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Formal comprehension skills can only take students so far; knowledge is what enables their comprehension to keep increasing. The staff and children at the school Perlstein visited do not need more skills training. They need a revolution in the ideas that now drive reading comprehension instruction. Recently, schools have begun to do a much better job of teaching all children to become good first-step readers who can turn printed symbols into sounds and words quickly and accurately, a process called decoding.

The importance of systematically and effectively teaching decoding cannot be overstated and the role played by AFT members in making such instruction better understood and more commonplace can hardly be overstated either. But becoming a skilled decoder does not ensure that one will become a skilled reader.

There are students who, after mastering decoding, and reading widely can, under the right circumstances, gain greater knowledge and thence better reading comprehension. But such gains will occur only if the student already knows enough to comprehend the meaning of what he or she is decoding. Many specialists estimate that a child or an adult needs to understand a minimum of 90 percent of the words in a passage in order to understand the passage and thus begin to learn the other 10 percent of the words.

Reading becomes a kind of Catch In order to become better at reading with understanding, you already have to be able to read with understanding.

Chapter 1. What Makes a Question Essential?

Long before Joseph Heller's Catch , this idea was implied in the Gospel of Matthew, which stated that those who already have shall gain more, while those who have not shall be taken away even what they have. Alluding to this biblical passage, cognitive scientists and reading researchers have spoken of the "Matthew effect" in reading. Those who already have good language understanding will gain still more language proficiency, while those who lack initial understanding will fall further and further behind. As scientists have probed more deeply into the nature of language comprehension, they have discovered that what the text implies but doesn't say is a necessary part of its understood meaning.

In fact, what the text doesn't say often far exceeds what it says. Just as with "Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run," the reader or listener has to fill in the blanks and make the unstated connections. This is hardly a new observation. The ancient Greeks knew it, and Aristotle even gave the phenomenon a name—enthymeme—which is technically a syllogism with some of the logically necessary steps left out. But that is because their relevant knowledge enables them to supply the missing inference: "Socrates is a man. To different extents, all speech has these blank spaces. Cognitive psychologists have determined that when a text is being understood, the reader or listener is filling in a lot of the unstated connections between the words to create an imagined "situation model" based on domain-specific knowledge.

In , the Civil War started. It lasted until It was American against American, North against South. The Southerners called Northerners "Yankees. General Robert E. Lee was in charge of the Southern army. General Ulysses S. Grant was in charge of the Northern army.

Direct Instruction is not a solution for Australian schools | EduResearch Matters

Potentially, this passage is usefully informative to a second-grader learning about the Civil War—but only if he or she already understands much of what's addressed in it. Take the phrase "North against South. The child needs a general idea of the geography of the U.


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Then a further inference or construction is needed: The child has to understand that the names of geographical regions stand for the populations of those regions and that those populations have been organized into some sort of collectivity so they can raise armies. That's just an initial stab at unpacking what the child must infer to understand the phrase "North against South. To understand language, whether spoken or written, we need to construct a situation model consisting of meanings construed from the explicit words in the text, as well as meanings inferred from relevant background knowledge.

The spoken and the unspoken taken together constitute the meaning. Without this relevant, unspoken background knowledge, we can't understand the text. That is why we are able to understand some texts but not others—no matter how well we can decode the words imagine trying to understand a technical article on astrophysics. Since relevant, domain-specific knowledge is an absolute requirement for reading comprehension, there is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading.


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  • Among experts on reading, there's one group that understands this particularly well—the makers of standardized reading comprehension tests. Such tests always include a diversity of passages on quite different subjects.

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    Through experimentation, test makers found that such variety is absolutely critical to the validity and reliability of the tests. If they sampled just one kind of subject matter, their tests would prove to be inaccurate as measures of general reading ability. Because of the inevitable influence of background knowledge, someone who reads well about the Civil War may not necessarily read well about molecular interactions. If a test is to measure general reading ability, it must include passages that sample a person's general knowledge of several kinds of subjects.

    Comprehending a text depends on knowing the meanings of most of its words. An adequate early vocabulary is, therefore, fateful for later reading achievement. Other things being equal, the earlier children acquire a large vocabulary, the greater their reading comprehension will be in later grades.

    Vocabulary growth is a slow process that gradually accumulates a very large number of words and, therefore, must be fostered intensively in the earliest grades if we are to bring all children to proficiency in reading as quickly as possible. Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich have shown that under current conditions of American schooling, vocabulary in second grade is a reliable predictor of academic performance in 11th grade.

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    That a person has learned roughly 60, to , words by 12th grade is one of the most remarkable feats of the human mind. Even though how we do it remains something of a psychological mystery, recent work has taught us enough about vocabulary growth to formulate some conclusions about the most productive means of enlarging children's vocabularies, especially among students whose initial vocabularies are relatively small. One critical finding is that word learning takes place most efficiently when the reader or listener already understands the context well. For example, researchers have found that we learn the words of a foreign language most effectively when the subject matter is familiar.

