Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections

Why A Skills-Based Approach Is Failing Students in Reading

A reflection on Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap

By the time my youngest child reached third grade, he had been pulled from social studies and science classes to receive remedial reading support for four consecutive years. He had been a struggling reader since kindergarten, which, at that time, I suspected was caused by a speech delay. Several months into his third-grade year, our family drove from Boston to South Carolina to embark on our first cruise. At some point during the 18-hour drive, I whispered to my husband that our boarding day was also the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Unbeknownst to me, my comment ignited an obsession in my son that would eventually serve as a lever to integrate him back into grade-level content and out of the resource room. Thanks to an expansive selection of texts on the Titanic, my son was able to gain the background knowledge and vocabulary necessary to read and comprehend texts at increasing complexity levels in an effort to learn more about a topic he was passionate about. Ultimately, background knowledge and vocabulary afforded him the opportunity to do what four years of remedial skill building could not. 

Like many elementary teachers around the United States, my son’s teachers followed a balanced literacy model, an approach to literacy instruction that its critics claim emphasizes skill building in the absence of building knowledge through the reading of texts on connected topics and vocabulary. Balanced literacy enthusiasts assert that skill building is the panacea for struggling readers because the skills are transferable to all texts, regardless of topic. 

Additionally, much emphasis is placed on student choice because, balanced literacy proponents suggest, when students are interested in a topic, they will devote themselves to learning the skills needed to absorb more information. While there may be some truth to the correlation between student interest and motivation, the critical nature of vocabulary and background knowledge (and the necessity of providing students with texts that grow both simultaneously) cannot be overstated. For example, while the lungs may be a source of fascination for many students, it is doubtful that interest and reading comprehension skills, alone, will help them to read and comprehend a medical journal detailing the latest technology in thoracic surgery. It is, however, almost guaranteed that deep content and vocabulary knowledge about thoracic surgery, developed through reading many texts on this same topic, will ensure one’s ability to read and understand such a journal. 

The typical balanced literacy model includes shared reading, read-alouds, guided reading, and independent reading. The lesson typically starts with a read-aloud, a whole-group, teacher-led activity in which the teacher includes a mini-lesson that targets a reading skill such as finding the main idea or making an inference. 

Next, students participate in guided reading, a time for homogeneously grouped students to read “just-right books.” The “just-right” reading levels are determined by reading assessments administered multiple times throughout the school year. An adult often facilitates the guided reading block, and students will most likely be directed to practice the target skill of the day. It is important to note that the “just-right books” often contain subject matter that is unrelated to the subject matter shared during the read -aloud with which the target skill was previously demonstrated. The result is a disjointed experience that misses the opportunity to leverage a coherent knowledge base to tackle the features of complex text. The method also serves to incorrectly classify some students as “struggling” or “below grade level” — resulting in these students being placed in groups that only engage with less complex texts during guided reading, when they could actually be successful with much more difficult texts with the aid of background knowledge. Think about my son and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Titanic!  

In her book, The Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler (2019) suggests that the American education system is broken, and lack of knowledge building is the cause. The sweeping popularity of balanced literacy programs have contributed to a lack of preparation for students who quickly discover how much they do not know as they approach high school and college. By that time, it may be too late for some students to acquire the knowledge they need to be successful when much of the assigned work is built on a presumption of prior knowledge. In her book, Wexler notes that knowledge builds upon knowledge. 

Studies show that American schools focus almost exclusively on reading and math as a result of standardized test score accountability (Wexler, 2019). Also, because standardized tests assess skills rather than content knowledge, teachers spend year after year attempting to build reading comprehension skills while abandoning social studies and science simply because there is not enough time in the school day. Wexler leans on student achievement data to support her position that what educators have been doing for decades—abandoning content in favor of skill building—is not only ineffective, it is setting our students up for failure as they move through each grade level. She writes, “…teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories” (p. 29). 

