Education Malfeasance: The “Reading to Learn” Myth

I came to the world of public education late in my career, but through a golden portal, E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, a book of such broad intellectual depth and revolutionary import that it was a national bestseller in 1987. Amazingly, more than twenty years later, very few educators have read it (see here).  That’s too bad.  If they had, they would not make statements like the one Josh Thomases, deputy chief academic officer for New York City’s Education Department, gave to the New York Times just the other day:

The core problem of literacy in middle school is you’re transitioning from learning to read, to reading to learn.

Wrong. The problem of literacy is that the transition from decoding skills to comprehension should happen long before middle school.

Thomases means well. And he’s trying to clean up the anti-academic middle school mess that has persisted for far too long (see my Ed Next story).  But like far too many educators (including the authors of No Child Left Behind, who wrongly set reading up as a skill divorced from content), he misunderstands the nature of reading.  As Hirsch writes in his second, and arguably more important, book about education, The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them,

While the process of decoding from letters to language is the foundation of reading, it isn’t the essence of reading, which is the comprehension of written language.

Hirsch puts the transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn “after second or third grade,” but even then emphasizes that “early oral language masteries” and “speaking and listening competencies” are “primary,” which means that children can have language and vocabulary deficiencies upon entering school, even before gaining the “ability to turn the black marks on paper into words.”  That is significant, but as Hirsch points out,

Small incremental changes in early language learning can produce enormous consequences later on. Young children who arrive at pre-school with a very small vocabulary, and a correspondingly limited knowledge base, can fortunately be brought to an age-adequate vocabulary by intelligent, focused help, and from that base they can continue to perform at grade level.

Emphasis here on “early” and “intelligent” interventions. Too many educators, like Mr. Thomases, think that it’s all about decoding and that you can wait until middle school before providing content. Says Hirsch,

[E]vidence from a variety of sources indicates that when this language and knowledge deficit is not compensated for early, it is nearly impossible to reach grade-level skills in later grades, despite intensive remediation.

Emphasis here on “knowledge deficit.”  The problem is that our schools, focused narrowly on decoding, lose sight of the importance of “an understanding of an ever-growing number of word meanings as used in context…

Word meanings are not formal structures like grammar and syntax. They are symbols that represent ranges of knowledge and experience. They cannot be gained without learning what educators disparagingly call “factoids,” for they include words such as “birthday,” “George Washington,” “tree,” “1492,” “gravity,” and “Kwaanza.”…  [S]ince words stand for concepts and schemas—that is, for knowledge—to read at grade level also means mastery of words that represent knowledge. There is no accurate way to describe reading ability as a purely formal skill, or to remove from it the information-based knowledge disparaged as “factoids.”… The notion that reading is a mechanical skill divorced from domain-specific knowledge is as great a mirage as the idea of formal “thinking” skills.

It is a shame that in 2012 educators continue to ignore the importance of background and domain-specific knowledge as the essence of reading—and of a good education. History. Literature. Art. Music. Geography. Science. Math. These are some of the domains in which our children will find the knowledge essential to becoming truly good readers—and great students. But that knowledge must be transmitted long before a child enters middle school.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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