Come hear the cognitive scientist: why our efforts to help struggling readers haven’t worked

Why is it harder to raise reading scores than math scores for students from low-income families? And why do kids who seem to read well in elementary school then struggle with grade-level text in middle and high school?

Students Standing In Classroom.

For decades, most elementary schools have taught reading as a skill: children have practiced reading comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences” on simple stories. The theory has been that it doesn’t matter what students are reading, as long as they’re reading something. And in many elementary schools, especially those serving low-income students, the curriculum has been narrowed to “the basics:” reading and math.

But reading comprehension is highly dependent on background knowledge–as Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, will explain when he comes to DC on Wednesday, June 2. If students don’t learn about history, science, and the arts in elementary school, they’ll be at a tremendous disadvantage in high school, when they encounter texts that assume a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don’t have. That’s particularly true for low-income students, who are far less likely to acquire academic knowledge at home. But all students will benefit from a broad, content-rich curriculum–and they’ll also find it more engaging than a narrow focus on reading skills.

Willingham is an accessible and engaging speaker as well as the author of several popular books–and the cognitive scientist behind the column “Ask the Cognitive Scientist,” a recurring feature of American Educator magazine. He has become one of the leading advocates of bringing content and a focus on building knowledge into the elementary school curriculum and
was recently cited in a speech by Secretary of Education John B. King. “We know from decades of research from folks like Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia that knowledge matters for reading success,” King said. “It is not about reading vs. science and social studies.”

Willingham will speak on Wednesday, June 1, from 6:30 to 8 at McKinley Tech High School, 151 T Street NE. Parking is available behind the school. To RSVP, email Ward 3 State Board of Education representative Ruth Wattenberg at

This event is co-sponsored by the DC State Board of Education, SHAPPE (Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators), DC Public Schools, the Public Charter School Board, Coalition for 4 DC Schools and Communities (representing all 8 Ward Education Councils), Washington Teachers Union, DC Language Immersion Project, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and Deputy Mayor of Education.

I hope to see you there!

Why the Education Secretary wants kids to have dessert WITH their broccoli

In a speech last week, US Education Secretary John B. King offered up a fundamental—if somewhat counterintuitive—insight that academics outside the field of education have agreed on for decades: If you want children to learn to read, don’t just teach them reading.

Students In Class Volunteering For Teacher

Inside the education world, that insight has been largely overlooked. And therein lies the root of many of our problems—in particular, the huge divide between rich and poor students that we call the achievement gap.

“We know that students are better able to read a text when they have had exposure to the knowledge and experiences that are referenced in that text,” King said. “We know from decades of research from folks like Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia that knowledge matters for reading success. It is not about reading vs. science and social studies.”

In a way, King’s observation might sound obvious. We can all think about what it’s like to read, say, an abstract of an article on cellular biology, if you’re not a cellular biologist—or an account of a cricket match, if you’re unfamiliar with the game. Without the relevant background knowledge and vocabulary, the text is impenetrable.

Low-income kids start at a disadvantage

What’s less obvious is how little background knowledge many low-income children have when they enter school. A text that looks simple to an adult can be as impenetrable to a disadvantaged third-grader as a tract on phenomenology. That’s largely because, as King also mentioned in his speech, beginning at birth, low-income kids are exposed to far fewer words and concepts at home than more affluent kids.

Studies have shown that even highly functional low-income parents speak far less to their children, on average, than affluent parents. And when they do speak to their kids, they’re more likely to issue commands or reprimands than to engage them in back-and-forth conversation. Meanwhile, more affluent parents are continuously immersing their children in exchanges that expand their knowledge of the wider world and develop their linguistic abilities.

Some argue that each style of parenting has its advantages and disadvantages. But the way affluent parents raise their kids equips them to do better in school: by the time they enter kindergarten, the skills and knowledge of the most affluent children far exceed those possessed by their low-income peers.

Family doesn’t have to be destiny, though. Schools can help level the playing field, if they start systematically building low-income kids’ knowledge about subjects like history, science, and the arts from an early age.

But most elementary schools—especially those serving poor kids—have instead devoted hours each day to teaching kids reading comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences,” and then having students practice the strategies on simple books, often of their own choosing. Meanwhile, subjects like history and science have fallen by the wayside.

