Broadening the narrative on the science of reading
Literacy educators have long scanned the horizon for the best updates to teaching reading comprehension, and ever since the science of reading has entered our field of vision, it’s pretty much all we can see–to promising results!
But if we expand our view, we might realize that we’ve overlooked crucial elements of reading comprehension.
Natalie Wexler is ready to set our sights straight.
We caught up with Wexler, an education journalist, a leading thinker in the K-12 literacy space, and one of this year’s Power Talk presenters at The National Institute: Literacy for All. She shared what we’re missing when we talk about the science of reading, the role of knowledge building in reading comprehension, and the one thing she wants teachers to start doing.
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
The science of reading: what we’re not discussing
What misconceptions about the science of reading do you want to clear up for teachers and administrators?
We often hear about the science of reading, and those messages usually focus on the decoding side, which is crucial. But there's a lot of science relating to reading comprehension and writing. And if we want students to become fully literate, we also need to pay attention to that body of evidence.
What should be in the foreground is the content or the text we're trying to teach, and then we can bring in those comprehension skills and strategies as appropriate to help students think about the text. That's what works.
Why is knowledge-building so important to students’ reading comprehension?
The most accurate predictor of what you're going to understand is what you already know. And that's for a couple of reasons.
One is that having knowledge stored in long-term memory opens up more capacity in working memory for us to understand what we're trying to read. If we're reading about baseball and already know what a double play is, we don't have to think about that. We don't have to look it up. We just have more capacity to attend to the meaning.
The other reason that prior relevant knowledge is important is that it opens up the capacity in working memory for retaining new information. And so it's been said—by Marilyn Jager Adams—that knowledge is like mental Velcro. It sticks best to other related knowledge. And so if we already have some knowledge of a topic, we're in a much better position to retain new information and new vocabulary. And that enables us, in turn, to understand yet more text.
We know that the more students engage with complex texts, the greater their reading comprehension will be. How can we engage students who are not decoding independently or who are English learners with these complex texts?
That's a great question, and I'm glad you asked it. It's absolutely crucial to engage students who are not yet decoding fluently in English with complex text.
And the best way to do that is through reading complex text aloud–text that they themselves probably wouldn't be able to read independently–and engaging them in discussions about the content of the text and having them use the vocabulary they have just heard.
If an expert reader is doing the decoding and reading work for you, then you have more capacity to just attend to and absorb the meaning and also retain that information.
How does writing connect to knowledge building?
Writing is crucial in knowledge building, and we've really overlooked it.
One excellent way to transfer new information to long-term memory is by explaining it to someone else in our own words. That's what we do when we write. So writing is a very powerful way of both transferring recently learned information to long-term memory and also reinforcing that knowledge by retrieving it.
The problem is that writing is also probably the most difficult thing we ask kids to do, so it's very easy for them to become overwhelmed if they're inexperienced writers.
To really unlock the power of writing, we need to modulate that heavy cognitive load that writing imposes on kids and ground it in the content they're learning. If we can do that, and modulate that cognitive load, we can really unleash the power of writing to boost learning.
Connecting the pieces
How is all this connected–listening, speaking, reading, and writing?
The continuum of how easy these things are is first, there's listening, then there's speaking, and those are both components of literacy. Then there's reading. And then the most difficult end of the spectrum is writing.
So if we have kids listening to a text on, let's say, sea mammals, and then they're talking about that, using the vocabulary they've just learned, that is going to put that information in their long-term memory. And it's going to enable them to read at a higher level about that topic.
Then writing is made manageable. They can also write at a higher level about a topic that they already know something about. I mean, it's hard to read about a topic you don't know anything about, but just try writing about it.
Unfortunately, this only works if they're reading and writing about the same topic that they have been listening to and speaking about. And in our current system, we separate those things.
They might be listening to a text about sea mammals. They might be talking about a skill like determining the author's purpose rather than about the content. And then, they might be going off to read a book about the solar system, and they might be writing about a topic in a separate writing curriculum that they have very little information about.
So we are just siloing off these different components of literacy. We're making those already difficult tasks of reading and writing even more difficult than they need to be.
A Final Thought
If you could leave educators with one thought about how to build their students’ writing skills, what would it be?
I would have to go with, begin at the sentence level. I think that that is really overlooked.
We expect kids to pick up the construction of complex sentences if they read enough and they write enough. But for many kids, that doesn't happen because it is so difficult.
And if the activities are well designed, sentence-level writing can be quite a powerful knowledge-building activity.
If you can teach students explicitly how to use something like a subordinating conjunction in their own writing, they're in a much better position to understand that kind of structure when they're reading.
Natalie Wexler at The National Institute
Natalie Wexler will share more insight on research-driven approaches to teaching reading comprehension at The National Institute: Literacy for All, a professional learning event like no other. Save your seat today to join us from July 17-20, 2023, at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona!
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