Knowledge Deficits: The True Crisis in Education There has been no shortage of explanations and solutions for the persistently poor reading levels of our nation’s school children over the last 30 years. Although some progress has been made—reading levels were lower in the early 1970s than they are today and the gap between Hispanic, black, and white ... From My Perspective
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From My Perspective  |   May 01, 2007
Knowledge Deficits: The True Crisis in Education
Author Notes
  • Alan G. Kamhi, is a professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He has published widely in the areas of speech, language, and reading. Contact him at agkamhi@uncg.edu.
    Alan G. Kamhi, is a professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He has published widely in the areas of speech, language, and reading. Contact him at agkamhi@uncg.edu.×
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Development / Special Populations / Cultural & Linguistic Diversity / Genetic & Congenital Disorders / School-Based Settings / Regulatory, Legislative & Advocacy / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / From My Perspective
From My Perspective   |   May 01, 2007
Knowledge Deficits: The True Crisis in Education
The ASHA Leader, May 2007, Vol. 12, 28-29. doi:10.1044/leader.FMP.12072007.28
The ASHA Leader, May 2007, Vol. 12, 28-29. doi:10.1044/leader.FMP.12072007.28
There has been no shortage of explanations and solutions for the persistently poor reading levels of our nation’s school children over the last 30 years. Although some progress has been made—reading levels were lower in the early 1970s than they are today and the gap between Hispanic, black, and white children has decreased over the last 13 years—the proportion of children reading below the basic level has hovered around 35% in the last 25 years, and 70% never attain reading proficiency (NAEP, 2007).
As Congress prepares for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, everyone with any interest in our nation’s students is offering opinions on who or what is to blame for the continuing lack of progress and how to fix the problem. The most frequent targets are teachers (poorly trained), schools (not conducive for learning), students (large numbers who are disadvantaged, are second-language learners, or have learning disabilites), assessment instruments (low state standards), and instructional methods. The respective solutions are to provide better teacher training and school learning environments, devise more rigorous assessments, and use evidence-based instructional methods.
These solutions might have some impact on reading achievement levels, but as long as the “broad view” of reading is reflected in high-stakes assessment, our efforts to dramatically improve reading levels in the United States will have the same lackluster effect as our efforts over the last 25 to 30 years. The broad view of reading is familiar to most people and accepted by almost everyone. Reading, according to this view, consists of two basic components—word recognition and comprehension (Perfetti, 1986). “Thinking guided by print” is a succinct definition of reading according to the broad view.
The fundamental problem with the broad view of reading is that it encompasses two very different abilities—word recognition (word-level reading) and comprehension. Word recognition is a teachable skill; comprehension is not a skill and is not easily taught. Word recognition is teachable because it involves a narrow scope of knowledge (e.g., letters, sounds, words) and processes (decoding) that, once acquired, will lead to fast, accurate word recognition. There are numerous evidence-based instructional programs that effectively teach word-level reading to all students except those with the most severe disabilities (cf. National Reading Panel, 2000), and some of these students can be taught word-reading skills with intensive phonic programs (cf. Torgesen, Otaiba, & Grek, 2005).
Comprehension, in contrast, is not a skill; it is a complex of higher-level mental processes that include thinking, reasoning, imagining, and interpreting. Comprehension is difficult to teach because these processes are domain- or content-specific rather than domain- or content-general. This is why the best predictor of comprehension is familiarity with a content domain (Hirsch, 2006; Willingham, 2006), not strategy-based instruction as many people believe (NRP, 2000). Familiarity with the content of a passage is, in fact, so important that poor decoders do better than good decoders when they have more knowledge of the topic (e.g., Recht & Leslie, 1988). Because comprehension is knowledge-dependent, instructional approaches that target general strategies will have limited impact on measures of reading that include diverse content domains (Willingham, 2006).
Hirsch’s (2006) solution to address the nation’s reading crisis and improve reading performance is to provide elementary-school children with a knowledge-based core curriculum. His Core Knowledge Foundation has made inroads in developing and implementing a core curriculum in schools throughout the country. The results of these programs are promising, but our nation is unlikely to embrace a core curriculum. As the response to NCLB as shown, most federal initiatives to mandate curriculum changes are met with resistance at state and local levels.
