Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Matt Yglesias Thinks Struggling Readers Shouldn't Learn Content

Matt Yglesias is wrong, again. And what he's wrong about is too concerning to ignore. In light of recently (slightly) higher NAEP history scores he says:
"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.


  1. As a literacy specialist, I see your point. It makes perfect sense for your sons. However, when we are dealing with some serious reading disabilities (8th graders reading below second grade level) it would be nice to be able to concentrate on learning to read without the added burden of content area instruction. There is only so much time in the day.

  2. Mrs. G - I have a lot of respect for literacy specialists and for the work you do. My son worked with a literacy specialist and I've worked closely with many of them as well as I've taught many older kids with low or no literacy skills. However, even kids with learning disabilities and lower literacy skills should learn content--there needs to be balance.

  3. Ms. Levy's passage: "The goal should be not better test scores but more educated kids" sums the entire situation up. The DFER junta can't acknowledge that without undermining the entire foundation of their arguments.

  4. Until we get over the idea of reading as a transferable skill we will continue to see well-meaning but misinformed pundits like Yglesias make the logical but incorrect assertion that kids can wait to learn content until after they've learned to read. After kids learn to decode, knowledge and vocabulary drive comprehension. To suggest otherwise is like saying you should be able to ride a bike, drive a car or pilot a 747 with equal ease because you've learned the skill of transportation.

  5. I agree with you -- mostly -- but I still think you fail to acknowledge the detrimental effect of over-testing in American public education since NCLB. We continually compare PISA scores to other schools internationally without learning from their systems. The most successful education programs around the world do NOT test students yearly; do not reward (or punich) teachers based on those test scores; use test scores to diagnose problems (much as doctors use tests to diagnose illness, and that diagnosis does not determine the fees they charge); and take pains to recruit top candidates, train them extensively, retain them, respect them, and pay them commensurate with other educated professionals. What does this have to do with reading? We employ K-8 certified teachers and expect them to be experts in all subject areas, which I believe is a fallacy. Then we test test test their students, inferring that the results reflect the teacher's competence & the school's overall capability to succeed. Ironically, when results are poor we punish them with fewer resources (if our troops lose a battle in Afghanistan, should we take away their armored personnel carriers?) instead of giving them more resources to improve.

  6. Great response, Rachel.

    Yglesias sees the upward movement among lowest-performing students and takes this as evidence that the focus on reading has worked.

    He doesn't consider that there may be other reasons for this upward movement (such as increased test-taking skills) and that the levels are still very low, even at the 90th percentile.

    As you point out, it's important to teach "high-interest" content, not only because it will help students do better on tests, but precisely because it is interesting and important.

    P.S. I tried several times to post this, and it didn't go through--so apologies if you get several duplicate comments.

  7. I don't think you're being fair.

    We're talking about 4th graders here. If they can't read by 4th grade, we've got bigger problems. And that's his point. If more kids can read by 4th grade, more will be able to read history and learn history.

    You're talking about 6 year olds. He's talking about 10 year olds. If kids can't decode and read by second grade, don't you think that some intensive time should be spent to help a kid read? I guess I don't understand your point.

  8. @Pat St. T. - I hope you'll read some of my other posts. I am very much against high-stakes standardized testing. See this post for example. It just wasn't as relevant here--the NAEP while standardized, is not a high-stakes test and I hear from those I trust that it provides reasonably accurate and useful information.

  9. I'm of two minds (as I usually am). On the one hand, I pretty much agree with you. The video was quite illuminating, actually. Good choice in links.

    On the other hand, much of the "content" I learned that allowed me to be a good reader in elementary school came from books.

    Richard Scarrey might be the best example of this -- I learned about the town around me, space travel, etc.; but there were also the "Little Golden Books" that taught me about firefighters and my 1st day in Kindergarten (which turned out to be misleading). There was nonfiction, too; today kids would probably use the Eyewitness series, but I read similar National Geographic books.

    I learned about ham radios, boats, spelunking, auto repair, eavesdropping, oil drilling, and a host of other things by reading The Hardy Boys. It was just exposure, but it was obvious what they were talking about from the context of the story.

