Ep. 1, Reading Comprehension Revisited: “Kids were bored to death”

June 28 2023 – Knowledge Matters Podcast

In the inaugural season of the Knowledge Matters podcast, education writer Natalie Wexler hosts a six-episode series titled Reading Comprehension Revisited. The author of The Knowledge Gap, Natalie will delve into misconceptions about reading comprehension that have persisted for decades. It turns out that, just as with phonics instruction, teachers have thought they were teaching comprehension when they actually weren’t.

Natalie will explain how educators and researchers came to overlook the key role of knowledge in comprehension, with devastating consequences for student literacy—especially for students from historically disadvantaged groups. And she’ll explore what we can do to change the system.

Throughout the series, you’ll hear from teachers and administrators who made the switch from trying to teach abstract comprehension skills like “finding the main idea” to using a new kind of literacy curriculum—one that builds students’ knowledge along with their comprehension abilities. And you’ll hear from a prominent reading researcher, Dr. Hugh Catts, who explains why he came to believe that we can neither teach nor test reading comprehension in the abstract. 

In the first episode, Natalie talks about three questions that led her to write about education: why students from low-income families generally score so much lower on reading tests than their more advantaged peers; why seeming improvements at the elementary level don’t carry over to upper grades; and why the billions of dollars spent on education reform have made so little difference.

All these questions turned out to be related to the same problem: In an effort to boost reading scores, elementary and middle schools spend hours every week trying to teach reading comprehension as a set of abstract skills like “finding the main idea,” cutting back on subjects like history and science. That approach leaves many students unprepared to understand texts they’re expected to read at higher grade levels.

The reason? Evidence shows that comprehension depends more on having relevant background knowledge than abstract skills. For a real-life example, try reading this paragraph from a newspaper, which you’ll hear in the first episode:

Much depended on the two overnight batsmen. But this duo perished either side of lunch—the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before—and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket.

If you’re an American, chances are you struggled to understand the paragraph. That’s because it’s from a British newspaper, and it’s describing a cricket match. Unless you’re familiar with cricket terminology, it’s impossible to get a sense of what that paragraph is telling you—let alone “find the main idea.”

The point is obvious with a specialized topic like cricket. What is less obvious is that we rely on our general background knowledge to understand everything we read.

So standardized reading tests seem to measure comprehension skills, but often they actually measure whether students have the knowledge and vocabulary to understand the passages on the tests.

Test scores—and academic achievement in general—decline at higher grade levels largely because reading passages start to assume that students have more sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary when they get older. If they don’t, they often struggle.

The role of knowledge in comprehension also explains much of the test-score gap between students from wealthier and poorer families. More affluent families are often better able to build their children’s knowledge and vocabulary outside of school, equipping them to understand more sophisticated text.

Thanks to work by advocates, researchers like Dr. Hugh Catts, and books like “The Knowledge Gap”, many teachers and administrators have begun to recognize the importance of building knowledge and vocabulary for all students. An increasing number of schools and districts are adopting coherent curricula that cover both crucial foundational reading skills and the knowledge that enables reading comprehension. And as you’ll hear in this podcast, educators are discovering that kind of curriculum is not only good for kids—they actually like it a lot more than practicing comprehension skills on random topics.

But even though our concept of  reading comprehension rests on mistaken assumptions, it’s deeply entrenched. Most schools are still approaching it in a way that holds many students back. If we want all students to become truly literate, we need to change not just the way we teach reading, but also the way we think about reading—and especially about reading comprehension.

In the next episode, Natalie speaks with reading researcher Dr. Hugh Catts. They’ll delve into what science says about how we comprehend what we read—and explore why reading researchers came to “kind of forget” about the many studies showing the importance of knowledge to comprehension.

Episode Transcript

Deloris Fowler  

We would teach the same comprehension skill for a week. So if it was like “main idea”, we’d start on Monday, do it every day. And then Friday, you’re done with “main idea”, you know, and you move on to something else. And that was another thing where I started going, hmm, is this really the best way to teach this? Because the kids were really bored to death by the end of the week.

Natalie Wexler  

Welcome to the Knowledge Matters Podcast. My name is Natalie Wexler. I’m an education writer and the author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How To Fix It”. 

I’m your host for this inaugural season of the podcast. Over the next six episodes, we’re going to revisit reading comprehension, examining what it is, how it’s been so misunderstood for much of the last 40 years, what its cost in terms of student literacy, and how we can make things better. 

