Daniel Willingham, the UVA psychologist and Brittanica blogger, flags an interesting and important new study from Hong Kong that analyzed the relationship between 39 teacher characteristics and instructional practices and 4th grade students' reading scores on the PIRLS international reading assessment. Of the 39 teacher factors, Willingham notes, four were found to play a significant role in predicting fourth graders' reading scores:
- the frequency with which the teacher used materials from other subjects in reading instruction.
- using assessment to assign grades.
- the frequency with which students took a quiz or test after reading.
- using assessment to provide data for national or local monitoring.
These factors accounted for about 30 percent of the variation in children's reading performance, and by far the strongest predictor of the four was the extent to which teachers integrate readings from other content areas -- such as science, social studies, and the arts -- into their reading instruction. This fits with previous evidence showing that, once children learn the basic skills of how to decode, their ability to read well and to comprehend what they read depends in large part on the amount of content and general knowledge children have about the world, which enables them to connect what they read to existing knowledge and better undersand what they are reading.
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These findings are particularly important to keep in mind as federal policymakers ponder the shape of new literacy initiatives to replace the previous Reading First program, which Congress defunded in fiscal year 2009. Given the evidence both that reading proficiently by third grade is a very strong predictor of children's later school and life outcomes, and that far too many American youngsters fail to read proficiently by then, there is a real need for a continued federal role in supporting research-based early literacy initiatives in pre-K and the early grades. The Obama administration's fiscal year 2010 budget proposal included $300 million in funding for new Early Literacy Grants program that would replace Reading First. The information the administration has released about the proposal suggests that these grants would fund some of the same research-based early literacy strategies as Reading First funded, while also placing increased emphasis on improving children's reading comprehension.
The Hong Kong research reaffirms what previous research has shown -- the best way to improve students' reading comprehension is to ensure that they are exposed to a content-rich curriculum across the full range of academic subjects, including science, history, social studies and the arts. Unfortunately, some research suggests that many school districts have gone in the opposite direction, reducing time spent on content in an effort to increase reading and math scores. This evidence shows that approach is shortsighted. One way to solve the problem is by encouraging schools and teachers to better integrate content-rich readings from other subject areas -- especially non-fiction -- into their reading programs, replacing the sometimes vapid readings that many reading textbooks and existing commercial programs currently employ. Any new federal investment in reading needs to incorporate a strong emphasis on content, as well as decoding. The federal government could help promote this approach by disseminating information about the value of integrating content-rich reading into early literacy programs, and by creating a database or library of leveled, content-focused, "open source" reading materials that teachers could access for use in their classrooms.