Reading is all about knowledge; it’s not just for practice. When we understand that, we have a different way of looking at what our students may have lost by not being in face-to-face contact in actual (rather than virtual) classrooms. Our concern is no longer about the strategies that they may have missed out on. Reading is not like mathematics, where second-graders may have missed lessons on long division. What students have lost is the knowledge that they would have gained from text, and the only way we can ensure that students catch up is to ensure that they have texts to read—texts based on coherent topics.
It’s true that children in the early stages of reading may have lost momentum in acquiring the decoding skills needed to read independently—that’s a topic of another post. But what no or little reading really means is a lack of new information. The knowledge that comes from texts truly matters.
Knowledge about a topic is the best predictor of whether students will comprehend new material. And not only do students gain new knowledge from texts, but texts are also the place where students get the knowledge they need in order to comprehend topics of texts in their future reading. That sounds like a cycle—because it is! Texts are where you get new information, and the information that you have determines how well you comprehend the texts you read next.
Students don’t need a smattering of content—reading about dolphins in one text, the pony express in the next, and then a mystery about mummies. All that unconnected content does is to prepare students for playing games of trivia. Students especially don’t need worksheets, where they identify metaphors or syllable patterns of words, to compensate for time lost in the classroom—which is not to say that actual lessons on metaphors and multisyllabic words aren’t useful; they are, at some point.
But right now—after many students haven’t had either access to texts or the motivation to read—what they need is the chance to read texts that give them a foundation in worthwhile topics. Students need books around topics like planting gardens—stories like City Green and Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. Books need to be supplemented with articles, such as the way to grow succulents or the vegetables for a soup or what to plant for bees and butterflies.
Even prior to school closures, many American students were not reading enough to reach proficient literacy levels. We needed to get texts into the hands of students then, and now we need to do that more than ever. These texts need to be clustered around worthwhile content—topics like amazing creatures in the ocean and stories of kids who have done courageous things. To bring students to the page and get them to stay there, we have to give them texts on worthwhile and interesting topics—and then give them the chance to share what they’ve learned from these texts.
A key aspect of English language arts instruction is helping young children to develop their vocabulary. But which of the almost 600,000 words in written English should teachers teach?
The most typical answer to this question in reading programs has been to teach students lists of words—usually lists of 6 to 8 words per week. A teacher might pick a set of words from a story such as ruined, feast, cardboard, fierce, flights, pitcher, treasure, and stoops.
But when students are taught unrelated words in lists, they neither remember the words after the week of instruction nor are they able to comprehend future stories with the same words. Why?
The list of unrelated words is like a filing cabinet, where each item is in isolation from the other. But the brain’s neurons don’t fire in isolation from one another, rather they form a network. Children don’t retain words because teaching them in isolation from one another contradicts how the brain integrates knowledge.
Students need to be taught networks of words that are connected by key ideas—networks that build the background knowledge that anchors comprehension. This will help them to better comprehend the stories they’re reading right now and also the stories they read in the future.
Instead of a list of isolated words, focus on a network of words all related to what a character in a story1 may encounter, such as places or settings: studio, avenue, skyscrapers, subway platform, bleachers, ferry, station, statue, fire escapes, and stoops.
At TextProject, we believe that words matter. They’re the way we express ideas and are central to students’ learning. We have several free, downloadable resources to aid in teaching networks of words. In fact, we’ve just launched a resource that provides the networks within the 2,500 word families that account for 90% or more of the words in the texts students read. The Core Vocabulary Project is the resource that gives students the vocabulary foundation that they need to be successful in school and life.