The voice you just heard belongs to a teacher in Tennessee named Deloris Fowler. She was describing the typical approach to teaching reading comprehension in schools across America. During this podcast, we’ll be hearing more from Deloris and other educators about how they used to teach reading comprehension, how they came to believe there was something missing, and how they changed their approach. 

But first, let’s turn the clock back about 10 years, I was writing about education in Washington, DC, where I live. And there were some mysteries I wanted to solve. First, why was there a huge gap in test scores between students at the upper and lower ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, a gap that still exists? Also, why were things apparently improving in elementary school, at least a little, but then falling apart in high school? And why had all the efforts it’s so called education reform, and the billions of dollars spent on them made so little difference? 

I’d like to say I figured out the answers to these questions all by myself, but I didn’t. Other people explained them to me, including some teachers and former teachers. What they told me, basically, was this: elementary schools – and sometimes middle schools – spend many hours every week trying to teach reading comprehension. They do that by focusing on skills like finding the main idea of a text. But what really fuels reading comprehension isn’t skills. It’s the kind of knowledge and vocabulary kids get from learning about subjects like history and science. 

But in an effort to boost reading scores, schools have been cutting back on those subjects to spend more time on comprehension skills. Over the last 20 years, as education reformers have put so much emphasis on test scores as the yardstick of academic progress, schools have spent more time on reading and math. During that time, reading scores haven’t budged. About two thirds of students still test below the proficient level. It’s tricky to measure reading comprehension. And we’ll be talking about that in a later episode. 

For now, it’s important to know that while it may seem like standardized reading tests measure comprehension skills, a lot of what they’re actually measuring is whether kids have the knowledge and vocabulary that enable them to understand the passages on the tests. If they don’t understand the passages, they never get a chance to demonstrate their skills. That becomes more of a problem as kids get to upper grade levels where the tests and the textbooks start to assume a lot of sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary. If kids don’t have it, they often hit a wall. 

That’s the answer to one of the questions I had. It’s why things seem to fall apart in high school, or even in middle school. Some kids, usually the ones from more affluent families, are better able to pick up sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary outside school. But other kids depend on school for that. And they’re often the least likely to get it there., because their schools are focusing more on comprehension skills in an effort to raise test scores. That explains a lot of the gap between kids from wealthier and poor families. 

At first, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around all this. I’d been writing about education for several years, reading books and articles, talking to experts, and I hadn’t heard anyone mention this problem: our failure to start building kids’ knowledge in elementary school. 

But once I understood it, and its enormous ramifications, I decided I had to try to write a book that would get the issue into the public conversation about education. That book, “The Knowledge Gap”, came out in 2019. 

Since then, I’ve heard from hundreds of teachers who have told me that the book’s message makes a lot of sense to them. And more and more schools are adopting a different approach to reading comprehension, one that focuses on building knowledge and vocabulary for all students. In this series, we’ll be hearing from teachers and administrators who have been through that shift and have seen at work. 

Still, not enough has changed. Most schools in this country are still trying to teach comprehension in a way that ends up holding many students back. Part of the problem is that it’s not just the way we teach reading that needs to change. We also need to change the way we think about reading. 

There are two basic components to reading. One is the ability to decipher individual written words. That’s called “decoding”. We’ve been hearing a lot about problems with that aspect of reading instruction over the last few years, including many stories in the media. Those problems are serious, and they’re finally getting the attention they deserve. 

What are those problems? Scientists have determined that the most effective way to ensure all children learn to decode words is to teach phonics systematically, and not just phonics, which is the process of connecting sounds to the letters that represent them. Children also need to learn to hear and manipulate the individual sounds in words. That’s called “phonemic awareness”. 

Surprisingly, most prospective elementary teachers don’t learn about that scientific evidence during their training. They also don’t learn how to teach kids those basic reading skills. 

Once teachers are in the classroom, the instructional materials they’re given generally don’t help much either. Teachers may think they’re teaching phonics, but often they’re actually encouraging children to guess at words, rather than sound them out. That means a lot of kids never learned to decode words fluently. 

But huge as all that is, sounding out words is only one part of reading, and only one part of the problem with reading instruction. Everyone agrees that kids also need to learn to understand what they read. But you could read a lot of the recent news stories about the science of reading and come away with the idea that all we need to do to bring reading instruction in line with science is to add more phonics. 

