Last week, students read about the Scottsboro Boys trial to frame our class novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. During class, I noticed one student with their head down for what I assumed was disinterest with the class. As I sat down to read with the student, I understood the real reason: they guessed “acquire” instead of reading “accusation”, and got stuck on several other words like “blatantly”, “inflammatory”, and “mandated”: they’re not alone. According to the 2017 National NAEP Reading report card, less than 40% of 8th grade students read proficiently.
Some would claim that the primary reason for this low reading proficiency is disengagement with non-relevant texts, and that my primary job as a future English teacher is to instill a love of reading in my students through graphic novels and young adult fiction. This same philosophy undergirds literature circles and book clubs in the classroom, which are based not just on interest, but also reading level. If instilling a love of literature is the primary reason for school, then it follows that we let students read what interests them. The problem with this approach is that when we don’t center the teaching of literacy in our classrooms– reading, writing, and discussion of class texts– we treat students as independent, expert readers. With a nationwide reading proficiency of less than 40%, this is a mistake.
Teachers: Let’s Teach
According to Mike Schmoker, author of Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, there is a simple view of literacy that has rarely been practiced to the extent it should be, and this in large part is why reading proficiency hasn’t moved (1). We should be reading, writing about, and discussing whole-class texts. Whether it’s a novel in English, or the textbooks in math, science, and social studies, reading instruction is not limited to language arts.
Further, given the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension (3), it is unwise to relegate large portions of work to students with little guidance- any practice that does so inherently assumes that students have the wide range of embedded background knowledge that the adult has. The point of the teacher is to be the expert of content in the classroom, and to provide necessary background information to comprehend texts. When we don’t, this is especially harmful to students who depend on schools to teach them how to use words effectively (2).
Background Knowledge, Not Interest, Is Required for Reading Comprehension
In my experience as a first-time teacher of To Kill a Mockingbird, students will initially show disinterest, and for good reason. As I studied the book prior to teaching it, I realized the depth of background knowledge needed to understand the setting of the novel (1930s, depression era, Jim Crow South) let-alone the knowledge necessary to comprehend the nuances of code-switching, classism, and references to historical events such as the Scottsboro Boys’ trial and President Franklin Delano Roosevelts’s first inaugural address. Compound this with the dense syntax, metaphor, symbolism and archaic writing, and you’ve got an instantly “unrelatable” novel.
Rather than back down from the challenging text and read books that were immediately “engaging” or “relatable”, as a team, we decided to embed background knowledge in the form of related readings and videos. Instead of lowering our standards of what students could do, we increased the expectations of reading, writing, and discussion by providing necessary supports and scaffolds.
Although many would have us believe otherwise, a relevant text does not necessarily mean a current one.
Giving Students What They Need
The reason we gravitate towards a child-led, choice-based curriculum is because it’s easier to let students read what is immediately gratifying than to get them invested in something outside of their purview. The problem with this approach is that one week Fortnite is the new thing, and the next Baby Shark is taking us by storm. The only consistency with growing youth is that their interests, for the most part, are fleeting.
Students are already experts in their own lives. Let our class be windows to something new instead of solely a mirror to the familiar. And let’s commit to giving our students the education they deserve, not the one we think they want.
Writing as Learning: A Content-Based Approach by Andrew Rothsetin et al
The Effect of Background Knowledge on the Reading Comprehension of Ninth Graders by Kathleen C. Stevens, 1980
It’s important to have a critical eye when using social studies textbooks. They often will primarily show the “winners” perspective and neglect or silence the voice of the indigenous people (think about the Texas textbook that called slaves “African workers”). I would recommend Howard Zinn’s “People’s History” if looking for alternative sources.