Some context on context

Let’s talk about ”background knowledge.” The term refers to things a child knows about the world–about people, events, and situations; categories such as animals and clothing; topics such as animal habitats and how plants grow. These are things we use language to talk and write about. This knowledge provides the “background” or context for understanding a text.1

Unsurprisingly, there are differing views about the role of background knowledge in early reading.

One side is represented by theories such as the Simple View of Reading, which states that early reading has two components: knowledge of the written code (the part that is unique to reading), and knowledge of language (already known from speech).2 The Simple View is an observation about conditions at the onset of reading. By learning about print readers gain a portal to all they have already learned from using spoken language. Background knowledge is implied in this theory (because language is used to talk about things in the world) but not treated as a principal component of beginning reading. Theories that emphasize the primacy of learning about the printed code in early reading are sometimes said to emphasize “skills” rather than “meaning” or “literacy”.

An opposing view assigns far greater weight to background knowledge in learning to read. Proponents of this view emphasize “literacy” and “meaning” over “skills.” Reading is seen as “an active, constructive, meaning-making process.” The words on the page are only the starting point for generating the interpretation of a text, which varies as a function of a reader’s personal experience, knowledge of the world, and culturally-determined beliefs about the purpose of reading. Skilled reading is seen as a heavily top-down, knowledge-driven process: given sufficient knowledge of language, topic, and genre, a child can accurately anticipate words in texts and only has to sample the letters lightly to confirm their guesses. The instructional implication is that children need to learn how to combine different types of background knowledge (or “cues”) to recognize words, doing away with the need to dwell on “skills” such as gaining familiarity with the spellings of words and their pronunciations.

We think that these seemingly opposing views can be reconciled by taking a cognitive perspective, which addresses the mental operations involved in reading, and a developmental perspective, which addresses how behavior changes as children acquire knowledge over time. Let’s look at how … More Some context on context

Lost in Translation?

We (Mark, Matt Cooper Borkenhagen, and Devin Kearns) have a new paper about the science of reading and education, to be published in an issue of the journal Reading Research Quarterly (RRQ) devoted to this topic. The title is “Lost in Translation? Challenges in Connecting Reading Science and Educational Practice”.

Some of you will want to read the paper. It isn’t very technical but it is nonetheless written mainly for the people who read articles in RRQ. With that in mind, we (my colleague Molly Farry Thorn and I) will be breaking down the major topics in a series of blog posts here. We are also going to cover some important issues that didn’t make it into the paper, e.g., efforts to seek legislative remedies for low literacy.

What’s this new paper about? Here’s the abstract … More Lost in Translation?

This is why we don’t have better readers: Response to Lucy Calkins

Lucy Calkins has written a manifesto entitled “No One Gets To Own The Term ‘Science Of Reading’”. I am a scientist who studies reading. Her document is not about the science that I know; it is about Lucy Calkins. Dr. Calkins is a prolific pedagogical entrepreneur who has published numerous curricula and supporting materials for teaching reading and writing to children. She is among the most successful, influential reading educators in this country. According to an EdWeek survey published this week, hers is among the 5 most commonly used reading curricula in the country.

The purpose of the document is to protect her brand, her market share, and her standing among her many followers. Dr. Calkins is not interested in examining the educational implications of reading science. She is interested in co-opting the term so that the science cannot be used to discredit her products … More This is why we don’t have better readers: Response to Lucy Calkins

The plural of “anecdote” is …

Every scientist has heard the adage, The plural of anecdote is not “data”. Anecdotes have scientific value—they can reveal new phenomena before they’ve been systematically studied—but they’re not facts.  They are nonetheless often treated as such, especially if several seem to make a consistent point.* Twitterer Sara Pikelet wittily observed that anecdotes are “small batch … More The plural of “anecdote” is …

Teacher qualifications: Raise the bar, remove the bar

New K-5 teachers are underprepared for the job. There are exceptions, of course, but most programs leading to teacher certification/licensure are grossly inadequate. There’s a deeply entrenched belief that how to teach can’t be taught, and so it isn’t. Teachers are left to learn on the job, which isn’t optimal for them or for their … More Teacher qualifications: Raise the bar, remove the bar

Ambiguity strikes home

“A low-income family will be less able to buy books and more likely to live in a neighborhood with fewer public libraries, which serve larger populations and contain fewer books that are in worse physical condition than those in middle-class areas.” That’s from p. 116 of my book, but what does the part in bold … More Ambiguity strikes home

Decline of Reading, 1957

Concerns about literacy levels in the US and distractions of other technologies are not new. Here’s an amusing illustration: In the late 1950s, Mike Wallace, the late television journalist, hosted a TV interview program that was just like “Charlie Rose” except that it was live and sponsored by Phillip Morris cigarettes, which Wallace chain-smoked on camera. One … More Decline of Reading, 1957

Teachers failing? Not in my book

Contrary to a headline that sometimes appears over an interview with me in The Atlantic, this is what the book says (more than once): “I must also emphasize that my concerns [about how reading is taught] focus not on teachers—their integrity, commitment, motivation, abilities, effort, sincerity, or intelligence—but rather on what they are taught about … More Teachers failing? Not in my book

Teachers aren’t failing students, the people who teach them are.

First coverage of the book, in The Atlantic, which has done a very good job covering education issues for many years. Headline on article is fine: but when you paste the URL, sometimes it comes out like this, which is wrong: Book doesn’t blame teachers at all. It’s the people who teach the teachers who are failing. … More Teachers aren’t failing students, the people who teach them are.