Are early readers suffering from a “knowledge gap”?
In her Atlantic article “Elementary education has gone terribly wrong”—and in her new book, The Knowledge Gap—education journalist Natalie Wexler extends an important critique: we do impoverished kids in particular a disservice when we teach only skills and not knowledge.
In the early literacy field, some different terminology is important to consider as we look at Wexler’s insights. Instead of talking about knowledge versus skills, early literacy tends to talk about language development versus learning to decode. Both are essential for young kids to get to real, lasting success in reading with comprehension. (Remember the Simple View of Reading?)
So, is Wexler right that a lack of knowledge about the world is what holds kids back in reading comprehension?
If we look instead through the early literacy lens, the research is clear: Language comprehension becomes increasingly important for reading comprehension as kids get older. That includes vocabulary, or word-level comprehension. But it also includes an understanding of syntax. As Wexler points out, kids may need to know something about baseball to understand a play-by-play recap; they need some background knowledge. But they also need to read “The ball hit by Rosario sailed over the fence” and understand that Rosario is not the one sailing through the air. They need to navigate how language itself works.
Perhaps the terminology of language development and language comprehension provide a more instructionally clear path forward, one that more strongly implies that kids’ interactions are what matter most.”
Is it a knowledge gap—or a language gap?
Whether deservedly or not, the idea of emphasizing knowledge comes with some connotations. “Teach kids knowledge” might call to mind the flip-top head image, a common illustration for didactic teaching. Do we just open up kids’ heads so we can pour some stuff in there? No. Kids’ own participation, agency, and interaction are critical to contemporary understandings of good teaching. In early childhood especially, we know that quality instruction is marked by high quality teacher-student interactions, full of lots of language use. Perhaps the terminology of language development and language comprehension provide a more instructionally clear path forward, one that more strongly implies that kids’ interactions are what matter most.
How can we close the gap, then?
In MAP® Reading Fluency™, the need for broader background knowledge is framed as part of language development. When a young child is flagged as struggling with language comprehension, these next steps are offered:
Students need strong language comprehension skills to develop strong reading comprehension. To develop better language comprehension, students need language-rich environments, broad experiences, and planful support from adults.
- Language-rich environments promote interactive dialogue. They include read alouds and discussion of words and books. Show-and-tell and other sharing opportunities get children talking. Include chances to ask and answer questions and to extend vocabulary and sentence complexity
- Broad experiences move beyond school walls and traditional skill development. Field trips, art and science units, and themed play give children reasons to learn and use new words and ask new kinds of questions
- Planful adult support means keeping language growth central to all lessons. It can mean previewing and reviewing new vocabulary, scaffolding ways to say more with richer sentences, and teaching and practicing idioms and phrases
Especially in pre-K–3 grade, we want highly interactive, language rich environments—the kind that help kids develop knowledge about the world, too.”
To learn more, watch our webinar “A better way to support teachers and build early readers: Meet MAP Reading Fluency.”
What children need to be successful in the world includes knowledge, yes. But we can’t just impart it to them, flip-top style. Instead, especially in pre-K–3 grade, we want highly interactive, language rich environments—the kind that help kids develop knowledge about the world, too.
The conversation around the knowledge gap bears deepening. What kind of growth matters most? We don’t want kids who can only answer questions about the knowledge someone selected for them. We want kids fully empowered to ask their own questions and participate in increasingly complex dialogue with others. We want to build strong readers who can acquire, critique, and create their own knowledge as they grow, and language development is surely central to that goal.