Just in the nick of time for the last days of summer beach reading, there were a pair of big stories about reading instruction in TIME magazine and The New Yorker last month. That’s about as mainstream as media attention gets, and signals that maybe the tide really has turned on literacy instruction in American schools. Given the undeniable magnitude of learning loss after three successive school years disrupted by Covid, such a shift couldn’t be more welcome or timely.
A third recent piece got less attention than those other two but deserves no less. Last month, the Knowledge Matters campaign (I was a co-founder in 2015) released a statement from its scientific advisory committee, which rightly lauds the blossoming “Science of Reading” movement as “an important catalyst for improved and more equitable outcomes for all students.” But the statement wisely observes that this laudable and overdue enthusiasm for research-based instructional methods and materials has “often been interpreted far too narrowly as exclusively focused on foundational skills.” The statement continues:
Reading success requires much more than foundational skills. There are other factors critical for literacy development, including those that address language, meaning, and communication. Among the most important is knowledge. Knowledge is necessary to comprehend what we read. Foundational skills are literally meaningless unless readers can make sense of words and texts. This sense-making requires knowledge that must be systematically built (not just activated!) through instructional experiences and curricula that evoke curiosity and the desire to learn more. In short, knowledge matters.
Regular readers know that I’m a fervent disciple of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who has articulated a clearer view of educational “equity” than any other researcher or theorist of the last half century. “We will be able to achieve a just and prosperous society only when our schools ensure that everyone commands enough shared background knowledge to be able to communicate effectively with everyone else,” he observed. This is no mere homily. Hirsch’s body of work centers on a simple fact about how language operates: Writers and speakers make assumptions about what their readers and listeners already know, which makes language a kind of shorthand. When those assumptions are correct, communication is fluid and effortless; when they’re faulty, comprehension collapses.
This scientifically unassailable insight, however, has vast and unavoidable implications for K–12 education, for curriculum, and ultimately for the long-term success or failure of the science of reading movement itself. Following the science where it leads suggests that the most important job of public education in a diverse nation is to ensure that every child—rich or poor; Black, White, or Brown—has fair and equal access to the same body of knowledge in history, science, art, and literature. Foundational reading skills are just the starting line of literacy and language proficiency.
Getting to the finish line will be uphill work. Fashionable thought in education practice and policy has long run in the opposite direction, dwelling on socioeconomic differences between students, and nearly fetishizing personalized or culturally-affirming curricular content. Think the “reading wars” pitting phonics against whole language were painful? That was small beer compared to fights over curriculum content. Our reluctance to state what kids need to know surely contributed to the dominance (and failure, mostly) of content-agnostic “comprehension strategies” instruction and “leveled” reading.
I’ve never given a talk on the importance of building background knowledge to improve language proficiency where someone didn’t ask, “Well, fine. But whose knowledge should we teach?” It’s a question usually aimed at probing for cultural biases in curriculum. University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, one of the signers of the Knowledge Matters statement, has heard the “whose knowledge” question, too. He sympathizes with educators’ reluctance to make decisions that might make people uncomfortable or angry. “But we can’t avoid choosing,” he usually replies. “Doing nothing is a choice and probably the worst one. It leads to incoherence across years which is bad for everyone and worst for children with limited opportunities to acquire background knowledge outside of school.”
Follow the science: If we know that shared knowledge is essential to language proficiency, and that reading comprehension cannot be reduced to an all-purpose suite of “skills and strategies,” then our reluctance to build knowledge in a systematic and coherent way is not merely a poor choice, it’s choosing to impose illiteracy on disadvantaged children. Initiatives like the Knowledge Map project being undertaken at Johns Hopkins under David Steiner (another Knowledge Matters science advisor), which evaluates the content knowledge that an English language arts or social studies curricula reinforces or omit, might offer a way forward to schools, districts, and states squeamish about answering the question of “whose knowledge” is to be taught.
Even careful, sophisticated mainstream media pieces like those in TIME and The New Yorker elide or fail to parse sufficiently the difference between decoding and reading comprehension, or teaching foundational literacy skills and the long-term, patient, and painstaking knowledge-building work needed for language proficiency. I’ve long noted that my fifth grade students in a low-performing South Bronx elementary school could all decode. Yet they struggled with comprehension of what they read. The issue was not lack of student engagement, “culturally relevant pedagogy,” or our failure to get students to fall in love with books, which New Yorker writer Jessica Winter eviscerates as “vibes-based literacy.” It was the inevitable result of an education that was, as I’ve written elsewhere, all mirrors and no windows—a proof point of the caution sounded by Knowledge Matters’s science advisors.
If you’d told me ten or fifteen years ago that educators and state lawmakers would embrace a movement called the “science of reading,” and that hundreds of thousands of teachers would join online forums to learn everything about reading instruction they weren’t taught in ed school, I’d have responded, “Well, great. But not in my lifetime.” So, it’s hard for me to be sanguine that we will develop taste for prescribing content at a time of heightened “culture war” sensitivity.
But neither did I expect the rise of the science of reading movement.