    This finding appeals to common sense. You can guess accurately what the word ought to mean in the context because you know what is being talked about. This picture of how words are learned in context is supported by recent research, which shows that we infer the meanings of words by grasping the whole meaning of the utterance in the form of a mental situation model.

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    If we are hearing a story about a team of firefighters putting out a fire and we encounter the word flames for the first time, we can make a good guess about what it means because we understand the situation referred to in the sentence in which flames is used. We must grasp this whole situation precisely or vaguely when we understand what is said or written.

    This understanding of the whole context is the basis for guessing the meanings of new words. This fact explains why we learn words up to four times faster in a familiar context than in an unfamiliar one. The Matthew effect in reading, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, is inevitable in the case of vocabulary and knowledge. As we've seen, experts say that we need to know at least 90 percent of a text's words to understand it.

    But those students who know only 70 percent of the words will not understand the text and thus, will neither begin learning the other 30 percent of the words, nor acquire knowledge from the text. Now, after looking at the text, they are further behind the advantaged group than they were before they read the text. If this pattern continues, the gap between the two groups will grow with each successive language experience. Let's focus for a bit on the subject of speeding up word learning for disadvantaged children. Between the ages of 2 and 17, an advantaged child learns an average of 10 to 15 new words a day.

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    The number of new words gained per unit of time is rather small at age 2, and it rises with each succeeding year. In later life, when people already know most of the words they hear and read, the number of new words they gain per year slows down again. This nonlinear pattern of vocabulary growth allows us to make a hopeful qualification of the Matthew effect in reading comprehension. Vocabulary growth in the typical school is similar to the growth of money in an interest-bearing bank account. Suppose the interest on money is compounded at 5 percent a year.

    That is because the growth rates stay the same for both accounts and the supply of money is not limited. That pattern, unfortunately, describes the vocabulary gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students—it widens over time. If a student who is behind in word knowledge can be brought to know 90 percent of the words that she hears and reads in school, then she can pick up new words at a faster rate than the advantaged student who already knows 95 percent of the words heard and read in school.

    This is because the former child is getting more opportunities to learn new words since she is further from a point of diminishing returns. Besides this structural possibility for narrowing the vocabulary gap, there is a further opportunity for catching up, depending on the special richness of the vocabulary being studied in school. That is because the vocabulary heard in school is potentially richer than the vocabulary heard outside school. Oral speech tends to use a smaller vocabulary than written speech. Such is the case for the fundamental, inescapable importance of substantial, broad background knowledge for reading comprehension and for performing well on reading comprehension tests.

    Direct Instruction is not a solution for Australian schools

    But agreement on this begs the next question: Knowledge of what? What knowledge should the schools be responsible for teaching to all kids? I believe that part of the answer is quite straightforward, and I hope uncontroversial—and to teach it ought to take about 40—60 percent of curricular time.

    I will return to this question in a moment and explain how I think we should answer it. But beyond this central core of knowledge that all students should know, how should the rest of students' curricular time be spent?

    Exactly how much emphasis should schooling give to a particular event, individual, or historical trend? The answers to these questions will always be somewhat subjective. Individuals from different regions and from different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds may have particular views about what the proper emphases should be. In addition, local districts, states, schools, and individual teachers will have particular ideas about what should be taught, given their particular histories and their own knowledge of what is interesting, relevant, and useful to the students in their schools and classes.

    Part of the curriculum, perhaps about half, should be reserved for topics that have local resonance. Different locales will make different choices and the debates over those choices will no doubt be lively and interesting—and hopefully enrich our children's education in many ways. But while we pursue these debates and encourage local areas to make different choices about how to allocate this portion of the curriculum, let's also move quickly to identify what should be in the half of the curriculum that all students deserve to be taught. The question that we need to answer is what must students learn so that as adolescents and adults they are able to comprehend written and spoken material aimed at educated general audiences—newspaper stories of civic interest, political debates, popular books and magazines, entry-level college texts, job-related reading, high school exit tests and SATs, directions and commentaries by employers, testimony heard by juries, etc.

    Students who possess this knowledge are prepared to participate in civic life, move up career ladders, succeed in college, converse confidently with a wide variety of Americans with whom they work or socialize, and generally have the esteem that comes with being regarded as an educated person. To sketch an answer to the question of what knowledge, we need a good understanding of the notion of the "general audience. It sounds almost circular, but it means that they possess the shared knowledge that is assumed by individuals who communicate with an educated general audience.

    Every newspaper and book editor and every producer for radio and TV is conscious of the need to distinguish what can be taken for granted from what must be explained. Learning the craft of writing is bound up with learning how to gauge what can be assumed versus what must be explained. The general reader that every journalist or TV newscaster must imagine is somebody whose relevant knowledge is assumed to lie between the total ignorance of a complete novice and the detailed knowledge of an expert.