January 9, 2009

Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

Dan Willigham has a new video up on the importance of content instruction in reading and comprehension. Willingham and Don Hirsch have making these same points for some time now. But the video makes this information more accessible.

BTW, Willingham also has a new article on memory in the new American Educator which you should also read.

And, would you believe that I actually beat the inestimable Core Knowledge Blog in posting the video. Take that Pondiscio.


Robert Pondiscio said...

Step away from your computer for a half hour and DeRosa gets the drop on you.

Great video, isn't it? I hope every teacher in America sees it. The content/comprehension connection is simply not understood in early elementary ed.

KDeRosa said...

You've been scooped.

And, it's not like its voodoo either.

Anonymous said...

Well, this certainly undermines the claim that NCLB forces curriculum narrowing.

[vhhh-whhhh] Never underestimate the power of our fully operational maladaptive responses...

Robert Pondiscio said...

In practice, NCLB does force curriculum narrowing. I don't mean this to sound dismissive, but there seems to be this idea that teachers are current on educational research and literature. They're not. On the other hand, I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone in my school say that teaching core curriculum is a luxury that can wait until after the kids have learned how to read. The idea that there's a connection between content and comprehension is an epiphany for teachers, especially the young inexperienced teachers who staff many struggling urban schools. The unambiguous message that has hit most struggling schools is that we need to heavy-up on reading. My 5th graders came into my room without a minute of social studies under their belt.

Anonymous said...

It's important information, but the video could use another draft or two. If you are serious about wanting to convince people who disagree with you, you need to find someone who has "content knowledge" about making a good video and put them to work.

Dick Schutz said...

The video does a good job--right up to the climax, when it completely collapses. Teaching "content" is NOT teaching "reading." Teaching content is teaching the background information to understand the written communication.

Had Dan used speech to convey the communications he used to make his points, we wouldn't have understood them any better than we did when we read them.

Teaching background information can be done using spoken language. When children have been taught to decode, they can read to expand their background information.

The crux is the slide, "If you can decode, you can read anything."

You can't read what you can't decode, and you won't understand what you're reading if you wouldn't understand it were the communication spoken.

Prevailing reading instruction and testing is mis-instructs and mis-tests. The emphasis on "comprehension" wastes instructional time on "strategies" that warrant very little time--as the video states. And standardized reading achievement tests don't measure decoding. They measure the differential opportunities that kids have in acquiring the background information that schools aren't providing. In short the tests measure SES differences.

Not only is the content/comprehension/instruction/testing connection "not understood in early elementary ed" as Pondisco notes. It's not understood in NCLB or in the 5 essentials of the "New Science of Reading."

This is serious stuff. There is indeed a "reading problem." It goes to the Core Knowledge of the absence of background information regarding the structure and substance of the Alphabetic Code and the history of language and the English/American language in particular.

How much of this content has been taught to anyone in EdLand? Near zero.

Anonymous said...

No offense to Professor Willingham, but it's a dull video. I was interested in the topic and predisposed to agree with him, and had essentially to pinch myself to keep watching until the end. I'm glad I did, but I can't imagine someone who didn't already appreciate Professor Willingham's insights would have kept watching.

That doesn't mean it needs to be "flashier." I don't pretend to know which elements need tweaking, though I would guess pacing and organization would be involved. This isn't a lesson--you're not able to use reinforcement techniques to keep the viewer's attention. I would think the point would be to capture someone's interest long enough and get the key point across succinctly enough that they will want to learn more.

But feel free to dismiss my point and spend more time preaching/arguing within the choir.

Parry Graham said...

One of the big challenges we face at the middle and high school levels is that so much of the content students are supposed to learn (especially in science and social studies classes) is transmitted via text, whether in a textbook, supplementary text, or online. And because those texts are often written at a level above our struggling readers, the problem is compounded: students aren't able to learn the content knowledge that would help them read other texts because they can't read the content texts.

As a total aside: Dan, if you read this, could you also post your videos on TeacherTube? YouTube is blocked in my district (and I would guess in many other districts), but TeacherTube is not.


Dick Schutz said...

Parry says: "students aren't able to learn the content knowledge that would help them read other texts because they can't read the content texts."

