“American elementary education has been shaped by a theory that goes like this: Reading—a term used to mean not just matching letters to sounds but also comprehension—can be taught in a manner completely disconnected from content.”
This quote from “The Radical Case for Teaching Kids Stuff” by Natalie Wexler (The Atlantic, August 2019) pretty much sums up the situation in our classrooms since the No Child Left Behind legislation that put our educational system on the road to standardized testing.
Teaching reading comprehension without knowledge does not work. We have tried it long enough. Let’s go back to the old way of teaching kids to read as we teach them science, history, geography—hey, wouldn’t it be great if they knew where England, for example, is located? What if they knew we once belonged to England? Now there’s a novel bit of trivia. Who would have thought?
Studies have shown that the poorer children, especially, suffer. Children in more affluent homes usually read better than their less affluent counterparts because they are exposed to more experiences and therefore know more about the world. They have been to circuses, plays, symphonies, vacations to various interesting and different kinds of places. They just know more.
Research reveals no difference between “good and poor third-grade readers’” recall of text that dealt with familiar topics, but poor readers were “significantly” less able to recall text that dealt with unfamiliar topics. Wexler tells the story of students who were tested for their reading ability and for their knowledge of baseball, for example. Then they read a selection about a baseball game. The poorer readers scored as well as the good readers if they knew the game before they read about it.
What better way to teach reading than by piquing kids’ interest in the world around them? Read to them, let them read, and in other ways teach them about birds, about trees, about animals, about anything and everything. Children are naturally curious about everything. Their reading comprehension will increase quite naturally as they delve into information that interests them.
You have seen reporters interviewing people on the streets of some city, asking questions everyone who is alive and awake should know. You have seen people unable to answer questions such as who was the first president of the United States? For shame, American legislators of education.
It is past time to take advantage of those young brains voracious for knowledge just for the sake of knowing. I am tired of trying to teach college students who know so little of their history, their country, the world around them. Who ask when given an assignment to read, “Now what are we supposed to get out of this?” My answer, “Whatever is in it,” leaves them looking perplexed. I am considered a hard teacher because I insist that they think, and they don’t know how. So sad, and so needless.