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Knowledge As the Key to Closing the Reading Achievement Gap

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “To Help Students Who Are Several ‘Grade Levels’ Behind in Reading, Focus on Building – and Assessing – Students’ Knowledge” by Natalie Wexler in The Education Gadfly, November 6, 2019 (Vol. 19, #44),; another article by Wexler on the same topic, “The Radical Case for Teaching Kids Stuff,” was published in August 2019 issue of The Atlantic, available at; Wexler’s new book is The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – and How to Fix It (Avery, 2019).
In this Education Gadfly article, author Natalie Wexler says it’s problematic to talk about a student reading “below grade level.” Cognitive scientists have established that students’ reading levels depend to a great degree on their knowledge of the topic. One study (which has been replicated many times) found that when seventh and eighth graders were tested on a passage about baseball, students who knew a lot about the game did well and those who knew less did poorly – in both cases regardless of their reading levels. “In fact,” says Wexler, “the ‘poor’ readers who knew a lot about baseball did significantly better than the ‘good’ readers who didn’t.”
But U.S. schools continue to judge students’ reading ability on standardized tests that measure reading skills by having students read and respond to questions on passages on random topics – thus, says Wexler, “unintentionally privileging students from educated families, who are most likely to pick up that kind of knowledge at home.”
This approach spills over into instruction, with teachers drilling skills like finding the main idea and making inferences, grouping students by their tested reading levels, and putting together baskets of “just right” books on a variety of topics. All this prevents most students from spending enough time on one topic to master the knowledge and vocabulary that go with it.
The result is a gap-widening snowball effect: students who enter school with more information and words find reading easier and more enjoyable, read more in school and at home, get more out of classroom lectures and discussions, and surge ahead, while the opposite often happens with students who enter school with less background knowledge. To make matters worse, subjects that could potentially close knowledge gaps – including science and social studies – are often marginalized as more time is devoted to building generic reading skills.
Of course some students really don’t have the reading skills to comprehend texts, no matter how much they know. Wexler’s suggestions:
• Determine if the problem is decoding or comprehension. “Standardized reading tests don’t distinguish between decoding and comprehension,” she says, “so it’s impossible to tell whether a low score means a student couldn’t read the passages or couldn’t understand them.” If the problem is decoding, which should be ascertained with a different type of test, then students need systematic phonics instruction (regardless of their grade level) so they can crack the code and read fluently.
• Give all students access to the same complex content through listening. For most kids, listening comprehension is stronger than reading comprehension through middle school. But the way many elementary classrooms operate, a lot of material is presented in grade-level texts that students are expected to read on their own. “If students are going to acquire knowledge of the world and become familiar with the conventions of written language,” says Wexler, “it’s crucial for them to hear those concepts and conventions in complex text before they’re expected to understand them independently.” Audio books are helpful, as is the teacher reading complex texts aloud and reinforcing the content and vocabulary with questions, discussions, and activities.
• Have students actively grapple with common content through writing. “Perhaps the most powerful lever for building knowledge is to have all students write about what they’re learning,” says Wexler. Writing has students retrieve information from memory and put it in their own words – two sure-fire ways of consolidating and improving knowledge and skills. The key is having all students working with the same content while differentiating the kind of writing they do – essays, paragraphs, outlines, working with sentence-starters.
• Assess proficiency through tests tied to the content that’s been taught. “It can be demoralizing for both students and teachers to have achievement measured solely on the basis of general knowledge of random topics,” says Wexler. She urges schools to follow the lead of Louisiana, which is piloting reading tests geared to the specific content being taught in each grade level’s ELA and social studies classes. Of course at some point students need to have enough general knowledge and vocabulary to make sense of passages on subjects they haven’t studied, as long as the passages aren’t poorly written or too technical. But it’s hard to say when that point will be reached. The challenge, says Wexler, is to get all students to that level.

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