By Michael Zwaagstra (AIMS Research Fellow)
Last year, Newfoundland and Labrador’s government published a roadmap to better government in the future, with the title The Way Forward. This ambitious plan outlines how the government plans to modernize the public sector, build its economy for a sustainable future, and improve educational outcomes.
Earlier this year, the provincial government released its Education Action Plan (EAP). In it, the province outlined specific steps it intends to take to improve educational outcomes. While EAP commendably acknowledges that Newfoundland and Labrador schools need to improve, its recommendations are unlikely to result in the transformational change that students deserve.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in how EAP addresses reading instruction. EAP acknowledges that reading levels in Newfoundland and Labrador are too low and notes that students who struggle with reading in the early grades will almost certainly fall behind in the higher grades and will not be able to handle post-secondary education.
Unfortunately, the specific prescriptions in EAP for improving reading instruction are woefully inadequate. Among other things, EAP recommends hiring more reading specialists, improving early identification of students with reading problems, providing more resources for school libraries, and creating district-level leadership positions to provide curriculum and instructional support for reading. At best these are band-aid solutions that fail to get at the root of the problem. At worst they will simply divert resources from classroom teachers to administrators and consultants.
The problem with these recommendations is they treat reading as a transferable skill that can be taught in isolation from content. While there is obviously some level of transferability in reading skills, reading comprehension is heavily dependant on content knowledge. Anyone who doubts this should try reading a technical academic journal in a field they know nothing about. They will quickly find that the articles appear to be written in gibberish.
Reading is not just about decoding individual words. Being able to say the words takes you only halfway there. In order to read effectively, you must also understand what you are reading. If you know nothing about the topic of the article, you will fail or struggle to understand it.
For example, imagine reading an article about last night’s hockey game. Sentences such as “They tried to score on a power play but the other team effectively killed the penalty” may be second nature to hockey fans, but would be incredibly confusing to someone who knows nothing about hockey. Being able to read the words does not mean much if you cannot understand what they mean in context.
Many research studies back this point up. In fact, studies have shown time and time again that background knowledge about the topic of an article is a better predictor of reading comprehension than a student’s assessed reading level or even their IQ. Being knowledgeable about the topic of an article is more important that the complexity of the article’s words.
In order for Newfoundland and Labrador to make significant improvements in reading, the province needs to do more than focus on reading strategies. These strategies, which are often taught in the absence of specific content, have only a limited impact on reading ability. Instead, the province should focus on students’ knowledge acquisition.
This means ensuring that all students, beginning in the first grade, acquire a common base of subject-specific content knowledge. Instead of wasting time on endless inquiry projects that merely recycle their students’ limited knowledge, teachers need to give focused lessons that sequentially build up the knowledge-base of students.
Fortunately, there is no need for Newfoundland and Labrador to reinvent the wheel. The Core Knowledge Foundation, which was founded by well-known education author E. D. Hirsch, has published a set of curriculum guides for each grade level that specify the knowledge students need to acquire to become highly literate by the end of high school. Anyone who takes the time to review these guides cannot fail to be impressed with their depth and breadth.
Obviously, rewriting curriculum guides to incorporate more content knowledge is a major undertaking that will take bold leadership. Fortunately, bold leadership is exactly what the province seeks in its Education Action Plan.
Newfoundland and Labrador has a great opportunity to fundamentally transform its education system. By focusing on the acquisition of subject-specific content knowledge, it could make dramatic improvements in the reading performance of its students. That would truly be a better way forward.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a research fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (aims.ca).