kitchen table math, the sequel: Reading comprehension and knowledge and something else

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Reading comprehension and knowledge and something else

I was finally reading Michael Goldstein's terrific blog when I came across this post:
E.D. Hirsch

If you teach English, or you're a school leader — and I'm particularly looking at you, friends in No Excuses charter schools, with our collective student gains in math that are 4x higher than those in English — I think a bare minimum threshold is that you can:

a. Explain E.D. Hirsch's arguments

b. Describe the degree to which your class/school adheres to or rejects his view

c. Justify why

I got turned onto re-reading Hirsch through Robert Pondiscio, who until recently worked for Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation as a blogger.
To the best of my knowledge, students at Morningside Academy make the same gains in reading they do in math: two years' progress in one year's time. That is the guarantee Morningside makes to parents. Their child will make two years' progress in one year's time or tuition is refunded.

More specifically, Morningside guarantees that each child will make two years' progress in one year's time in the child's most difficult subject. Since many of students there have diagnoses of dyslexia, presumably the worst subject is reading, often as not. Morningside's students are middle and upper-middle class, but Kent Johnson and his group have worked with disadvantaged populations, too. As far as I know, two-years-in-one applies to low-income students, too.

For (remedial) reading comprehension, Morningside uses Robert Dixon's Reading Success. Dixon's approach to teaching "main idea" is sui generis: his program teaches students to identify anaphora first. Dixon's definition of anaphora: "a pronoun or other words used to refer to some other word or name." (And here's a simple example of anaphora)

Morningside students become fluent at identifying anaphora and their referents in the text. As I recall, they then identify the main idea by counting the anaphora. The main idea has the most. (Still haven't read my Dixon handout...if I'm wrong about that, I'll correct.)

Once students have completed Dixon's curriculum, they continue to improve their reading within the subject areas.

We've talked about this before, so this is a repeat: the idea that you would teach reading comprehension by focusing very specifically on anaphora was a revelation to me. I've been teaching anaphora to my students ever since.

My experience at Morningside makes me skeptical of the claim that lack of background knowledge is the only meaningful explanation for the decline in reading comprehension in the U.S., or for the failure of the good charter schools to make much headway improving reading comprehension.

I was mulling this over, trying to think how one might separate background knowledge from some kind of 'textual knowledge' students also lack, when I remembered the fact that my students can have difficulty understanding fables.

One of my best students -- a bright, capable young woman -- did not understand this fable, which she had read out loud to the class:
A dispute arose between the North Wind and the Sun, each claiming that he was stronger than the other. At last they agreed to try their powers upon a traveller, to see which could soonest strip him of his cloak.

The North Wind had the first try; and, gathering up all his force for the attack, he came whirling furiously down upon the man, and caught up his cloak as though he would wrest it from him by one single effort: but the harder he blew, the more closely the man wrapped it round himself.

Then came the turn of the Sun. At first he beamed gently upon the traveller, who soon unclasped his cloak and walked on with it hanging loosely about his shoulders: then he shone forth in his full strength, and the man, before he had gone many steps, was glad to throw his cloak right off and complete his journey more lightly clad.

Moral: Persuasion is better than force.
When one of my students has trouble understanding a fable, the problem isn't background knowledge.

I'm not sure what the problem is, but the fact that Morningside Academy achieves such amazing results using a reading comprehension curriculum that teaches anaphora leads me to believe that, at a minimum, cohesion devices should be directly and explicitly taught in English class.

On that subject, here's Sally Hampton: The Importance of Writing Structures, Coherence, and Cohesion to Writing and Reading.


SATVerbalTutor. said...


I'm going to make some stabs at guessing why your student had trouble with the fable, mostly from an anaphora standpoint:

1) In the first sentence, the pronoun "each" is used without a noun after it -- the reader must infer that it refers to each *one* of the North Wind and the Sun. I see a lot of kids who don't know that it's ok to just use the pronoun by itself.

2) In the following sentence, the pronoun "which" also appears without a noun after it. Again, the reader must infer supply the missing word "one" and make the connection between it and the North Wind/Sun.

3) It is never stated word-for-for that the traveller was wearing a cloak -- the reader has to both match the pronoun "him" back to the referent "traveller" and infer on that basis that the cloak is something that the traveller was wearing.

4) The word "wrest" appears in the same sentence as #3, and it's unlikely your student was familiar with it.

5) The phrasing "lightly clad" is also potentially confusing. It's a little antiquated, not the sort of thing an inexperienced reader would likely know.

re: Hirsch and the knowledge issue, I don't think that's the only thing going on. From what I've seen, there are four big issues that present in various combinations:

1) Phonics
2) Anaphora
3) Weak vocabulary
4) Background knowledge

froggiemama said...