This happens all along the way, Parry, not just at the middle and upper grades.

The prevailing view of reading experts doesn't even acknowledge "decoding." "Phonics" is regarded as one "essential." But it's subordinated to "comprehension." And "comprehension" is viewed not as background information but as a matter that can be taught as such, contrary to the message of the video.

Some kids learn to read with no instruction, and some kids learn to read despite the mis-instruction. But many of these don't learn to read well enough to acquire the cumulative background information necessary to acquire broader academic expertise.

Stanovich gave us a label for what goes on: "The Matthew Effect." But the effect is still thriving and is an EdLand growth industry.

Parry Graham said...


I agree that similar issues exist at the elementary level. One of the big differences that I have seen between the elementary and secondary grades, however, is that "teaching students how to read" is an instructional and organizational focus at the elementary level. Whether or not it is done well, it is at least focused on explicitly.

In contrast, when students reach the secondary level (typically 6th grade and beyond), "teaching students how to read" is no longer an instructional or organizational focus. The implicit instructional and organizational assumption is that students already know how to read, and that they can use reading as a significant means of learning content. There are few resources devoted to helping struggling readers, and most of the professionals in the building have no formal training in teaching reading. The one possible exception might be special ed, in which there might be explicit classes focusing on teaching students how to read (including explicitly addressing decoding).


Dick Schutz said...

You describe the scene very accurately, Parry. More's the pity!

Any attention given to decoding ends in grade 3 at the latest, which is where NCLB-mandated testing BEGINS, and the continues through the grades through high-school, where as you say, only lip-service at best is given to reading instruction per se.

The Reading First Impact Study is evidence that children are not being reliably taught to read in Grades 1-3. And the Haan Foundation Study is evidence that the "best" remedial reading programs in use do not teach "struggling readers" (to use the popular euphemism)in Grades 3 and 5 to read.

The Willingham video goes a long way to illuminate the mis-instruction, and the mis-testing which the video doesn't deal with, contributes to the dysfunction.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it's quite feasible to reliably teach kids to read and "comprehend" any text composed of terms within their vocabulary, This can be accomplished by the end of Grade 3 at the latest, and the job can be over for most kids earlier than that.

Undoing the mis-instruction for older kids is also feasible. Older kids have assets that younger kids don't have due to increasing mental age--They're smarter just as a result of having lived longer. So they needn't recapitulate the instruction appropriate for littlies.

Technically, straightening out the mess is not a "big problem." However, given all the powerful interests that are benefiting from the status quo, the political obstacles are huge.

Parry Graham said...


Are you familiar with any reading programs that specifically target the middle school years? I am currently looking at several intervention software/Webware packages focusing on reading, but I would be interested to hear if you know of any good programs (electronic or otherwise). I am looking for something that could you be used for multiple kids throughout a school.



Dick Schutz said...

Parry asks: "Are you familiar with any reading programs that specifically target the middle school years?"

There's a lot of stuff "out there," but I have a conflict of interest. The only thing I know of that I'd recommend as effective is instructional development in which I’m personally involved and which I don’t want to promote here. I’d be glad to talk about it privately at 3RsPlus@usinter.net

Dick Schutz said...

The U. S. has a larger “comprehension” problem. In President Bush’s last policy address at General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia, the President says such things as:

“…I've come to herald the success of a good piece of legislation.”

“People say, can you possibly meet the goal you set? And the answer is absolutely we can meet the goals that we've set”

“Schools have adopted research-proven strategies for reading instruction.”

“Now, under this system, if your public school is failing, you'll have the option of transferring to another public school or charter school. And it's -- I view that as liberation. I view that as empowerment.”

“…we actually break each child out to determine whether or not he or she is getting the kind of education parents and society expects. And that's an important reform.”

“No Child Left Behind is working for all kinds of students in all kinds of schools in every part of the country. That is a fact.”

There’s more if you want to read it:

The fact is, at very the school where the President was speaking

“60% of all students are reading on grade level”


Had the President picked students at random to read to the audience, 40% would have “struggled.”

In education as in Iraq, the President was poorly served by bad Intelligence. That’s sad, but even sadder is that he received bad educational Intelligence throughout his term of office.

That’s a “comprehension problem” with very large ramifications.