Wexler and other contributors to the book such as Doug Lemov suggest that one reason many schools continue to embrace a skill-based approach to reading comprehension may be due to the success of explicit systematic phonics instruction, which we know for certain lays the critical groundwork for equitable access to reading proficiency. Even balanced literacy founders have backed off their belief that surrounding students with literacy-rich environments and teaching students to memorize sight words rather than decode is all that’s needed. Instead, many balanced literacy programs have undergone a reboot to include explicit, systematic phonics instruction. While the adoption of systematic phonics is certainly encouraging, educators must not conflate best practices for decoding and comprehension. 

Additionally, Wexler discusses how educators often cite the misguided belief that teaching history and science content beyond hands-on experiences is developmentally inappropriate for young students. She believes that young students have the capacity to understand and enjoy the content we have been withholding from them for years–building their literacy skills at the same time. In fact, her countless hours observing instruction in a diverse range of schools has led her to conclude that skill building leads to boredom, frustration, and an inaccurate interpretation of the rigors of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) while content-rich curricula sparks vibrant conversation, enhances vocabulary knowledge, and empowers students with knowledge about the world around them. 

Wexler (2019) believes students also need to be taught how to write about what they learn. She writes, “…if teachers break down the writing process into manageable chunks, it can serve as a powerful means of pushing students to review facts they’ve been taught, make connections, and think about them analytically” (p. 40). 

The realization that background knowledge and vocabulary play a vital role in reading comprehension is not novel. In 1987, an experiment was conducted in which a group of students were provided with texts about baseball and subsequently assessed on their reading comprehension ability. Contrary to what many may have predicted, students who were classified as poor readers who possessed the most knowledge about baseball performed better than students who were classified as exemplary readers who had little knowledge about baseball. This study is widely cited by proponents of knowledge-building curriculum. Their position is that skill building, alone, will not lead to increased comprehension when confronted with topics the reader knows little about (Wexler, 2019). 

Another point Wexler (2019) makes is that teachers often lean in to support students who are struggling. Quite often, teachers provide a summary of a text prior to reading. They will often jump in to rescue a student who cannot offer a correct answer, or they will abandon a series of probing questions due to frustration from a lack of understanding from the students. Wexler talks about how students need to learn to navigate the “bumps” in the road because their path to college readiness is guaranteed to be less than smooth. She notes that a culture of accountability and district mandates have rendered many teachers helpless. They are simply using the tools afforded to them, despite the reality that the tools often have little positive effect on student achievement. She posits that districts should provide teachers with a standards-aligned curriculum that builds knowledge in a coherent manner. This needs to happen at the earliest grade levels. 

Despite the many challenges educators and students face today, there is much to be optimistic about, says Wexler (2019). More and more districts around the country have adopted content-rich curricula. Open-resource, meticulously vetted, CCSS-aligned curriculum materials from nonprofits such as Engage NY, Open Up Resources, Student Achievement Partners, and UnboundEd provide educators with tools they need to lead students towards the path to success. Thanks to social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, educators can engage in professional development that is both high quality and free. 

Ultimately, teachers should be engaging in transformative work with the full support of building- and district-level administration. The research is not only reliable, it is undeniable. Systematic phonics instruction coupled with a program that coherently builds background knowledge and vocabulary are critical components if we truly want students to be successful. 

Cited Source: 

Wexler, N. (2020). The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system– and how to fix it. Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. 

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About the Author: Dr. Kimberly Sarfde is a public school administrator. She spent the majority of her career working in urban schools before moving to a small town in New Hampshire. She is a four-time recipient of the Sontag Prize in Urban Education (2013-2016), which recognizes outstanding instruction and leadership in urban schools. She is also a teacher-leader fellow with the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE). She is a fierce proponent of bilingualism; her research documents the impact of two-way bilingual immersion programming on math and reading achievement for language minority and language majority students. As a former college dropout who worked at a gas station for seven years to support her four children, Kimberly understands the struggles many families face each day. One educator changed the trajectory of her life and inspired her passion for serving children.