The problem here is that the language is antiquated, not at all the kind of thing my college students would be familiar with. Examples: "soonest", "upon", "wrest", "by one single effort","shone forth in his full strength", "clad". There is NO WAY my college students could parse this without several rereads. In fact, I had to go through it three times to figure it out. Generally, I find my students are unwilling to take that effort. My guess is that is what happened here.

In addition, understanding fables requires a certain ability to abstract things. Most of my students are very weak at abstraction. This is a key ability in computer science, so their struggles with abstraction are very apparent to me.

Anonymous said...

My students' struggles with comprehension are somewhat tied to the lack of focus on grammar. They cruise over critical transition words and can't figure out how different parts of sentences relate to each other. I fantasize that a return to sentence diagramming would help them systematically untangle the relationships between the words they are reading.

Anonymous said...

nobody even *wants*
to know what they're
talking about. try to
pin 'em down? get
punished. there *is*
no "it". this is *obvious*.
careful study *always*
reveals that anything
carefully studied turns
into the *opposite* of
what you thought you
wanted. answer a fool
according to folly. or
not. it's all the same
(more or less). geez.

palisadesk said...

Ah, Bob's Dixon's Reading Success -- great program. It (*does* teach anaphora, (incrementally, from concrete to more abstract) but that is only one of its emphases. In the first two levels, the counting-up-the-references (anaphora) is a device for identifying the "main idea." But along the way, various ways of identifying referents are taught.

A number of other comprehension skills are also taught. A very useful one for my students was differentiating between literal and inferential questions, and then how to answer each.

A propos of Hirsch's hobbyhorse about 'background knowledge" -- his point is valid, of course. Background knowledge and vocabulary are essential to good reading comprehension, especially as the student progresses through the grades. But while it is necessary, it is not sufficient (I have argued this point, to no avail, with Pondiscio and others at the CK blog).

As Catherine has observed, the anaphora issue is a separate obstacle, but there are others. Most of these relate to grammatical structure or to academic written conventions and usages that are not familiar to students from oral language.

Included in ones I have observed are: use of the passive voice, especially in complex sentences; prepositional phrases and relative clauses, especially those with temporal meaning; inverted or complex sentence order; and what one SLP (who made a terrific presentation at an IDA conference I attended) called "bridging" -- carrying over the meaning, referents etc. from one paragraph -- or even sentence -- to the next. Some students are unable to do this without a lot of directed instruction and practice. They are even more handicapped in comprehension if they are unaware that they need to do this, and according to her data, this issue is only loosely correlated with IQ. It is more a factor of working memory.

Unfortunately, there is no "royal road to reading comprehension" (pace Euclid), because a number of complex skills and areas of knowledge are components.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a big fan of ED Hirsch. He's for dumping a ton of content on kids with the hope that they'll remember even 10% of it after the summer.


Anonymous said...

I am dumbfounded that a college student could be unable to understand such a simple fable. As a reality check, I put it in front of my fourth grader before breakfast this morning. He understood it fine, described all the actions, and even derived the moral.

How in the world would somebody who can't understand a simple story get into college? How in the world could they succeed at it? Please tell me you're talking about remedial level classes.

Catherine Johnson said...

wow - fantastic thread --- I need to get a whole separate link to this

palisadesk - thank you! I didn't realize you'd tried to argue this with Robert --

anonymous - my students are "Basic Writers," which means remedial, but they're not dumb. I think froggiemama & Erica explained it. I'm going to keep those comments & have my students go through each sentence closely this fall.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, I just read a fabulous article by Douglas Biber, which discusses the fact that academic writing has changed very significantly over the past 100 years.

In a nutshell, it's gotten much less explicit & thus more difficult to understand -- and no one even knows about this transformation, which means no one is teaching it.

I'm pretty sure Biber shows that journalism has had the same changes (but take that with a grain of salt).

I'll get a post up about Biber as soon as I can.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm copying this all down (this moment) & referring to it as I write anaphora exercises---- !

Catherine Johnson said...

Anonymous wrote: << I fantasize that a return to sentence diagramming would help them systematically untangle the relationships between the words they are reading.>>

You took the words out of my mouth.

For a couple of years now, I've been thinking that the real purpose of sentence diagramming isn't to improve writing but to improve reading.

It would almost have to.

First of all, sentence diagramming forces you to see what is modifying what, what phrases or clauses are serving as nouns (or 'noun phrases,' as linguists say), etc.

But second -- and I think this may be critical -- sentence diagramming forces you to actually SEE every single word AND every single 'constituent' of the sentence. ("Constituents" are things like noun, verb, direct object -- at least, that's the way I'm using the term.)

I've looked into this enough now to know that our brains are built to extract the jist of a sentence, not to remember the specific words.

I'd be willing to bet a moderate sum of money, at this point, that practices such as memorization of poetry & speeches, and diagramming sentences, produce a much more sophisticated sense of how prose is put together.

For some that will translate to better writing, but for everyone that should translate to better reading.