Early readers need content knowledge

Students who cannot read early in life are barreling toward dropping out, adult illiteracy, and perhaps the welfare rolls. Someone has to intervene in these young lives—and the earlier, the better. Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee requires schools to take early action, including retaining youngsters who do not pass their standardized reading exam. This isn’t punitive, as some critics claim, or unnecessarily harmful to kids. Rather, such interventions could be the force that knocks these kids off the dreaded “school-to-prison pipeline.”

And they’re sorely needed, as witnessed by the recently released data revealing that more than 16,000 Buckeye third graders are in serious jeopardy of not entering fourth grade, as a result of failing their reading exams. Many of these children are from Ohio’s poorer areas (over one-quarter of them live in the “Big Eight” urban districts), but thousands more reside in middle-class communities. These youngsters did not earn the minimum score on their reading exam for either the Fall 2013 or Spring 2014 rounds of testing.[1] Now they have one last chance—if they want it—to take the state’s assessment this summer or to pass an alternative one.

The fact that 10 percent of Ohio’s third graders need heavy-duty summer remediation or will probably have to repeat third grade—and that hundreds more barely passed—should give us pause. Granted, many schools are struggling valiantly to help young readers, and hats off to Ohio’s educators for upping their attention on early literacy.

But can we be certain that all this effort is actually making a difference? For instance, how can we be so sure that Columbus City Schools’ “research-based” efforts, Reading Buddies, or “books on a bus” will deliver the rocket boost that legions of young readers in the district need? Even with these new efforts and a groundswell of support for literacy in Columbus, 30 percent of the district’s students still fell short on their reading exams last year.

Such activities and sentiments at least don’t hurt. But what seems to be absent in the discussions and programs aimed at improving early literacy is the link between content knowledge and reading well. In fact, how well anyone—from child to adult—comprehends a text hinges in substantial part on the prior knowledge and vocabulary that the reader brings to the topic at hand. (The reader must, of course, also know how to decode the words on the page.) To wit, most of us find it relatively easy to comprehend a text when we’re familiar with the subject matter. I can usually decipher, for example, what an education researcher is discussing, but it’s more than difficult for me to understand new research reported in New England Journal of Medicine.

Our youngest readers face a similar challenge. Consider a passage on Ohio’s 2011 third-grade reading exam: what child would be able to correctly answer questions about the Maori people in New Zealand if she had never once heard of the nation or had zero familiarity with indigenous peoples? Or consider the “literary” passage from 2008 about a boy discovering his grandmother’s antique radio: students who knew what a radio is and that Americans in decades past listened to them at home probably benefitted mightily from this prior knowledge.

So how can we boost young readers’ content knowledge? I have two simple thoughts.

First, Ohio’s schools of education ought to require content-rich coursework for their teachers-in-training, especially those in elementary-education programs. It was dismaying to read the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) recent finding that just 12 percent of ed-school programs met NCTQ’s content-knowledge standard for elementary-teaching candidates. Far too few programs require an appropriate level of coursework in science, humanities, and geography. Teachers also need pedagogical skills, of course, but if they don’t possess knowledge across the content of the subjects that they teach, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to help their students “know things.”

Second, schools—especially those located in disadvantaged communities—should embrace a content-rich curriculum. They should widen, not “narrow,” the early-grade curriculum beyond reading “strategies.” Now, more than ever, kids need more time to come to terms with history, science, and geography. Yes, this seems to defy today’s laser-like focus on “reading” per se, but it is, in fact, the way to learn to read—and much more that follows. On Fordham’s blog, Lisa Hansel of the Core Knowledge Foundation quotes ACT’s Chrys Dougherty, who writes that schools should

Teach a content-rich curriculum in the early grades. Ensure that all students receive a content- and vocabulary-rich curriculum beginning in the early years, spanning a range of subject areas including not only English language arts and mathematics, but also science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts.

This line of thought has been championed by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., the University of Virginia professor who has long argued, based on cognitive-science research, that “domain knowledge” is vital for reading well. He wrote in a 2003 article, for instance, that reading “requires the reader to make inferences that depend on prior knowledge.”

Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee has rightly focused attention on early literacy. But after a year of results, it’s evident that our schools have plenty more work to do—and even more so in the days to come with the full implementation of the Common Core imminent. Are Ohio’s schools up to the task? It depends, in part, on whether they embrace content knowledge in early grades. Content is important not just in upper elementary or middle school but also early in life. In fact, when knowledge is married with reading at a young age, we form a virtuous cycle that could last a lifetime: content knowledge breeds better reading; better reading produces more knowledge. Isn’t that what kids need?

[1] For 2013–14, third graders were required to score at least a 392 on the state’s reading exam to be promoted to fourth grade. This score is slightly below the “proficiency” cut score, which is set at 400.


Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.