A Big Idea in Education That May Have Been Wrong All Along

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By Steve Figurelli

A Big Idea in Education That May Have Been Wrong All AlongIf you’ve ever experienced an English language arts classroom—especially at the elementary level—I’m certain you can picture this: 3rd grade children are working in small pockets around the classroom. Some are independently reading a “just right book.” Others are seated in a book club engaged in a dialogue around a work of fiction at their level. Still another group is listening to interactive, leveled e-books on devices. And all of this is happening while the teacher is working with a small group of struggling readers to facilitate a guided reading lesson with a level J book. All students are reading—some are engaged in grade-level texts; some are not, as determined by a running record assessment.

But what if for more than two decades, we’ve been doing it all wrong? What if by leveling children—specifically in the elementary classroom—we as educators have been inadvertently setting up students (specifically those “struggling” readers) to perpetually be behind? And, in spite of our best intentions, what if we have actually sustained (or perhaps slightly widened) the achievement gap?

The Common Core State Standards (and life) call for students to negotiate complex texts. How, then, do we reconcile the fact that for the majority of the time students spend in American classrooms, they only interact with texts at their level and are bombarded with lesson after lesson in grade after grade on, for example, author’s purpose? I have often inwardly questioned the allocation of time we spend in classrooms on comprehension skills. I cringe every time I hear a teacher lamenting that students cannot make inferences, draw conclusions, or identify a cause-and-effect relationship. The truth is, they can. In various contexts in their world (video games, art, sports, film/TV, and even about us as adults) students think critically and employ comprehension skills masterfully. They don’t forget how to do it when they pick up a traditional text.

What’s been most overlooked is that knowledge is the largest factor that affects a student’s reading comprehension ability. Strategies alone won’t solve the problem. To catapult our students to future success, we must build and strengthen their knowledge base and, subsequently, their vocabulary. A child doesn’t simply have one level; rather, a child has many levels depending on knowledge and content.

In some of the most profound research that amplifies the critical nature of building knowledge in students, the “Baseball Study”—conducted in 1988 by Recht and Leslie—found that knowledge of a topic has a much greater effect on comprehension than generalized reading ability. The study illustrated that students at lower reading levels but with sufficient prior knowledge of baseball performed similarly to students at higher reading levels. In fact, statistically speaking, the difference in performance was insignificant.

So what are the implications for instruction in our modern classrooms? Students can think critically. Students know how and can utilize comprehension strategies. The research concludes that it all boils down to knowledge. Students may enter our classrooms with a roughly 30 million word gap. We know that inequity exists based on several factors outside of school. We must commit as an educational entity to maximize our time inside the classroom to expose students to increasingly complex texts to help build their knowledge, their vocabulary, and their understanding of the world. It’s our ethical and moral obligation. “We’ve spent so much time accessing students’ background knowledge, that we’ve ignored the necessity to grow this knowledge,” researcher David Liben poignantly stated during a recent presentation at Student Achievement Partner’s Annual Core Advocate Conference, Elevating Instructional Advocacy, in Denver, Colorado. Leveling students—and only exposing low-ability readers to texts that are “on their level”—may actually preclude them from future success.

I submit that rather than spending endless weeks in the classroom plugging away at finding the main idea or drawing conclusions with traditional leveled texts, we make a concerted effort to confront the status quo. Exposing children to grade-level complex texts (as called for in Standard 10), employing carefully crafted text-dependent questions, and building students’ knowledge base ought to be the paramount objectives in our classrooms. In the primary grades, this exposure manifests through read alouds of rich texts, thoughtful discussion, and the explicit commitment to developing students’ fluency. In the intermediate grades, this manifests through consistent exposure and scaffolding so students can read complex texts independently at the upper end of each grade band. In both, it manifests through the building of knowledge about the world from high-volume reading.

We must also give students multiple opportunities to experience various texts on singular topics to build knowledge and vocabulary. Research by Landauer and Dumais illustrates that “students acquire vocabulary up to four times faster when they read a series of related texts.” Texts sets are a means to this end, as they merge various genres, media, and complexities to capitalize on students’ interests while simultaneously exposing children to a wide range of tier two and three vocabularies. Contemplate reorganizing your classroom library into topics, not levels! Encourage high volume reading, not simply to build students’ knowledge of words and the world but to foster a true love of literacy.

I challenge educators to alter their mindsets regarding teaching a mile wide and inch deep—not only in terms standards but in terms of knowledge. Despite our best intentions, research suggests that we may be approaching reading instruction all wrong. Knowledge, not isolated strategies, drives comprehension. Our kids deserve your reconsideration.

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Steve Figurelli serves as a supervisor of elementary education with the Public Schools of Edison Township in New Jersey and currently oversees the district’s K–5 science and gifted and talented programs. He is an ASCD Emerging Leader, serves on Remind‘s Teacher Advisory Board, supports instructional advocacy with Student Achievement Partners, co-organizes EdTechNJ, and is a member of the steering committee for the NJ/PA Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) conference. Follow him on Twitter @SteveFigurelli.

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