to convene a Literacy Summit in January to spur action.
Clearly, America has work to do, and there are actions that states can take. In fourth grade reading, where NAEP scores dropped by one point nationwide, we know a lot about what needs to be done—the trick is doing it. In eighth grade reading, where NAEP scores dropped by 3 points nationally and 6 points for the lowest performers, the prescription is less clear but the level of urgency is high.
Let’s start with the known—early literacy. The fourth grade NAEP scores reflect the instruction that happens in kindergarten through fourth grade—those critical years when every child must learn to turn symbols on a page into words they can say and sentences they can make sense of. The serious consequences of leaving grade three without being an independent, fluent, on-grade-level reader are well understood. The science of how children learn to read, and how to explicitly teach them to do so, is also well understood. The problem is that most teachers did not learn how to teach early literacy. Few educator preparation programs teach it to the aspiring teachers they train. Few districts cover it in their professional development. And none of the best-selling textbooks addresses it completely and properly according to the nonprofit rating service, EdReports.
By now, most teachers have learned that “phonics is in,” but as Thompson and Zeuli pointed out in their seminal 1999 paper, The Frame and the Tapestry, “teachers are like independent artisans” who change their practice through “tinkering.” Teachers don’t tend to stop doing the practices they’re used to; they generally add new ones to their repertoire. As a result, in many classrooms, children are getting some systematic phonics instruction (effective practice), some unsystematic phonics (ineffective practice), some three-cueing systems instruction (also ineffective practice), and a host of other adaptations in between. We see this in the clown story. The little girl could sight-read the word “draw” but did not know how to sound out the word “conclusions.” She likely looked at the first letter, “c,” looked for other clues to the meaning, and finding none, drew her own conclusions: “I should draw clowns.”
When this instructional confusion is coupled with the false belief that “some kids just aren’t ready to read by third grade,” we end up with chronically low fourth grade NAEP scores. Mississippi has taken the early literacy research to heart—and made a concerted, statewide effort to improve their educator preparation programs, as well as their in-service professional learning. And their NAEP results show it. Networks of districts in Tennessee have also engaged in deliberate, research-based early literacy instruction. Others could learn much from these colleagues’ thoughtful work.
Eighth grade NAEP is another problem altogether (though of course all the readers who didn’t learn to decode properly by third grade contribute to the downward NAEP eighth grade trajectory). Here’s the challenge: Reading comprehension scores reflect the sum total of everything an eighth grader has learned over thirteen years of life, both in school and out. The more content you’ve learned in school, the more topics you’ve been exposed to outside school, the more language you’ve heard, the more books you’ve read, the more you know about the world around you, the better your overall reading comprehension. Why? Because new knowledge builds on prior knowledge, so all of us are better at comprehending when we already know something about the subject. If you’re passionate about baseball and have lots of exposure to it, you’ll “get” a baseball article’s main idea faster than your baseball-oblivious classmate will, regardless of how strong a reader you are. Students with topical knowledge have an advantage in reading at grade level in those content areas, and students with far-ranging content knowledge have an advantage on reading assessments generally.
We see this playing out by eighth grade, where the huge inequalities in family incomes and backgrounds reveal increasing gaps on NAEP between those who have and those who have not been exposed to great varieties of content and concepts. While schools—clocking in at a mere six and a half hours a day for 180 days a year—may have a hard time closing the knowledge gap on their own, there is much more they could be doing. However, educators have been taught to focus on teaching general reading strategies, not on building knowledge, so that’s what they have done. They have taken a strategies-first, rather than a knowledge-first approach, to teaching literacy.
What would need to happen to help teachers focus their classes on building knowledge? A lot, it turns out—which is one reason this is so hard. The first and biggest problem is that someone has to decide what content areas to cover. The good news is that there is no such thing as too much knowledge, so there are few “wrong answers.”
Ideally, topics should be aligned within a grade level so that the “big ideas” to be learned that year in social studies, science, and the arts—as well as literature—are the focus of students’ literacy blocks. If students are studying the phenomenon of sound waves in seventh grade science, that’s a great time to read all about sound in English class. If they’re learning jazz in music class, why not read about the history of jazz? This is not an argument for taking time away from science or music class and telling literacy teachers to carry that load. This is doing science in science class, and doing music in music class, and having literacy teachers teach reading comprehension in the context of what their students are experiencing in their other classes.
For knowledge to build over time, the content areas must also be aligned across grade levels so that content is not only connected to what students are learning elsewhere in school that year, but also to what students learned in prior years and to what will be expected of them in subsequent years.
Decisions about what topics to teach and when could be made school-by-school or district-by-district. But they typically are not. Doing so is just too hard. There are design, resource, instructional materials, professional development, and implementation challenges. The barriers are daunting.
The most practical approach for schools and districts that wish to take a knowledge-building approach to literacy is adopting one of the few published curricula explicitly designed to build knowledge, such as Core Knowledge, Wit & Wisdom, or EL Education. While such programs do not necessarily align within a grade level to the science and social studies being taught in each state, these curricula do tend to align vertically from one grade level to the next. And all promote thoughtful knowledge-building through reading complex, grade-level texts.
States could play a critical role in supporting students’ knowledge-building. Here’s how.
First, states could look across their academic standards and build a “knowledge map” of the big topics students are expected to learn in each grade level across content areas. No state does this today. That’s probably true for a few reasons. Doing so may expose deficiencies in the state’s literacy, math, science, social studies, or arts standards; maybe these standards aren’t clear enough, don’t thoughtfully build from year to year, or don’t align as well as they could across disciplines. Another concern is politics: Every education policymaker can share their war stories and scars from fighting content battles, and few would voluntarily choose to reopen these wounds. If, however, the work is simply pulling out the big ideas from existing (if voluminous) state standards documents, the hope would be that the benefit to educators would outweigh the risk to policymakers.
Second, states could work with publishers of high-quality, standards-aligned curricula to augment their materials with text sets aligned to these big ideas. Large states might have enough scale to sway publishers independently; smaller states might need to band together. And foundations—many of whom fund the newer, high-quality, nonprofit publishers—might be enlisted to help fund the effort.
Third, states could align the reading passages and writing prompts in their annual assessments to their “knowledge maps”—that is, to the big ideas covered in that grade level. The results of such an assessment would give educators and parents a much more realistic idea of what students can actually read and understand. And focusing assessments around these big ideas would provide incentives for districts to build students’ knowledge.
Fourth, states could up their game around district support. They could identify those instructional materials that focus on knowledge building and incentivize districts to use those materials. They could also identify those professional learning groups that provide high-quality support anchored around these instructional materials and incentivize districts to use those providers.
Finally, states could use their influence and policy levers to get educator preparation programs to prepare aspiring teachers and principals to teach reading comprehension in a way that is deeply content-connected and focused on building knowledge (with strategies applied, as appropriate to each text) rather than focusing only on reading strategies in a content-disconnected way.
Perhaps one or two states could pilot this approach with several districts, wrapping a serious evaluation study around the work to determine the efficacy of the knowledge-first versus strategies-first approach to reading. Perhaps foundations would help fund such studies.
States have not traditionally taken deliberate steps to steer teaching and learning; they have left that to local educators. But this is the work that needs to be done, and states are in a position to support many of the necessary changes. For early literacy classrooms, it’s a question of committing to the practices known to work (and stopping those that don’t). And across grade levels, it’s about committing to supporting students in reading complex, grade-level texts that intentionally build subject-matter knowledge. This work isn’t fast and it isn’t easy, but it’s the right work to do. It’s time to relegate to the realm of fiction stories like those Wexler tells.