Some teachers—and parents—are confused by conflicting claims about how to help kids understand what they read. One thing that’s clear: what most schools are doing doesn’t work.
In my last post, I described a parent who—despite being a Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer—couldn’t do a reading assignment sent home for his kindergartner. Like most other educators, the child’s teacher was focusing on a supposed comprehension skill—in this case, “finding the main idea,” even though the passage didn’t have one.
Since the advent of high-stakes reading tests, the focus on comprehension skills has intensified, and the reading “block” has expanded to two or more hours a day, leaving little or no time for subjects like social studies, science, and the arts. That approach conflicts with lots of evidence showing that the more readers know about a topic, the better they are at understanding a text on it. In fact, some studies have shown that prior knowledge is more important to comprehension than reading “skill.” The evidence suggests that the way to boost reading comprehension is to build kids’ knowledge—ironically, through the very subjects that schools are pushing aside to spend more time on comprehension skills.
But some reading experts point to hundreds of studies showing that teaching strategies boosts reading comprehension. So what’s a teacher (or suddenly homeschooling parent) to do? Focus on comprehension skills and strategies, or focus on building knowledge? Of course, most teachers don’t get to choose; they need to adopt whatever approach is mandated, and it’s usually “skills and strategies.”
But notice that I’ve just slipped in the word “strategies” along with “skills.” Most educators use the terms interchangeably. But the studies only support teaching strategies, not “skills.” Reading expert Dr. Timothy Shanahan, referred to in my last post, is a staunch advocate of teaching the former but not the latter. He defines strategies as techniques that help readers “actively think about the ideas in text”—things like summarizing the text, questioning themselves about its meaning, and monitoring their comprehension.
Skills instruction, in contrast, tries to get kids to practice things like identifying the main idea (as in the kindergarten assignment), drawing conclusions, and making inferences. These things, Shanahan has said, have no evidence behind them—they’re like “pushing the elevator button twice. It makes you feel better, perhaps, but the elevator doesn’t come any more quickly.” And yet these “skills” are what literacy curricula and teacher-training put the most emphasis on. As a result, that’s what teachers primarily focus on—not evidence-backed strategies.
The distinction is generally overlooked—even, sometimes, by Shanahan himself. He recently wrote a blog post defending comprehension strategy instruction in response to this question posed by a teacher:
You wrote recently that it was a good idea to teach comprehension skills, but our school district says we shouldn’t, that it’s prior knowledge that matters. … Have you read Natalie Wexler’s research? It is really difficult to trust research when everyone tells us something different.
Leaving aside the fact that my name is mentioned (and to be clear, I’m not a scientific researcher; I’m a journalist who has summarized research), what’s striking is that the teacher refers to “skills”—not “strategies.” While Shanahan consistently used the word “strategies” in his response, he doesn’t remark on the fact that the teacher used “skills” in the question—so it sounds like he’s endorsing “skills,” even if he didn’t intend that.
The focus on “skills” isn’t the only difference between widespread classroom practice and what the research supports—and what Shanahan advocates. Even if most teachers were spending time on strategies rather than skills, the evidence only supports doing that for a brief period: just two weeks per year in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, according to one authority. In Shanahan’s view, there’s evidence that six weeks of instruction makes sense. But schools focus on comprehension instruction, in some form, week after week, year after year, beginning in kindergarten. Shanahan has said contradictory things about the amount of time teachers spend on strategies: in one post, he said both that “we are probably overdoing the strategy teaching” and also that, in a study he was conducting, “we aren’t seeing much strategy teaching at all.” What does that add up to? Probably that what he’s been seeing is a lot of skills instruction. Because that’s what’s going on.
Shanahan says schools should focus on building knowledge in social studies and science—just not in reading class, because the goal there is to give kids the strategies they need to understand texts for which they lack background knowledge. But elementary schools are still giving very short shrift to anything but reading and math. The only bright spot is that an increasing number are spending time on social studies and science content during the reading block, using newly developed literacy curricula that focus on building knowledge rather than “skills.”
Shanahan also urges a couple of other practices that would make sense: that teachers use complex rather than easy texts when teaching strategies, and that they ensure their students acquire knowledge of the content they read during strategy instruction. At the same time, he acknowledges that for the most part, these things aren’t happening. “When is the last time you tested kids on the content of the texts they were reading in reading class?” he asks rhetorically. Exactly.
To be clear: I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask kids to summarize what they’ve read or come up with questions about it. We can even ask them to find the main idea of a passage or chapter, if that seems appropriate. Any of these things can help kids understand and analyze information. I’m just not convinced these things need to be taught in a separate “reading” class as opposed to being woven into instruction in other subjects.
Here’s how Shanahan could have begun his answer to the teacher seeking guidance on teaching comprehension skills:
If you’re teaching skills, my advice—as I’ve said before—is to spend zero time on them, because there’s no evidence they work. If your school, like almost all others, is relying on leveled reading to have kids practice those skills, you should also be aware—as I’ve said before—that there’s no evidence that works either. And how much time does your school devote to building kids’ knowledge through social studies, science, and other subjects—or though a content-focused literacy curriculum? Because that’s as important as teaching comprehension strategies, which it’s not clear your school is doing at all.
Instead, Shanahan urged that we shouldn’t “reduce the amount of reading instruction.” He may not have intended to argue that schools continue practices he knows don’t work, but that’s how many readers will interpret his words.
The situation is bad enough for kids who can pick up sophisticated information and vocabulary at home—like a kindergartner with a Pulitzer-Prize-winning father. It can be boring and frustrating to repeatedly try to find the main idea in disconnected passages that may not even have one. But for kids from less educated families, spending the first six or eight years of their school careers without actually learning anything of substance is often a disaster. It has led to a gap in test scores and other markers of educational achievement between haves and have-nots that will only be exacerbated while schools are closed. Some kids have internet access and a safe and quiet place to work while others don’t. Some also have parents who have the time and resources to recognize when assignments don’t make sense and substitute something that does.
If there’s a silver lining to the current indefinite school closures, it’s that more parents may become aware of the fact that the elementary curriculum is seriously flawed—and maybe, once this crisis is over, they’ll mobilize to do something about it.