What Can You Do to Improve Your Literacy Instruction This Fall?
For decades, we’ve been trying to improve students’ reading comprehension and writing ability. But we haven’t seen much in terms of results. On national tests, about 66 percent of students have consistently scored below proficient in reading—and almost 75 percent have scored below proficient in writing. For some student subgroups, those statistics are even worse. Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working.
When it comes to reading comprehension, the evidence indicates we need to move away from the standard approach: Having students spend hours every week practicing comprehension skills and strategies, like “making inferences,” using easy-to-read books on random topics. That approach overlooks a key ingredient in reading comprehension: Knowledge.
Studies show readers who have more knowledge—whether it’s knowledge of the topic they’re reading about or general academic knowledge and vocabulary—also have better reading comprehension. In fact, that kind of knowledge is far more important to comprehension than abstract comprehension skill.
So, to boost students’ reading comprehension, we need to focus less on skills and more on building knowledge and vocabulary. A great way to do that is by immersing students in topics in social studies and science as well as literature.
If teachers put the content of texts on those topics in the foreground and ask questions designed to spur students to think analytically about that content, the comprehension skills we want them to acquire will follow. And students are often far more engaged in what they’re learning.
Knowledge has also been the missing key ingredient in writing instruction. It’s hard to read about a topic you don’t know much about, but it’s virtually impossible to write about one! And yet, many writing curricula with separate topics ask students to do just that.
Another approach is to have students write about their personal experiences or opinions—which they do have knowledge about. But if we do that, we’re not using writing to deepen the knowledge we want students to acquire—the knowledge covered in the core curriculum. Studies have shown that when students write about what they’re learning, it significantly improves their comprehension and retention of the information, in any subject and at any grade level.
For many students, the standard approach to literacy instruction has only made reading and writing even harder than they need to be. Enabling students to read and write about topics they’ve already learned something about can not only improve their literacy ability, but it can also change their concepts of who they are and what they’re capable of doing.