To Boost Reading Skills, Restore the Liberal Arts to Elementary School

Fareed Zakaria’s bestselling In Defense of a Liberal Education worries that in the era of technology and globalization, “an open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere.” But in my U.S. News column this week, I suggest that if we really want to save the liberal arts, we should start in elementary school. Doing so would go a long way toward not just rescuing the liberal arts, but raising reading achievement.

I had this thought while reading Dan Willingham’s terrific new book Raising Kids Who Read. Nearly every idea I’ve ever written about reading, I’ve borrowed or stolen from Dan—but none more important than this: Reading comprehension is not a “skill.” Once a child learns to decode fluently, he notes, the biggest factor in a child’s ability to read with understanding is knowing at least a little bit about the topic he or she is reading about.

From the piece:

To be educated in the liberal arts is to have a broad grasp of literature, art, music, history, and the sciences. That’s also a fair description of what it takes to be a good reader….If this bedrock principle—knowledge drives literacy—were widely understood and embraced, American elementary education would likely look quite different than it does today. The broad thrust of K–5 schooling would be to expose children to as much science, art, music, and history as possible. Field trips, assemblies, school plays, music lessons, and chess clubs would likely be viewed as essential, not extracurricular.

However, in a recent blog post about his book at the Washington Post, Willingham pointed out that, by all available evidence, “most study time in elementary grades is devoted to English Language Arts and math, with other subjects (science, civics, geography et al.) accounting for perhaps ten or fifteen percent of instructional time.” Something like the liberal arts on training wheels would be just what we need to raise reading achievement.

It’s worth noting that a shift from a skill-driven vision of literacy to a content-driven approach is supposed to be one of the big instructional shifts under Common Core. As I note over at U.S. News, building strong readers is not about practicing the “skill” of reading. It’s about equipping the mind with the mental furniture that good readers have and all readers need.

– Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on Common Core Watch

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