Unfortunately, that’s not true. Just as teachers have thought they were teaching phonics, they thought they were teaching reading comprehension. But what they’ve been doing doesn’t line up with what science tells us about how comprehension works. And just as with phonics, most teachers never hear about the science.

Laura Salazar  

Part of the thing that I’ve realized as I’ve delved a little bit deeper into research and literacy and and by literacy here at UTEP, is that as a classroom teacher, I really didn’t know a lot of the things I’m starting to realize and recognize in the in the research and current research. And I’ve kind of come to decide for myself or start to ask the question of “Why didn’t I know this when I was a classroom teacher? Why? Why is it that the research that’s available in academia is not so much in the hands of teachers, of classroom teachers?”

Natalie Wexler  

That’s Laura Salazar, an educator in El Paso, Texas, who is now studying for a PhD at the University of Texas there, that’s UTEP. As Laura has discovered, there’s a lot of scientific research on learning that teachers rarely hear about. 

So, what DO prospective teachers learn about reading comprehension during their training? Basically, that it consists of a set of skills and strategies, like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences.” The theory is that those skills can be taught in the abstract, so it doesn’t make much difference what kids are reading about as long as they’re practicing the skills.

Most reading curricula take that approach too. There’s usually a “skill of the week” as Deloris Fowler explained. The teacher models the skill using a text chosen not for its topic, but for how well it lends itself to demonstrating the skill. Then kids go off to practice the skill on texts that had been determined to be at their individual reading levels, which could be well below their grade level. 

In most schools, children spend hours every week on this kind of practice, especially if test scores are low. But it’s not just about trying to raise test scores. 

Most educators believe that if students master the comprehension skills, they’ll be able to use them to acquire knowledge from whatever texts they’re expected to read later on. The assumption is that if you get good at finding the main idea, and other reading comprehension skills, you’ll be able to apply those skills to understand any text. 

Let’s test out that theory. You’re about to hear a paragraph from a newspaper. Try to find the main idea

Male Voice  

Much depended on the two overnight batsmen, but this duo perished either side of lunch, the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg before. And with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clark in the ninth wicket.

If you were reading that paragraph, you could probably decode all the words. You probably even know what most of them mean. But you may not be able to understand what that paragraph is about, let alone find the main idea. 

Here’s something I didn’t tell you: that paragraph was taken from a British newspaper. It’s describing a cricket match. If you’re a cricket fan, you probably had no trouble understanding it. But if like me, you don’t know much about cricket, you were lost. 

This is something scientists have known about for a long time. When it comes to reading comprehension, knowledge is more important than skills like “finding the main idea”. 

That could be knowledge of a topic like cricket, or it could be general knowledge and vocabulary, especially the kind of sophisticated vocabulary that’s more likely to appear in written language than in conversation. For example, words in that cricket paragraph like “adjudged”, “inevitable”, and “pyrotechnics”. 

Written language also uses more complicated sentence structure than spoken language. If, for example, you’re not familiar with subordinating conjunctions, words like “although”, or “despite”, which introduce a clause, that can also interfere with your comprehension. 

As I mentioned earlier, some kids are in a better position to acquire the kind of knowledge that helps with reading comprehension outside school, usually because they have more highly educated parents. In our society, those parents generally have more money, they’re in a better position to read to their kids, have conversations with them that use sophisticated vocabulary, take them into museums, take them to Europe, all kinds of things. 

Many other children don’t get those opportunities. Some people believe there isn’t much that schools can do to make up for those differences. And it’s true that schools can’t make up for all of them. 

But as we’ll hear, they can do a lot more than they’re currently doing to give all kids access to the kind of knowledge that some kids pick up at home. At schools that have tried a different approach to literacy instruction – one that focuses on building knowledge – rather than putting comprehension skills in the foreground, teachers are seeing the results. 

Here’s Erika Raines, an instructional coach at a school in Temple, Texas.

Erika Raines  

And we’ve seen huge growth with our bilingual students. The vocabulary that they’re using, the experiences that they’re gaining, and the background knowledge that they’re applying to their writings has been amazing.

Natalie Wexler  

What exactly are teachers that Erika’s school and others doing? They’re using one of half a dozen Elementary Literacy curricula that had been developed over the last several years, and aimed to build not just children’s comprehension skills, but also their knowledge. 

