Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Do Readers Shift from Learning to Read to Reading to Learn?

My brief and mostly relaxing mini-vacation in Florida was interrupted last Monday when the hotel slid a complimentary copy of USA Today under my door. Contained therein was an article by the Thomas Fordham Foundation’s Robert Pondiscio entitled, Shifting from Learning to Read to Reading to Learn.”

As education reform cheerleaders go, Pondiscio is far from the worst. He recognizes some of the educational realities that others ignore, including that high-stakes tests have a greater impact on what gets taught than do standards. He also recognizes that any standardized test of reading comprehension is not so much a reading test as a test of background knowledge. He says

But a reading comprehension test is a de facto test of background knowledge and vocabulary acquired in school and out. It doesn’t take very many missing bits of background knowledge and vocabulary to rob a reading passage of meaning.

Pondiscio even speculates that we should do away with high stakes reading tests beyond grade three. I can certainly agree with him there, although I would do away with them altogether.

When it comes to a discussion of literacy instruction, however, Pondiscio and I part company. In the USA today article Pondiscio says that he wants to clear up some “common misconceptions about reading.” He then perpetuates some common misconceptions about reading.

Pondiscio sees reading as two distinct processes – decoding – which he defines as the skill of matching sounds to letters and learning to blend them, and reading comprehension, which is making sense of the text and which he sees as “intimately entwined with background knowledge and vocabulary.”

Pondiscio sets up a false dichotomy. From the very earliest stages of reading children lean on their background knowledge and vocabulary, not only to make sense of text, but to decode. I explained the limits of “sounding it out” as a decoding strategy in a previous post. Beginning readers coordinate their phonics knowledge with their oral language knowledge and their efforts to make sense of what they are reading to decode. Here is the example I used in the previous post:

            How would you complete this sentence?

            The boy studied for the big test all ___________.

            Chances are you have generated words like the following: day, night, evening, afternoon, morning, week.

            Notice that all the words generated were nouns. All native and proficient speakers of English know that a noun will come in this place in the sentence because this is Standard English syntax. Only a noun will "sound right."

            Notice also that all the words you generated to end this sentence are nouns of time. Because we expect English to "make sense" we use our semantic understanding of the language to predict a meaningful word for the context.

            Now suppose that I showed the sentence this way:

            The boy studied for the big test all n__________.

            Immediately you are likely to say "night", because it looks right, sounds right and makes sense. Notice also that if you tried "sounding out" this word, you would run into trouble because the "gh" is silent. 

From this more complete view of decoding, we see the reader as a problem solver drawing on many pieces of information, including comprehension of the text up to this point, to decode. So, even in learning to decode, children who have rich and broad background knowledge and who are native speakers of English have an advantage that is not unlike the advantage that they would have in a test of comprehension.

When it comes to what he considers the second part of this dichotomy, reading comprehension, Pondiscio argues that reading comprehension is not a skill.

To understand Pondiscio’s stance on reading comprehension, it is important to have some background knowledge on him. Before joining the Fordham Foundation, he worked as Director of Communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation. The Core Knowledge Foundation, of course, is the organization founded by E. D. Hirsch and dedicated to the proposition that what is missing from American education is lots of knowledge of “stuff.” The Core Knowledge Foundation is devoted to the idea that kids need to learn lots of “stuff” and this “stuff” is the essence of education.

So it is not surprising that Pondiscio’s view of reading comprehension is dominated by the idea that you need to know lots of stuff to read and comprehend well. He is not entirely wrong about this, although I suspect that we could all have some good arguments around what “stuff” we should all know and that in the age of the internet whether it is more important to acquire knowledge of stuff or knowledge about how to find and critically analyze all the “stuff” that is out there.

Where he is wrong is in asserting that reading comprehension is not a skill, because it most certainly is. Pondiscio is partly right when he asserts that reading comprehension is greatly impacted by background knowledge, something that was not acknowledged by the “chief architects” of the Common Core. But reading comprehension is also partly a skill and it is a skill that can and should be directly taught (See Fielding and Pearson here and Duke and Pearson here).

What are the skills of reading comprehension that we should be directly teaching? According to Duke and Pearson they include the following.

·         preview and prediction
·         think aloud (monitoring for understanding and clarifying)
·         visualization
·         text structure
·         summarization
·         questioning
·         determining vocabulary from context

All of our good direct instruction in reading comprehension strategies cannot take the place of lots of opportunities for children to read widely in a variety of texts. On this point Pondiscio and I agree. Reading widely is critical to building the background knowledge for further reading. I think this wide reading is likely to be more productive if we also help students do it more skillfully through informed instruction in the skills related to comprehending text.

It is more useful to think of reading not as a dichotomy divided into the “skill” of decoding and a content knowledge driven comprehension, but rather as a unified and active search for meaning practiced at various levels of proficiency by children who are developing both the skill and the will to read. Children don’t shift from learning to read to reading to learn as Pondiscio suggests; they actively read to make sense of what they read from the first time they pick up a book. This effort to make sense drives the development of decoding skills, comprehension strategies and content knowledge.