Why learning to read relies on content

Reading comprehension is a product of decoding and language comprehension, CAO Summit speaker says
By: | February 19, 2020
Adding more reading time to the school day—at the expense of subjects such as social studies and science—will not help struggling readers make progress.(gettyimages.com: Klaus Vedfelt)Adding more reading time to the school day—at the expense of subjects such as social studies and science—will not help struggling readers make progress. (gettyimages.com: Klaus Vedfelt)

Adding more reading time to the school day—at the expense of subjects such as social studies and science—will not help struggling readers make progress.

In fact, it’s the opposite of what these students need, says Holly Lane, an associate professor of special education at the University of Florida.

Lane is currently working to improve reading instruction in Florida’s Title I elementary schools where many students are not meeting reading standards. In her keynote at the next District Administration Leadership Institute® CAO Summit on March 18-20 in Dallas, Lane will discuss how educators can move beyond the time misconception to better develop students’ reading skills.

In a recent discussion with DA, she offered a preview of her keynote.

Give our readers an overview of the reading work you’re doing.

What we’re primarily doing is helping teachers understand the reading process more deeply and how to develop that process in kids who are struggling. That involves understanding what’s happening in the brain, understanding the linguistics involved in proficient reading and the pedagogy involved in kids acquiring the language skills they need.

The process of learning to read has been really exposed in recent years—the more we study the brain, the more we study effective instruction, we really are getting a clear understanding of what’s going on. But a lot of the practices going on in school are in conflict with what kids really need.


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The work we do is not tied to a curriculum. What we want to do is develop the expertise of teachers so, no matter which curriculum they have, they’ve got the knowledge and skills to make the most of it.

So what challenges do Florida schools face in improving reading instruction?

Holly Lane

We’re dealing with such a huge teacher shortage.

A large number of teachers have no teacher preparation at all—they’re coming from other fields, they’re being plopped in first grade classrooms and they’re expected to teach kids to read, and they don’t know what to do. And there are teachers who did come through preparation programs but didn’t learn the science of reading.

Overall, there are quite a few teachers out there who just never got what they needed in terms of preparation to do the job that’s in front of them.

A lot of teachers are frustrated because they’re not seeing progress with the methods and the curriculums they have.

We would expect somebody who teaches chemistry to know a whole lot about chemistry. We would expect somebody teaching French to know French really well.

What goes into teaching reading is linguistics and understanding all the language features kids need to acquire but most teachers haven’t had any classes at all in linguistics.

Why aren’t reading scores improving? What mistakes are educators making?

In an effort to increase reading scores, schools keep adding more and more time to reading instruction, and that’s generally the opposite of what they need to do.

A lot of the knowledge and skills that are necessary to do well on reading comprehension tests aren’t gained through reading instruction, they’re gained through content instruction.

A number of famous studies have looked at the role of prior knowledge in reading comprehension, and it’s a critical role. Schools are spending so much time on reading instruction, they’re cutting down on teaching content.


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The amount of time spent on science and social studies has shrunk to almost nothing—it is nothing in some schools. If kids aren’t learning about how plants grow and a test has a reading a passage about it, it doesn’t matter if a student can read all those words.

Students need to understand the content to make sense of what they’re reading.

What do administrators need to know about the skills are you helping teachers develop?

We want teachers to understand how to develop children’s phonological awareness, and we want them to develop expertise in teaching phonics effectively and to understand the phonetic structure of language.

People talk about English being irregular, and difficult to learn. In reality, the vast majority of English words are regular or mostly regular. The words we think of as irregular only have one letter that doesn’t fit and there are only a few that are really unusual.

So, there are only a few words a reader has to memorize. The rest can be decoded if you understand the basics and learn how to be flexible.

The simple view of reading can be written out as a math formula—reading comprehension is a product of decoding and language comprehension. If your decoding is fully intact and language comprehension is fully intact, your reading comprehension is fully intact.

What guidance will you give CAOs at next month’s summit?

Our common conceptualization of reading is flawed and we need to think more broadly.

There are five key elements of reading—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension—and any teacher can rattle those off pretty quickly, which is great but also not great. Teachers conceptualize reading as these five pieces and don’t understand how these pieces interact with each other and how they’re connected.

If teachers understand what goes into proficient reading, they’ll be less likely to allow things to be overlooked.


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We have been working with district-level folks—reading coordinators, special education and ESOL coordinators, instructional coaches and principals. It has been very eye-opening.

Principals had increased their school’s time spent reading—and let teachers quit teaching social studies and science—and have been kind of floored to find out that’s the opposite of what they should be doing.

Helping CAOs understand these things will help their districts teach reading more effectively.

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.