We’ll be talking more about the details of those curricula in later episodes. But basically, they all have at least a couple of important things in common. First, they’re organized by topic, not skill of the week. And they spend at least two or three weeks on a topic using a series of books or texts, instead of jumping quickly from one random topic to another, or staying on the same simple book for an entire week, as Deloris Fowler’s class did. That gives kids a chance to hear the same unfamiliar, sophisticated vocabulary repeatedly, which they need to do if they’re going to remember it, and be able to use it to understand other books in the future. 

And children often want to stay on the same topic for a while.

Abby Boruff  

I moved topics so quickly, I don’t think they ever had a chance to like anchor to stuff. Or if they did have a chance to get really into it, we moved on right away. And so the second that they might have, like, “Oh, this is so exciting. I want to do more with this!” Boom, we were on to something else.

Natalie Wexler  

That’s Abby Boruff, an early elementary teacher in Des Moines. We’ll be hearing more from her in a later episode. 

Besides going deeply into specific topics, the other thing these curricula have in common is that they give all students in a classroom access to the same complex text. With the usual approach, kids are limited to books at their individual reading levels, books, they can easily read themselves.

So how do you give, say, a first grader access to complex text? By having the teacher read that text aloud and lead a discussion focused on the content. Before kids are fluent readers, that’s the most effective way to build their academic knowledge and vocabulary. 

But most teachers have been trained to believe that the only way kids are going to learn to read is if they’re actually doing the reading themselves. It can take a while for them to see the connection between reading aloud to kids, and reading comprehension.

Melanie Beaver  

It’s painful at first for teachers – for experienced teachers, because they said, “This is not working. My students need books in hands”. Like, that was a recurring phrase, “Beaver, you’ve got to get us something different. Our kids need books in hands. I’m spending this many more minutes a day than I ever have reading aloud to my students. And they need to be reading the book”.

Natalie Wexler  

That’s Melanie Beaver, and administrator in South Vermillion, Indiana.

Melanie Beaver  

And what I needed to help them understand – and now they get it – is that so we’re telling me, the students can only learn about that which they can decode. And that’s so limiting.

Natalie Wexler  

Once they started spending more time reading aloud, teachers began to see changes in their students.

Melanie Beaver  

Because of that shift, then, our students, their conversations are deeper. They’re reasoning differently, their conversations with each other have more substance because they have more knowledge, because the teachers are reading aloud to them content they can’t read on their own. So that process has been kind of like a golden ticket for us, for our teachers to understand that this is still, learning is still happening.

Natalie Wexler  

Teachers who use the standard approach to comprehension may believe that they’re providing background knowledge through brief read-alouds of books. But not only are they jumping from topic to topic, they’re also putting comprehension skills in the foreground. 

They might, for example, read a book about sea mammals, but they’ll try to get the kids to focus on whatever skill they’re supposed to be teaching, maybe determining the author’s purpose. When teachers start to focus on the content of the text instead of a skill, they not only find students enjoy it more, they often find they enjoy it more too.

Janet Schimank  

And this whole idea, I think it’s so freeing to teachers, it’s like giving them the permission to really dig into the text and enjoy that and and they love doing it like that a lot better. Rather than starting with that skill and trying to, you know, wrestle up a conversation about whatever it is. 

Natalie Wexler  

That’s Janet Schimank, an early literacy coordinator in Comal, Texas.

With the standard approach, after kids listen to a read aloud that’s focused on a skill, they go off to practice it on books on completely different topics, topics they may not know anything about. And they may have a separate writing curriculum, where they try to write about other topics, which again, they may not know much about. 

A knowledge-building curriculum is organized differently. It puts the content in the foreground and brings in whatever skills or strategies are most likely to help students think about it. The curriculum includes not just fiction, but also topics in Social Studies and Science, the subjects that have the greatest potential to build the kind of knowledge that fuels comprehension.

With a knowledge-building curriculum, children also read books on their own that are related to the topics they’ve learned about through listening and class discussion, once their decoding skills enable them to do that. And they write about those same topics. 

Even if a school hasn’t adopted a knowledge-building curriculum, educators can still build knowledge. In Comal, where Janet Shimank works, they’re still using a reading curriculum that doesn’t have much content, but they’re trying to beef it up. They’ve taken the science and social studies topics in their curriculum and made them the “driving force” of instruction.  The voice you’ll hear next is Janet’s colleague, Holly Stripling.

