"As it happens, I agree with history advocates that we’re seeing the impact of the accountability law. What we’re seeing, in particular, is that trying to teach history to kids who can’t read is a fool’s errand. Focusing more clearly on making sure that kids aren’t falling behind in their core skills is helping the worst-off kids do better across the board even at history."This is ridiculous. Yes, it helps kids to do better on a test if they can read it, but it doesn't actually help them learn the content on the test if they aren't being taught the content. The NAEP scores are nothing to celebrate--they're pretty bad actually. The goal should be not better test scores but more educated kids. Beyond some limited explicit instruction in reading skills, what struggling readers (and all readers) need is content, like social studies, like science. Core skills are mostly built on core knowledge, not the other way around
My own twin boys had different experiences learning to read. One son was reading by the time he turned five, learning to decode (or translate letters into sounds) easily. The other was nearly six and a half before he was reading at all fluently. That son had some intensive instruction from a reading specialist at his school which undeniably helped him get over the obstacle that decoding presented him. But the hard work that he was willing to put in was powered by being interested in the knowledge that he could find in books. He couldn’t read the words, but he learned the difference between a pterodactyl and a stegosaurus from books we read to him, from television programs, and from visits to museums. In his case, basic reading skills were as much a consequence of content knowledge, as they were a prerequisite.
Is Matt Ygelsias proposing that one of my sons should have missed out on science and social studies instruction (his favorite subjects--both of my sons hate learning about reading, but love reading) until he could decode properly? Sorry, son, you learn about dinosaurs because you can't decode. You can't learn about the Revolutionary War because you can't decode. That's absurd and it's educational malpractice. Teaching content is teaching reading.
When schools spend too much time on basic skills, to the point where they’re neglecting to teach high-interest content, they are wasting kids’ time and contributing to the achievement gap in cultural capital. The road to stronger skills and a college culture is paved with rich and meaningful content. When we let skills usurp content then we’re telling kids: Not only are you bad at reading, but you’re bad at everything else; because you’re not ready to read on grade level, you’re not ready to learn on grade level. When we make interesting content contingent on basic math and reading skills proficiency, we are dangling a carrot and watching as students’ appetites languish. If they’re not getting the content, the skills will never catch up. A student will never be successful at reading if they aren’t learning about what it is they’re reading about.
Ygelsias writes intelligently on many topics; education is not one of them. For a much more thoughtful post that raises valid questions about teaching history and the recent NAEP scores, read what Michael Lopez has to say.
UPDATE: Lest someone come along and say I don't think kids need to learn to read or that they don't learn or build knowledge through reading books (or other texts such as periodicals), that is not at all what I am saying. I don't think that at all. Reading is vital.
Kids need to learn to decode and they should read as many books as possible. We can learn so much from reading books. The more we read, the more we know, the better readers we become.
What I'm saying is that learning to read is not an isolated process--learning to decode can be, but beyond that, there's no such thing as learning to comprehend or learning reading comprehension. Comprehension is built on knowledge. Knowledge is built through learning. Knowledge can be delivered via many different forms and it can especially be delivered via books. But we can not discount the significance of the background knowledge and the content knowledge that aids us in the process of reading and comprehending those books.
If I can quote Cedar from the comments below:
". . . it is exhausting to read something where you don't know what the words mean. Yes, it is possible to sit there with a dictionary and look up one or two words per sentence, but for most of us, it is taxing and unpleasant. If kids have to keep reading and re-reading, they find reading unpleasant. As you pointed out, you got your knowledge from books. Part of the reason that you got that knowledge from books is because you didn't find books exhausting."
Without background and content knowledge, reading books is exhausting for kids, and they won't do it or get better at it or learn as much as they would. But with enough background and content knowledge, reading becomes pleasurable and interesting and the more they'll do it.