King embraces the cognitive science on reading

What’s significant about King’s speech is that it marks the first time a top U.S. official has mentioned the cognitive science on reading comprehension. I was particularly struck by King’s reference to Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor who has devoted years to explaining the science of learning to teachers and the general public in easily understandable terms.

A few months ago, I noted that British government officials had enthusiastically embraced Willingham’s ideas, and I wondered why he—and other American academics who have made similar arguments, including E.D. Hirsch, Jr.—hadn’t received the same kind of reception here.

“Why hasn’t Arne Duncan—or the new acting US Secretary of Education, John King—given these home-grown education theories a similar shout-out?” I wrote in January. I’m not suggesting King got the idea from reading this blog, but it’s certainly gratifying to see my wish become reality.

But here’s the rub—actually, two rubs. The first rub is that King’s point about knowledge and reading comprehension didn’t get wide coverage—the New York Times ran nothing but a brief AP story. And, like all but a few reports of the speech, the AP story didn’t even mention this crucial point. That’s not surprising: the bulk of the speech focused on how history and the arts can spark kids’ interest and motivation and develop them into well-rounded individuals who lead rich, meaningful lives.

Why kids need dessert WITH their broccoli

Those points are valid and important. But here’s why I’m worried about leaving out the link between those subjects and reading comprehension: Even if we got rid of high-stakes reading tests tomorrow (which is unlikely to happen), people would still place a huge emphasis on teaching kids to read, especially in the early grades. That’s understandable: reading is the gateway to just about all other learning.

That’s why teachers, parents, and policymakers need to recognize that teaching history—or science or art—actually IS teaching reading. They need to stop seeing reading as the broccoli that kids have to eat before they can get to dessert—dessert being things like music, art, the American Revolution, Ancient Egypt, snakes, or the human digestive system. These are subjects that even very young kids can get excited about if they’re taught in an engaging way.

If we hold off on giving low-income kids this kind of dessert until middle or high school, it’s too late. Every year, the gap in knowledge between them and their affluent peers widens and gets harder to close. So what King is saying, essentially, is this: if you want kids to get the nutrients out of their broccoli, you have to give them dessert at the same time.

The other rub is this: Britain, like most other developed countries, has a centralized education system. If top officials want kids to learn about history, science, and art in elementary school, they can simply pass legislation to that effect.

In our system, the federal government can only indirectly influence decisions about what and how to teach. The actual power to decide what to teach rests with state and local governments—and often, in a very real sense, with individual schools and teachers.

In recent years the federal government has done a very effective job, intentionally or not, of influencing American elementary schools to do the very thing that King is now warning against: focus on reading and math to the near exclusion of other subjects. Whether the government can help undo that damage remains to be seen. But kudos to John King for beginning to try.

The British embrace an American education reform proposal most Americans have never heard of

British government leaders are embracing the ideas of American academics who argue that schools need to focus more on building knowledge to improve outcomes for low-income students. Why isn’t that happening here?

Photo by Heather Cowper on Flickr.
Photo by Heather Cowper on Flickr.

In a recent speech on anti-poverty initiatives, British Prime Minister David Cameron cited the work of University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who argues that expanding the knowledge base of disadvantaged students is key to improving their reading comprehension.

Cameron also mentioned three or four other American academics in his speech. But it’s Willingham and his UVA colleague E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who have really captured the imagination of British politicians, or at least those in the Conservative Party. Hirsch began arguing 30 years ago that the gap in performance between wealthier students on the one hand and poor and minority ones on the other is essentially a gap in knowledge. More recently, Willingham and other cognitive scientists have buttressed that theory with research.

Building knowledge is key to narrowing the gap in reading comprehension

The argument put forward by Hirsch and Willingham, essentially, is this: The ability to understand what we read is highly dependent on whether we have the relevant vocabulary, which is equivalent to having relevant background knowledge. If you’re reading an advanced text about cellular biology and you don’t know much about the subject, you’re going to have a hard time understanding the text. And texts that look simple to adults can be impenetrable to young children for the same reason—especially to low-income children, who generally have far smaller vocabularies than their more affluent peers.

