How a Well-Rounded Education Can Lead to Stronger Readers

Blog Post
May 19, 2016

It’s an alarming statistic that only about one-third of children in the United States are proficient readers by 4th grade. This is largely because of the well-documented research that being behind in reading can have serious long-term consequences, including a higher chance of grade retention and dropping out of high school.

The federal government attempted to improve reading outcomes under No Child Left Behind with very limited success. The law required states to test students in math and English Language Arts each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and test results were used to inform accountability decisions. Such great emphasis was placed on reading and the stakes were so high that many schools narrowed their curricula, diminishing their focus on other subjects so more time could be devoted to reading instruction. This was especially common in low-performing, low-income schools. Some teachers concerned with student test scores “taught to the test” and used strategies to produce short-term gains.

The stagnating NAEP reading scores below reveal that these methods haven’t been working. A new brief by Lisa Hansel and Robert Pondiscio explains why this might be: “A child does not become a strong reader by learning and practicing reading alone. Reading comprehension--the ability to make meaning from text--is best thought of as a reflection of a child’s overall education. Thus reading comprehension depends on an education rich in science, social studies, and the arts as well as in reading.

Reading requires more than knowing phonics and decoding words. The authors believe a well-rounded education that introduces children to broad knowledge and vocabulary is key to building strong readers. And they think that the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind in December, can encourage states to move away from narrow curricula and inappropriate approaches to reading instruction. Specifically, Hansel and Pondiscio write that states will be able to improve literacy outcomes because ESSA presents an opportunity to increase state focus on reading comprehension.

Under the new law, states will continue to test students in math and English Language Arts in the same grades mandated by No Child Left Behind, and test results will still be used to determine school performance. But the law gives states more flexibility to decide what is important. In addition to reporting reading and math scores, states will need to include at least one additional measure that isn’t tied to academic performance, such as student engagement or school climate. Hansel and Pondiscio recommend states use outcomes that encourage well-rounded curricula so that schools spend more time on social studies, science, music, art, and other subjects that build knowledge and engage students.

The brief offers seven recommendations for states as they move forward with ESSA implementation. Two important recommendations are related to teachers. First, teachers need greater subject-matter expertise. Many states only require elementary school teachers to have limited content knowledge, especially for those teachers who have early childhood licenses. In fact, the 2015 National Academy of Medicine’s "Transforming the Workforce" report acknowledged the need for teachers of children birth through third grade to know and understand the content and concepts that are important in early learning in several subject areas including science, technology, engineering, arts, and social studies. Without this expertise themselves, teachers cannot build children’s knowledge. Hansel and Pondiscio call for certification exams to require greater subject-matter expertise. While these certification exams on their own do not guarantee good teaching, they do at least signal the importance of broad subject-area knowledge to teacher preparation programs and prospective teachers.

Second, teachers need a better understanding of brain science and human development. Scientists have a much stronger understanding of how children learn than they did even ten years ago, and much of this knowledge has not been relayed to teachers, specifically teachers in later grades (early childhood licenses tend to have a stronger focus on child development). Teachers need to understand why general knowledge is important for reading comprehension and critical thinking.

Hansel and Pondiscio also recommend starting early. The earlier children are exposed to opportunities to build their general knowledge, the better. In a recent speech on the importance of a well-rounded education, U.S. Education Secretary John B. King also emphasized the importance of starting early. The Secretary called for high-quality pre-K and said that “Kindergarteners who have been exposed to concepts and vocabulary about the natural world in their early years have an inherent advantage.” We know that gaps in knowledge are evident long before children begin elementary school. States and districts need to provide access to knowledge-- whether through pre-K, high-quality child care, museums, or libraries-- to all children, especially those who do not get it at home. Adding a metric into state accountability systems that focuses on the early grades could increase schools’ focus on these crucial years.

While the flexibility in ESSA can potentially lead to innovative and better policies for states, it also leaves a lot of room for states to make bad decisions that often lead to worse outcomes for children from families living in poverty. With NCLB for instance, instead of improving student outcomes, some states lowered their “proficiency” scores so that more children were marked as proficient in federal reporting. With ESSA, it’s plausible that some states will continue to try take the easiest route possible and use measures that they already collect data on, which may not be meaningful. Other states and districts, though, may use their newfound flexibility to implement policies such as the ones suggested by Hansel and Pondiscio to improve students’ reading outcomes.