Language and literacy expert Catherine Snow has one piece of advice for principals, superintendents, policymakers, and every aspiring educator: It all comes down to reading.
“Every other initiative that leaders might undertake is less important than making sure that the students in the schools learn how to read,” she says. But a school devoted to literacy ought to envision more than just sustained, quiet, independent reading, suggests Snow, who leads an intensive mini-course this month at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on what education leaders need to know about how kids learn to read. In a conversation with Usable Knowledge, Snow outlined several of these basic principles — and the common thread running through them.
“Your skills as a reader are a product of all of the accumulated knowledge of your lifetime,” explains Snow. Much of a student’s reading comprehension derives from the amount of prior knowledge — vocabulary as well as facts — he can use to define and contextualize what he’s reading. Even with very young students, schools must emphasize knowledge building as much as they emphasize skills.
A fundamental way to build the knowledge that enhances reading is through talking: asking questions about new concepts, sharing previous experiences, and debating controversial ideas.
In other words — the question is not what a principal should see inside an English language arts classroom, but rather, what she should hear.
Pre-K through third grade classes can augment literacy education by using class-wide conversations to build knowledge. While students from more advantaged backgrounds might be able to connect a detail in a book to something they learned at a museum or on a family vacation, many lower-income students only have access to that knowledge at school. To deepen reading comprehension, younger students should be reading aloud, asking and discussing questions they have, and collaborating on projects that emphasize learning new facts, concepts, and vocabulary.
Older students, says Snow, need to be talking just as much. In fourth through 12th grade, active discussion and debate should be the primary activities of language and literature classes, with older students increasingly transferring those oral language skills into writing. Students should seek support for their arguments in texts — a practice that gives their reading a purpose, which can stimulate even reluctant readers. When they debate, students are both held accountable to their assignments and learn more about the text through their peers.
This seminar format helps vulnerable readers, too. When students are struggling with a difficult text, Snow suggests that teachers create the same solution that adults seek out when they tackle challenging material: the opportunity to read with others and discuss the content.
Literacy tests are changing — and so should the way students prepare for them. Traditional comprehension assessments might have asked students to read a passage and answer two simple questions. Now, says Snow, tests are more challenging, asking students to evaluate a passage, integrate several articles, or consider alternative interpretations.
But the best way to prepare for these tests? Just keep talking, and keep learning. “Time in school spent acquiring knowledge is better test prep than test prep,” says Snow.