Reading is NOT fundamental; What you read is

John Merrow, the sage?PBS education commentator (and one of the founding fathers of the modern charter school movement [see here]), has a new blog essay devoted to what several of his readers said about a previous postof his ?on early reading.

Merrow had written?about a popular, three-day ?Campaign for Grade-Level Reading? event in Washington, saying that he was then editing a piece for PBS NewsHour?.

?about what is often called ?the vocabulary gap' that develops in the first three years of life, I am especially aware of the need for public action.? We know that about 75 percent of the children who aren't reading competently and confidently by the end of third grade will never catch up?. No mistake: This is a crisis!

Indeed, it is a crisis.??But?quoting from his new book, The Influence of Teachers, Merrow warns against some popular and simplistic notions about reading:

Children do not need more drill in decoding. Reading specialists often draw a false distinction between decoding and comprehending, and because most tests reward decoding, teachers in the early grades may be tempted to treat it as a goal rather than what it is: a means to an end.

As Merrow suggests, this is not an?obvious point for many teachers, but?he says he got?"wake-up calls" from several people about his post, including E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (of Core Knowledge fame), who sent Merrow a copy of his February speech to the Virginia House of Delegates. The two?drilled a little deeper into the reading skill problem.

Merrow says that Hirsch welcomed the attention to reading but ?warned against focusing on the abstract concept of ?reading.' What matters most is not the skill set associated with reading (phonemic awareness, etc.), but vocabulary and content knowledge.? ?He quotes from Hirsch's speech:

The persistent achievement gap between haves and have-nots in our society is chiefly a verbal gap. There is no greater practical attainment in the modern world than acquiring a bellyful of words. A large vocabulary is the single most reliable predictor of practical, real-world competence?.

Okay, everyone gets that (in theory, at least), and it would seem to mirror what Merrow had already said.? So, he asked Hirsch, ?What does all this have to do with learning to read??

Simple, he said: it's all about content knowledge. You don't just learn to read in the abstract. You learn facts, content, concrete information. There's no ?learning how to learn' or teaching ?critical thinking skills' or ?comprehension strategies,' he warned, because those are a dead end. That approach might yield a temporary up-tick in reading scores, but no genuine lasting learning.

In my own experience, disabusing teachers ? and ?literacy coaches? and even curriculum directors ? of the notion that reading is a ?skill,? like fishing, and once learned, a child is free to learn ? well, it is as fixed an id?e fixe as you'll find. ?And because of it, we have legions of teachers?drilling ?literacy skills? into kids' heads, not just to the exclusion of other subjects, but to their continued dumbing down.??The latest invasion is that of?the reading program and reading textbook that -- let's cheer! -- include content.? A little science here, a little history there.? Neat.? See, we believe in content.

Unfortunately, as Hirsch long ago predicted,?because of our misapprehensions about reading and the failure to focus our attentions on the core subjects,?we will continue to see knowledge gaps in science, literature, history, geography,? art, and math?widen.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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