Holly Stripling  

Like she was saying, we’re right now taking what we have and leading first with the science and social studies content and talking to teachers about the content needs to lead and those reading strategies and skills will come up behind it. And those TEKS will happen when you’re leading with that content and that knowledge and you know, making sure that they understand that their guides to the world,

Natalie Wexler  

The “TEKS” are the Texas state academic standards. As in most states, the reading or literacy standards just list skills like finding the main idea. They generally don’t specify any content. 

Another reason teachers focus so much on comprehension skills is that they feel they need to teach those reading standards directly. And that doesn’t work.

None of this is to say that teaching phonics or having students read on their own is unimportant, those things are crucial. They’re just not enough. If students get good phonics instruction, but aren’t also starting to absorb the kind of knowledge needed to understand more complex text, they’ll eventually be able to decode what they’re expected to read at higher grade levels. But, as I mentioned earlier, they may not be able to understand it. That can lead to a lot of frustration. It can also lead to kids graduating from high school, without being able to understand a news story, a college textbook, or a job instruction manual. 

Those problems – the long term consequences of focusing on comprehension skills rather than knowledge – aren’t always obvious to teachers at the elementary level. They may feel that if they do a good job teaching phonics and decoding, their students are set up for success in the future. But an increasing number are coming to see that elementary schools need to also start systematically building knowledge. 

This is Angela Kennedy, who was a reading specialist for the Clear Creek school district in Texas, and now works for a company that publishes one of the several knowledge-building curricula that are currently available. Years ago, she got what she says was “wonderful” training in teaching phonics.

Angela Kennedy  

But now I know that we were missing such a huge piece in the knowledge piece, and it actually made me cry when I was listening to Natalie Wexler’s book on “The Knowledge Gap”, because I realized how much more we could have done with those students.

Natalie Wexler  

Angela is not the first teacher who has told me my book made her cry. It almost makes me cry to hear that. 

Another former Texas elementary educator, Spring Cook, didn’t tell me she cried, but she did tell me something else I’ve heard from teachers. That they felt something was missing from their reading instruction, but they hadn’t been able to articulate what it was. 

I spent a lot of time in Texas lately, and that’s where I met most of the teachers you’re hearing from in this episode.

Spring Cook  

One day a teacher put the book “The Knowledge Gap” on my desk and said that she thought it would resonate with me. And she was right because as I began to read it, it really eloquently described something I couldn’t put my finger on. 

We had been really focusing on phonics forever. I’d been on a soapbox for phonics, but I felt like there was more to it. And that’s when I discovered knowledge-based curriculum, and it’s free in Texas. So we started using it on our campus and just saw tremendous changes right away.  Students were so excited, I was teaching a first grader about the American Revolution. And he said, “I love this lesson!” And it just warmed my heart so much. And the parents were saying what are my kids learning about? They’re coming home and telling us all about these interesting things. And our principal said that it really returned the joy of learning to, you know, her experiences. And everyone from teachers, to students to parents, were just really embracing this change and having fun with actually learning.

Spring Cook  

And the kids were growing, and their interview results showed tremendous growth. There was very few students who were still in the red, if you will, everything else was green. They were all at proficient or above, in our primary grades, particularly with our second graders, is where we saw the most tremendous growth. And so when I knew that I knew I had to be a part of the movement and just spread the word that there are programs out there that can give us the knowledge that students need and that, you know, they have to have from a very early age. Because it is a matter of equity. It’s a matter of democracy, and when we’re able to give students those skills and that knowledge at an early age then think what a better society will have.

Natalie Wexler  

Spring ended up quitting her teaching job and going to work for the company that publishes the knowledge-building curriculum her school experimented with, which Texas has indeed put online for any Texas school or teacher or even parent to use. She now coaches teachers at other schools and how to implement the curriculum. 

Natalie Wexler  

Teachers like Spring and the others you’ve just heard from are helping to change reading instruction, so that it works for all kids across the country. We’re going to hear a lot more from teachers like them in future episodes. 

Natalie Wexler  

But in the next episode, we’ll dive into what science actually says about reading comprehension and whether it can be taught or tested directly. I hope you’ll join us. 

For more information about this episode, visit the Knowledge Matters website linked in the show notes. This podcast is produced by the Knowledge Matters Campaign. You can learn more about their work at knowledgematterscampaign.org and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Search the #knowledgematters hashtag and join this important conversation. If you’d like to get in touch with me personally, you can contact me through my website, nataliewexler.com.