My solution to the reading crisis is no more likely to be embraced than Hirsch’s or any other, but unlike other ones, mine costs nothing, requires no significant changes in teacher training, new measures of reading, new instructional programs, or new legislation. It simply requires rejecting the broad view of reading and embracing the “narrow view” of reading. Unlike the broad view, which conflates reading and comprehension, the narrow view restricts the scope of reading to word recognition. By limiting reading to word recognition, the focus is on a skill that can be taught to every typically developing child and to most students with language and learning disabilities.
By embracing the narrow view, we can eliminate our nation’s obsession with something that cannot be easily taught—domain-general comprehension and reasoning. Comprehension and reasoning will remain important educational goals, but they will be taught in domain-specific content areas and called by their rightful names (American/European history, biology/chemistry, geometry/algebra, contemporary fiction/drama) as they are in colleges and universities. If state and national assessments distinguish between word-level reading and content knowledge acquisition, the reading crisis will be over. Reading proficiency levels should reach a minimum of 90%. Anything less will not be acceptable, given the numerous research- supported instructional programs that effectively teach word-level reading (NRP, 2000).
The benefits of the narrow view of reading are far-reaching. Teachers benefit by being able to teach content areas without concerns about how students perform on conflated measures of reading. Students benefit by the differentiated assessment of reading and content-area learning, particularly those with adequate word-reading skills who are poor comprehenders. These students will now be viewed as attaining reading proficiency, and remediation can focus on addressing the difficulties these students have in learning specific content areas.
Most importantly, the narrow view will focus attention on the true crisis in American education—knowledge deficits. As a recent report (Pianta, Belsky, Houts, & Morrison, 2007) has shown, teachers spend too much time on basic math and reading and not enough time on content areas such as science and social studies. Knowledge acquisition needs to become the primary goal of education. Reading, we need to remember, is just one way to acquire knowledge. There are many others. Let our educational debates focus on the best way to assess and teach content knowledge.
References
Hirsch, E.D. (2006). The knowledge deficit: Closing the shocking education gap for American children. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Hirsch, E.D. (2006). The knowledge deficit: Closing the shocking education gap for American children. New York: Houghton Mifflin.×
National Assessment of Education Progress (2005). Long-term trend: National trends in reading by performance levels. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/performance-levels.asp.
National Assessment of Education Progress (2005). Long-term trend: National trends in reading by performance levels. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/performance-levels.asp.×
National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Washington, DC.
National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Washington, DC.×
Perfetti, C. (1986). Cognitive and linguistic components of reading ability. In Foorman, B. & Siegel, A. (Eds.), Acquisition of reading skills (pp. 1–41). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Perfetti, C. (1986). Cognitive and linguistic components of reading ability. In Foorman, B. & Siegel, A. (Eds.), Acquisition of reading skills (pp. 1–41). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.×
Pianta, R., Belsky, J., Houts, R., & Morrison, F. (2007). Teaching: Opportunities to learn in American classrooms. Science, 315, 1795–1796.
Pianta, R., Belsky, J., Houts, R., & Morrison, F. (2007). Teaching: Opportunities to learn in American classrooms. Science, 315, 1795–1796.×
Recht, D., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educaitonal Psychology, 80, 16–20.
Recht, D., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educaitonal Psychology, 80, 16–20.×
Torgesen, J., Otaiba, S., & Grek, M. (2005). Assessment and instruction for phonemic awareness and word recognition skills. In Catts, H. & Kamhi, A. (Eds.), Reading and language disabilities. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Torgesen, J., Otaiba, S., & Grek, M. (2005). Assessment and instruction for phonemic awareness and word recognition skills. In Catts, H. & Kamhi, A. (Eds.), Reading and language disabilities. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.×
Willingham, D. (2006). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengths reading comprehension, learning-and thinking. American Educator, Spring 2006, 1–12.
Willingham, D. (2006). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengths reading comprehension, learning-and thinking. American Educator, Spring 2006, 1–12.×
Willingham, D. (2006). The usefulness of brief instruction in reading comprehension strategies. American Educator, Winter 2006/07, 39–50.
Willingham, D. (2006). The usefulness of brief instruction in reading comprehension strategies. American Educator, Winter 2006/07, 39–50.×
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May 2007
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