Portrait of Natalie Wexler
Israel Vargas

Rethinking How We Teach Reading in Elementary School

To become better readers, Natalie Wexler says, students should grapple with abundant, high-caliber texts in the elementary grades—not just skills and strategies.

July 28, 2022

It’s time to teach reading differently, says the journalist Natalie Wexler, because for decades we have failed to turn out proficient readers of challenging texts. 

At the root of the problem, Wexler writes in her best-selling 2019 book, The Knowledge Gap, are elementary school ELA curricula that emphasize the type of skill building assessed on standardized tests—things like finding the main idea in a passage or learning how to make inferences. In a system that heavily relies on test scores, schools prioritize teaching these as discrete skills, rather than building up a foundation of rich background knowledge in subjects like history and science. The result is a persistent achievement gap that puts many students at a disadvantage as they enter their middle and high school years.

“The schools where the test scores are lower are the ones where the kids rely most on school for the kind of academic knowledge and vocabulary that fuels reading comprehension,” says Wexler, who observed U.S. classrooms over the course of a school year and drew heavily on the work of cognitive scientists and the professor and literary critic E.D. Hirsch. “The kids who are coming from more highly educated families have a better chance of absorbing that academic knowledge at home, which really accounts in large part for this gap in test scores.” While some topics may seem too challenging for the early grades, lively teaching, including frequent read-alouds, can make even dense subjects come to life in the classroom. “Students can actually enjoy the process of acquiring all of this knowledge that’s going to be useful to them in years to come,” Wexler concludes. 

Critics of Wexler argue that teachers never deprioritized the teaching of subjects like history and science at the elementary level, and that students are indeed making progress, as seen in gently rising fourth-grade reading scores on the federal NAEP. But those increases over time shouldn’t overshadow the dip in those same scores by the time students reach high school, Wexler contends in a conversation with Chalkbeat

We spoke with Wexler recently about the state of reading comprehension in elementary schools, how she responds to critics of her work, and whether any of the ideas laid out in The Knowledge Gap have changed since publication of the book.

Andrew Boryga: Starting in elementary school, you say teachers should be offering kids challenging reading in subjects like science and social studies, rather than drilling them on transferable reading skills. Why do you think this approach is better?

Natalie Wexler: It’s not that you should never ask a student, “What’s the main idea of this passage?” It’s a question of what’s in the foreground, and we’ve been foregrounding the sorts of reading comprehension skills and strategies that help prepare students for standardized exams. 

And so what you’ve gotten in elementary schools is the marginalization—and sometimes the elimination—of anything but reading or math from the curriculum. Subjects like social studies, science, the arts, often don’t get taught at all, especially in schools where test scores are low. As a result, students arrive at high school with significant gaps in their knowledge of the world. It’s not that they can’t learn those things, it’s that they’ve never been taught those things in a way that’s likely to stick—and it puts them at a tremendous disadvantage. 

If you look at what cognitive scientists know about how reading comprehension works, the evidence suggests that the more general academic knowledge and vocabulary you have, the better at general comprehension you are. My argument is that if you start building knowledge early—academic knowledge about history, science, for example, and vocabulary—it’s easier to narrow these gaps that become so obvious in high school. 

Boryga: Why elementary school?

Wexler: When I started looking into what’s called the achievement gap in education, I was told that the problem was high school. But the problems that become really obvious in high school, for the most part, have their roots in the way we teach elementary school. 

If you want to narrow achievement gaps—especially in schools where test scores are low, where kids rely on school for the academic knowledge and vocabulary that fuels reading comprehension—you’re going to get a lot more bang for your buck in elementary school. Kids in the early elementary years are eager to learn. They’re sponges. 

And yet this is the time that we withhold access to the knowledge of the world from them because we think they won’t be interested and because we think it’s more important to work on these reading skills. We have wasted this golden opportunity and vastly underestimated what young children are capable of doing. 

Boryga: You’re critical of standardized tests in elementary school and argue they’re part of the pressure that teachers feel to focus on skills rather than content. Do we need to rethink these tests altogether? 

Wexler: Standardized tests have been useful to expose previously hidden inequities in our education system, but they should not be taken as guides to instruction. 

Unfortunately, instruction in classrooms often mimics what’s on the test. Because a reading test will usually include a bunch of passages on random topics and then ask students to respond to comprehension questions, that’s what we do in class, too. 

It is theoretically possible at the state level to have reading tests that are connected to the content of the curriculum. I think that would make much more sense. But if you don’t have a whole bunch of schools using the same curriculum, it’s going to be hard. 

