Some years ago, I had the chance to take the Scholastic Reading Inventory test that my students take to determine their Lexile scores, which in turn gives us a rough sense of what their reading “grade level” is.
You take the test on a computer, and it's dynamic — so as you answer questions correctly, it keeps feeding you harder questions, and as you answer them incorrectly, it feeds you easier ones, and on and on in diminishing increments until it can say, “Hey! Your Lexile score is an 832.”
Here’s a sample question:
Now, what’s being tested more here?
A) Reading comprehension skills (e.g., discerning the main idea of the text, making an inference)
B) Knowing what extreme, beneficial, unexplainable, and anticipated mean
The answer (to my two-choice question) is B. You can grit your teeth and try to find the main idea of the passage all day long, but if you don’t know what those words mean (general academic vocabulary words), guess what? You’re going to be guessing.
And what if words like Mercury, Sun, surface, temperature, Fahrenheit, degrees, and atmosphere are unfamiliar to students? These are specific terms used in a particular knowledge domain — the solar system. If you lack background knowledge on the solar system, then again, you're likely to be guessing.
It’s not that teaching comprehension skills like “find the main idea” is useless — it’s just that they are far less useful than teaching kids actual stuff. And they’re far more boring and joy-killing, too!
(Here's an “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” article from Dan Willingham that explains how reading skill lessons have a similar effect when there are few of them per year versus when there are dozens of them.)
The best way to improve reading achievement for all students is to teach history and science and literature and poetry and the arts from a specific, coherent curriculum starting on the very first day of school. The idea that children this young won’t want to hear information-rich read-alouds about Mercury (or Marie Curie, or how farms work, or what the War of 1812 was about) isn’t true.*
Equitable educational outcomes (and engagement for all students) cannot happen until we use coherent, knowledge-rich curricula with all children, K-12.
(If this sounds bizarre to you, it's not just you. Make your next read Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It. And then buy a copy for your boss.)
*Word recognition instruction is the other piece of the reading puzzle, but it can be accomplished for 80+% of students in K-3 if our curriculum and instruction are soundly informed. But this is all a topic for another post!