The case for teaching about sharks and mummies, not captions and the main idea

How do students best learn to read? Equally important, how do students learn to love reading? The Common Core emphasizes reading comprehension skills, like identifying the main idea of a text. Yet in her new book, “The Knowledge Gap,” Natalie Wexler argues that teaching those skills in a vacuum, rather than centering instruction around interesting and rigorous content knowledge, hurts both student achievement and engagement.

In the excerpt below, Wexler observes two elementary school classrooms, each one taking a different approach to teaching reading:

On a sunny November morning, Gaby Arredondo is trying to initiate twenty first-graders into the mysteries of reading.

Today’s particular mystery is captions. Ms. Arredondo recently gave a test that asked her students to identify a caption, and — even though she had spent 15 minutes teaching the concept — many chose the title of the passage instead. Her goal today is to show her students that what makes something a caption isn’t where it appears on the page or what it looks like but what it does: it’s a label that describes a picture.

“What is a caption?” Ms. Arredondo begins brightly to the five students gathered before her at a semicircular table. As she speaks, she writes caption on a whiteboard next to her chair. No one answers. Ms. Arredondo writes a second word: label.

“It’s a label,” volunteers one girl.

“What kind of a label?” Ms. Arredondo prods.

A boy chimes in: “It’s a label that describes things.”

“What kinds of things? Does it tell us the author or the title?”

“It tells us the author and the title,” the boy repeats dutifully.

“No,” Ms. Arredondo says. “It tells us about the picture.”

She shows them a photo from a book called “Mothers,” which has the words “daughters,” “mother,” and “son” superimposed in the appropriate spots. “So, what is a caption?”

“Words?” a girl named Nevaeh ventures.

As Ms. Arredondo goes through other books with subsequent small groups, the children pepper her with questions about the pictures — what a shark is eating, or whether a planet is Mars or the moon. She deflects them. The point of this lesson isn’t to learn about sharks or planets. It’s to learn about captions.

– – – –

In a first-grade classroom in another school, teacher Adrienne Williams is about to read aloud a book on mummies. But first, she asks the kids what they already know about the subject—or what they think they know.

“They chase you!” says one.

“They don’t exist.”

“They walk like they’re crazy!”

“They’re wrapped in paper.”

“They kidnap you.”

“You all have a lot of ideas about mummies,” Ms. Williams says calmly. After taking some questions (“Are they real?” “What do they do?”), she puts the book into a projector so the kids can follow along.

“Eww!” they chorus delightedly, as the screen reveals a photograph of a mummy with its hands pressed to its cheeks, its teeth fixed in a ghoulish smile.

The children are rapt as Ms. Williams reads about how mummies are dead bodies that have been preserved, sometimes for thousands of years, and the things that scientists can tell about them: that one ancient man used hair gel, that another’s last meal was vegetable soup.

Along the way she casually points out the “text features” that, in a typical elementary classroom, would be the focus of instruction: the table of contents (“So if I want to make a mummy, what page do I go to? … Yes, page 18, ‘How to Make a Mummy’”), and a text box that contains a definition of bacteria (“You already know about bacteria after studying germs,” she reminds them). There’s a picture of a sarcophagus. “We’re going to learn that word,” she says.

– – – –

Both Ms. Williams and Ms. Arredondo were teaching at schools serving low-income populations on a first-come, first-served basis. Both were considered effective and well-trained teachers. Ms. Williams is naturally gifted, but the fact that her lesson was so much meatier and more engaging was largely a matter of luck: her school happened to be using a curriculum that emphasized building knowledge. A few years before, Ms. Williams’ school had used the kind of curriculum used by Ms. Arredondo — which is the norm — and she could see that her students weren’t particularly engaged. “It was just an isolated set of skills,” she says. “There was no bigger context.”

The theory that has shaped the American approach to elementary education goes like this: Reading comprehension is a set of skills that can be taught completely disconnected from content. Teach children to identify captions in a simple text — or find the main idea, or make inferences, or any one of a number of other skills — and eventually they’ll be able to grasp the meaning of any text put in front of them.

But cognitive scientists have known for decades that the most important factor in comprehension isn’t a set of generally applicable skills; it’s how much background knowledge the reader has about the topic. If you don’t have enough knowledge and vocabulary to understand the text, no amount of “skills” practice will help. Given the lack of attention to building knowledge in school, the system ends up further privileging the kids who are already privileged — those who have highly educated parents and are more likely to pick up sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary at home.

Another widespread belief among educators is that history and non-hands-on science are inappropriate for young children. That, too, is not supported by the evidence — including the anecdotal evidence from Ms. Williams’ classroom. The fact is, history is a series of stories. And kids love stories. The same is true for science topics that don’t lend themselves to hands-on activities. It’s ironic that truly abstract concepts like captions are considered appropriate for six-year-olds, but informational tales about history, science, and the arts are not.

When young children are introduced to history and science in concrete and understandable ways, chances are they’ll be far better equipped to reengage with those topics with more nuance later on. At the same time, teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories. In effect, kids are clamoring for broccoli and spinach while adults insist on a steady diet of donuts.

The good news is that a growing number of elementary schools, like the one where Ms. Williams taught, are recognizing that it’s not only OK to focus on building children’s knowledge, it’s vital to their chances of success. And that kids love it.

From THE KNOWLEDGE GAP by Natalie Wexler, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Natalie Wexler.

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