    While the Willingham video you linked to was good, the examples weren't convincing. If you saw those instructions on a washing machine you'd know what was being said. I know he was trying to illustrate his point, but illustrating and arguing a point are different things that actually call for radically different types of examples; if you want to argue a point by example, you can't stack everything in your favor the way the video did with its poorly written, out of context passages. Most books give context for the information they're conveying, and the ones that don't are crappy anyway and shouldn't be given to kids. (Nothing will destroy a kid's desire to read more than crappy books & writing!)

    If I can digress, reading aside, an other thing notoriously excellent for giving kids world-knowledge-content is television. TV can teach an awful lot about the world (though it may rot your brain). When I was in pre-school, I was addicted to National Geographic. The music -- -- still gives me little chills of anticipation.

    Anyway, getting back to reading, my "other hand" point, I suppose, is just this: there's a way of reading in which you don't just passively accept the information on the page the way you watch, say, an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. There's a way of reading in which the reader goes in and tries to figure out what this word means based on what's going on in the book or the story or the article. That's a skill that can be taught and practiced, and which not only doesn't require content knowledge, but allows the reader to create it himself.

    The process can go wrong -- I once read an Encylopedia Brown book and thought that the word "misled" meant "shot with a missile", and I was having the damndest time trying to make sense of that story. And in the end I decided that the characters were talking about something that was occuring "off screen". But I pressed on, and later it was made clear to me that I was in error. So I read it over again.

    But that sort of self-correction is possible if you're actively engaged with what you're reading. The problem (one should always be wary of sentences that start with the words "the problem") is that much reading (as far as I can tell from observing my friends' kids) is taught in a very passive, "answer the question"-oriented sort of way. Text isn't seen as a source of knowledge transmission or idea creation, but rather as the object for a stimulus-response reaction.

    And that doesn't seem to me to be a good or useful way of viewing reading, but that sort of view does seem to me to underlie the view that content is a necessary pre-requisite to "reading ability".

    So that's the "other hand". As I said, I'm of two minds, and I don't want you to think that just because I spent the majority of my comment criticizing that I actually find myself disagreeing with you.

  10. @abellia - I've taught high school students who can barely read and who read way below grade level. I taught them social studies so that they could read books about social studies and because they were very interested in social studies and because they deserved to learn about social studies like every other kid does.

    Of course if kids can't read by 4th grade (or even by 2nd grade) they need intensive instruction in decoding, but they need education beyond how to decode. Beyond learning to decode, learning to read means comprehension and vocabulary. Comprehension is built on knowledge. Can you imagine spending your school day being taught only to decode and only about reading strategies and not learning anything about the way the world works? Can you imagine how dreadful that would be?

    I really hope you'll read some of the links I provided in the post.

  11. @Michael - I'm going to see if Dan or one of his groupies can respond to your critique of his video.

    In the meantime, if you're talking about critical reading, I think like critical thinking that you can only successfully teach it as a skill in a very limited way. To read and think critically, you still need background knowledge. For example: This book says that squirrels can only be brown, but wait I've seen or read about or learned about squirrels that are black. This book is probably wrong about all squirrels being brown.

    It sounds like you're talking about using something called "context clues" to figure out what a word means. I think that is a skill and a useful one--I have taught it myself. But again, how much it can be taught is very limited (and again it's a skill that still depends to a certain extent on background knowledge, on what you already know). (And some here would probably argue it's not a skill at all.)

    We spend way too much time in schools teaching kids reading strategies such as using context clues at the expense of content. I'm not saying they shouldn't be taught, I'm saying they shouldn't be taught beyond their utility and that as teachers we shouldn't waste our students' time and our own time teaching them these skills ad nauseum and waiting until they master these skills before we teach them content. It's an exercise in futility and it's so boring (and yes, I acknowledge that somethings you do and learn in school are going to be boring).

    Be critical all you like! I was raised by lawyers, one of whom is exactingly critical, god bless him. I'm only relieved he doesn't get around to reading my blog, but I'm certainly glad you do.