As a result, students aren’t being tested on any particular body of knowledge. And so if you build kids’ knowledge of certain topics—say your third graders know a lot about Greek myths or the human digestive system, for example—but they get to the test and the passages are about Amelia Earhart. Students may not have acquired that critical mass of academic knowledge and vocabulary that will enable them to understand whatever grade-level text is thrown at them. Eventually they will, if they continue to get a good knowledge-building curriculum. 

Boryga: In your previous book, The Writing Revolution (2017), you suggest that writing is an effective way to teach content in the classroom—a point you also mention in The Knowledge Gap. Can you explain your thinking? 

Wexler: Writing is harder than reading. It’s probably the hardest thing we ask kids to do, but if we teach it right, it’s an incredibly powerful way to build knowledge and boost reading comprehension and analytical abilities. 

For example, coming up with a topic sentence for a paragraph is a very powerful way of learning to identify the main idea. But the content is in the foreground because you can’t really write about something without knowing the content. 

I don’t think we’ve done a great job of embedding writing instruction into the content of the curriculum. In the last 20 or 30 years there’s been a lot of things like personal essays, especially in elementary school, and the idea is that those writing skills will transfer to other kinds of writing, but they often don’t. 

Getting young students to write, at the sentence level instead of at length, about the content they’re learning is a golden opportunity to build and deepen the kind of knowledge we want them to be acquiring. 

Boryga: What does a “high-quality curriculum” look like? You cite specific curricula that you think are strong, such as Core Knowledge and Wit & Wisdom, for example. 

Wexler: There are a few good ones out there, including the ones you just named, and they have some things in common. 

One is that they are organized by topic rather than by theme. In popular basal readers, by contrast, big themes are covered—like childhood around the world—but they’re often very superficial. They don’t repeat the same concepts and vocabulary in different contexts, which is what kids need to retain information in long-term memory. A good knowledge-based curriculum would spend at least two or three weeks on one topic.

Good curricula should also give all students access to complex, grade-level-or-above text. The sort of text that is more sophisticated than what they could probably read on their own.  

Boryga: You say it’s not teachers’ job to create “knowledge-rich curriculum.” So how should schools get started?

Wexler: We have to get away from the idea that teachers should be creating their own curriculum or that schools should be creating their own curriculum, or even that districts should be creating their own curriculum. 

Rather than starting from scratch, I think it makes sense to adopt a proven, high-quality, knowledge-based curriculum out there that is closest to what you would like, and then adapt it to the needs of your school, your students. 

Boryga: You advocate for the importance of direct instruction—but there’s plenty of evidence supporting how a student-centered approach can improve student-teacher relationships and even increase academic achievement in some cases. Is there any value to a student-centered approach?

Wexler: “Direct instruction” is a loaded term. I prefer to use “explicit instruction.” But yes, we have a bias in the education world in favor of inquiry and discovery learning. 

But when learners are new to a topic, there’s research showing that those approaches do not work well because students’ working memory gets easily overloaded. They’re trying to figure out the answer to some question they know nothing about. 

A more efficient way of building knowledge is to start by providing kids with the information. 

The problem is that people think that approach is boring, that it means a teacher should stand in front of a classroom of 6-year-olds and lecture. That is not what it means. Direct instruction would include asking kids questions and having discussions and asking them to write about things. 

Whether something is boring or not depends on how you present it to students. A second-grade class I followed in The Knowledge Gap were on the edge of their seats learning about the War of 1812. They were fascinated by what was going on, and they understood the issues because they had the background and because the history was being presented in a story. 

Boryga: For some, The Knowledge Gap felt like pointed criticism of teachers and how they teach kids to read. How do you respond to that perception?  

Wexler: I don’t want to blame any individual. It’s a system, and I’m not faulting teachers. Teachers are doing this with the best of intentions. 

After Knowledge Gap, I heard from teachers who focused on skills and always felt like they weren’t seeing light bulbs going off with kids, always felt like there was something missing. But they were surrounded by experts telling them, this is how you equip kids to do well on tests. 

Recently, I have been thinking about the role of teacher training schools. There is a divergence between what goes on in schools of education and what goes on in the rest of academia. On the same campus, you can have teacher training schools teaching something that’s diametrically opposed to what is being taught in a psychology class on the same campus.

I think we can do a better job of bringing teacher training programs in line with what cognitive science can tell us about how people actually learn.

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