by guest blogger, educational author, and journalist, Natalie Wexler
In the fall of 2016, a new student joined Sarah Webb’s fourth-grade class in an Ohio suburb—a sweet, blond-haired boy who I’ll call him Matt. His mother took Webb aside and confessed that she was worried about his reading. Matt hadn’t been diagnosed with a disability, but he’d always been placed in the lowest reading group.
Webb had seen kids like Matt before: discouraged, struggling, seeing themselves as part of “the dumb group” year after year. Neither Webb nor Matt knew it yet, but this year would be different.
Like virtually all American kids, Matt had spent his school career in a system that limits children’s knowledge of the world largely to what they can access through their own reading. But, as research has shown, up to about the age of 13 children can absorb more sophisticated text by listening than through reading. And they need to hear that kind of text read aloud to acquire the knowledge, vocabulary, and critical thinking skills that will enable them to succeed in upper grades—and in life.
The assumption has been that if kids have trouble reading, they just need to spend more time practicing their reading skills on books that aren’t too hard for them. That makes sense for decoding skills. But reading comprehension skills like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences”—which students practice day after day, year after year--won’t turn struggling readers into proficient ones. Readers can’t use those skills to make sense of a text unless they have enough background knowledge and vocabulary to understand the text in the first place.
If you don’t know much about, say, cell biology, you’ll have a hard time understanding an abstract of an article about it. For children whose knowledge of the world is still limited, lots of texts—especially nonfiction texts—assume knowledge and vocabulary they don’t yet have, making reading a confusing and discouraging experience. Even children who seem to be doing fine in the early elementary grades, when reading simple stories, can encounter serious problems later on when they’re expected to read more complex nonfiction, both in class and on standardized tests.
When elementary teachers introduce nonfiction, they generally still focus on supposed skills—for example, identifying “text features” like captions or glossaries--on the theory that they’ll help students comprehend any nonfiction text. They may jump from a book on clouds to one on zebras to one on volcanoes. But students are much more likely to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary if they spend at least a couple of weeks focusing on a single topic.
The year Matt joined Sarah Webb’s class, she tried a different approach. Her students still had time to read books of their choice at their own reading levels. But Webb also read aloud to the whole class from books that had been chosen not for their supposed ability to develop comprehension skills—the standard approach—but for their ability to build knowledge. The books were part of a curriculum called Wit and Wisdom, which provides sets of books grouped around topics like the meaning of the phrase “a great heart,” or the American Revolution. Webb also led class discussions of the books and had her students write about what they were learning.
All of Webb’s students were enthralled by the new curriculum, eager to learn more about certain topics and read more books by the same authors. The high-achieving kids were flourishing. But so were the ones who struggled with reading—including Matt.
He was keenly interested in everything the class was learning about. And the fact that he was studying the same material as his higher-achieving peers boosted his confidence to the point that he often led class discussions. After the class learned about Clara Barton, Matt wrote an entire paragraph about her—more than he’d ever written before—and proudly read it to his parents. Matt’s mother said she had never seen him so enthusiastic about school. At the end of the year, Matt wrote Webb a thank you note, saying that reading wasn’t a struggle anymore.
Wit and Wisdom is only one of several knowledge-focused elementary literacy curricula that have become available in recent years—some of them for free. Others include Core Knowledge Language Arts, Bookworms, EL Education, and American Reading Company. More and more schools are adopting them—and seeing the same kinds of results that Webb did.
But the vast majority still use the skills-focused approach. If you teach at one of those schools, or your child attends one, you can advocate for switching to an approach designed to build knowledge and vocabulary.
Parents can also supplement a skills-focused curriculum by finding several books on the same general topic and reading them aloud to their children—or having them listen to audio books like those provided by Learning Ally--at home. But until all schools treat reading comprehension as an outgrowth of knowledge rather than a set of general skills, too many children like Matt are likely to languish in “the dumb group” rather than being enabled to develop their full potential.
About Learning Ally
Learning Ally is a leading nonprofit ed-tech organization delivering a comprehensive learning solution for struggling readers in elementary, middle and high schools. Our proven solution includes the most extensive library of human-read audiobooks that students want and need to read both at home and at school. This reading experience helps accelerate learning, enables a new level of access to knowledge and powerfully increases confidence and self-belief.
Learning Ally empowers over 240,000 students with improved comprehension, vocabulary, fluency and critical thinking skills. For over 70 years, we have helped transform the lives of struggling readers by bridging the gap between their reading capability and their academic potential as they confidently become lifelong learners who thrive in school and beyond.