  12. @Michael - I think you bring up some good points, and your criticism of the video is a valid one. I think part of the distinction you are raising (between illustrating and arguing) is also between scientific standards of evidence and popular standards of evidence. A good metaphor goes a long way in popular arguments, but doesn't count for much in a scientific one. This video is making a popular argument, and doesn't list the hundreds of examples of the ways that our reading comprehension is affected by knowledge, it picks a few good ones.
    But I think you don't dwell long enough on the importance of context, and what separates "crappy" books from "good" ones. You say that books give context clues, and that passages are rarely independent, and you are absolutely right. But our understanding and use of the context clues are dependent on knowledge, not on skills. Part of what you are identifying as a crappy book that doesn't give context, is a book that doesn't give context appropriate to the level of knowledge of the reader. While it is important to help kids avoid crappy writing, it is equally important to find writing appropriate for their knowledge.
    For your critical reading skills example, I agree that it is possible to intentionally, critically and carefully engage with a text. But I think the studies on this sort of thing have shown that it is much more like a strategy than a skill. In other words, it does not improve that much with practice. It is far far more specific than we would like to admit, and far more dependent on knowledge. Why is this? Mostly because 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.
    Which is part of what burns me up about the emphasis on reading skills. Yes, they come at the expense of content, but they also come at the expense of motivation and the joy of learning. This is not to diminish the value of learning to decode (as Rachel said, my own son had some extra and rigorous decoding training). But we should recognize that selling kids' wonder and curiosity for 5 points better on the NAEP is a bad deal that haunts us in the end.

  13. So to prove Willingham's point for him, I should be clearer about something I said.

    I mentioned Richard Scarry -- his books (at least the ones I read as a kid) are essentially giant subject-sorted pictionaries. They don't give "context clues", not as such; rather, they give pictures.

    I guess you could call pictures "context clues" if you wanted, but the idea I was pushing was that you can use books and decoding skills (once you have them) to build your vocabulary in much the same way you build your knowledge about other things through reading.

    Now, one must start out with things that are accessible, like picture books and well-illustrated non-fiction. Then you can transition into simple texts geared for your level. And Cedar's absolutely right that writing needs to be "level-appropriate" -- but beyond that the writing itself should be clear, stylistically interesting, and free of avoidable, unintentional ambiguity. (In exactly the way the laundry instructions weren't.)

    I don't think I was talking about a particular strategy for reading so much as a "course of study" for developing content awareness and vocabulary through reading. It starts way before Dick and Jane -- things like See Hear Read books can (and perhaps should) be part of it, too.

    I admit that this is a resource-intensive endeavor: you have to have access to a really wide, wide range of reading materials. But who said life was easy?

    Finally, because of length restrictions, I had taken out a short paragraph that, upon reflection, might have better been left in. In it I gave a huge caveat: that one ought to beware in all circumstances of generalizing from one's own experience, particularly mine. For as long as I remember, people have made general arguments and when I've held up some facet of my experiences as a counter-example, the answer is pretty uniformly, "But you don't count." It annoys me as few things do, but it's also such a universal reaction that I'm starting to think it's probably right.

  14. @Michael - I don't think we are disagreeing too much here. Please see my update.

  15. @Rachel,

    I'm well aware of the the idea of core knowledge and Willingham's ideas and I largely agree. But I still don't that that was the point of Mr. Yglesias. It seems to me that you took his point as a foil to present your belief, rather than taking what he said at face value.

    Wasn't he simply saying that IF kids learn to read, then they will be able learn content through reading, and if they don't learn to read, they will have a much harder time learning as one of the most important resources will be unavailable to them.

    I didn't read into his comment that you should be spending all the time in high school teaching kids to decode words if they can't read - but you darn-well better be doing SOMETHING to help high school kids to learn to read if they can't on entry.

  16. "Chaos." "Rules."
    I always remember these two words as they were in separate panels of a Marvel comic book I read as a child (around or below the age of 10) where the good guys and bad guys were in a free-for-all, no-holds-barred battle. That mental image always solidified for me the meaning of 'chaos.' My early vocabulary, which lead to background knowledge, came from reading comic books first, and moved on to Sports Illustrated, the Sports section of the Washington Post, then SciFi novels. Our parents would turn us loose onto the Smithsonian museums on weekends; talk about free and fun learning!
    Content is not only the 'hook' into reading, but becomes the knowledge store from which students can draw to fortify their reading skills and future learning.

  17. I'm a retired elementary school librarian. I don't have research here, just my experience. If you want kids to work on their reading, give them something they want to read about. I think one problem with beginning materials is that they are often fiction. It's a stereotype but I've observed that girls want to read about relationship, boys want to know about things. That said, the beginning reader market is expanding rapidly and there are many great non-fiction titles now.

  18. Why do so few bloggers reveal their email addresses?

    Will Fitzhugh
    The Concord Review


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.