Students with wealthier, more educated parents enter school with a broader base of knowledge, enabling them to access yet more knowledge through reading. Elementary schools—in the United States and, it appears, in Britain—then compound the problem by focusing on reading comprehension strategies, like “making inferences” and “finding the main idea,” rather than on building knowledge in subjects like history or science. That’s especially true for schools serving low-income students, where the entire day is often spent on reading and math.

Teachers select books that lend themselves to practicing the comprehension strategy of the week rather than systematically teaching kids about topics like the digestive system or the American Revolution. Students skip from a book on one subject to a book on another, rarely focusing on their meaning and never spending enough time on a single topic to absorb any knowledge and the vocabulary that goes with it.

The theory is that if students become adept at strategies like “finding the main idea,” they’ll be able to apply them to any text. But all too often, the result is that low-income students never acquire the knowledge they need to do well on standardized reading tests, not to mention in high school and beyond. In order to truly boost reading comprehension, schools need to adopt coherent, content-based curricula that start in preschool and build logically from one topic to the next.

Why have these ideas caught on in Britain, but not here?

Most education reformers, government officials, and politicians in the United States are unfamiliar with these ideas–or at least don’t talk about them. But about eight years ago, a Conservative Member of Parliament named Nick Gibb came across Hirsch’s books and began recommending them to his colleagues. Soon thereafter, another Tory MP—Michael Gove, who served as Secretary of State for Education from 2010 to 2014—took up the cause. And when the Cameron government announced an overhaul of the British national curriculum in 2011, “Hirsch was writ large across it,” according to The Guardian.

Gove’s interest in Hirsch apparently led him to Willingham. In a 2012 speech, he cited the cognitive scientist as “one of the biggest influences on my thinking about education reform.” And that, presumably, led to the shout-out in Cameron’s speech last week, crediting Willingham and others with showing how the accumulation of knowledge enables us to take in new information.

Why hasn’t Arne Duncan—or the new acting US Secretary of Education, John King—given these home-grown education theories a similar shout-out? Or better yet, why hasn’t Barack Obama? Why do Hirsch and Willingham’s ideas have to travel across the Atlantic to get this kind of recognition when UVA is a mere 120 miles from Washington DC?

One likely reason is that the British education system is far more centralized than ours. Our federal government can’t directly legislate a national curriculum. That power resides in the states and individual school districts.

Still, high-level federal officials could use their bully pulpit to spread the word about the importance of building knowledge, especially for low-income students. They’ve certainly used that pulpit to promote other more dubious education initiatives, like linking teacher evaluations to test scores—and used federal money as leverage to get states to adopt them.

Many mistakenly see a knowledge focus as a conservative approach

Another possible reason the message about knowledge hasn’t caught on in the US is that many here perceive a knowledge-focused approach as inherently conservative. That’s true in Britain as well, where it’s been embraced by the Conservative Party. But for the most part, even American conservatives seem unaware of the issue. (Of course, a British Conservative isn’t the same as an American conservative—Cameron’s speech last week actually included the words, “I support the welfare state.”)

Why the association between knowledge and conservatism? Probably because when people think of teaching knowledge, they conjure images of rote memorization of dates and other facts, perhaps reinforced by the rap of a ruler. But of course, it doesn’t have to be that way—and in fact it shouldn’t. Kids actually get excited about acquiring knowledge, if it’s presented in a way that makes it engaging and accessible.

Not long ago I was in a first-grade classroom at a DC charter school, Center City Brightwood, that follows a curriculum based on Hirsch’s ideas in the early grades. The kids—all low-income and minority—were learning about Mesopotamia by pretending to paddle down the Tigris and Euphrates to Babylon. Along the way, the students were learning words like “reservoir” and “fertile.” They were lapping it up.

There’s nothing conservative about wanting low-income kids to acquire the kind of knowledge that will enable them to succeed in life. Hirsch, for example, has described himself as “practically a socialist.”

The British advocates of knowledge, from what I can tell, have made a few missteps. Cameron’s speech mentions an initiative directed at secondary schools, but to be effective the knowledge focus really needs to start at the elementary level. Gove has given the impression that teaching knowledge is all about rote memorization, when of course that’s not the case. And the emphasis seems to be on testing, when it really should be on getting teachers to understand why it’s important to build knowledge and what the best techniques are for doing that.

But in Britain, they’re at least talking about the problem, which is an essential first step towards solving it. It’s about time American politicians and education reformers did the same.