Natalie Wexler is an education writer and the author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—And How to Fix It (Avery 2019). She is also the co-author, with Judith C. Hochman, of The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades (Jossey-Bass, 2017), and a senior contributor to the education channel on Forbes.com.

Natalie spoke to Emily Freitag and Christina Gonzalez about the importance of building students’ knowledge to support reading comprehension, and warned against teaching students at a lower reading level in response to pandemic-related unfinished learning.

Watch the full conversation or read the abridged Q&A below.

EF: Please share a story from your journey as a learner and what that has taught you about teaching and learning.

NW: The story that springs to mind is my wonderful sixth-grade year, which I remember so vividly. I went to a school that had a very Eurocentric curriculum. We spent all of sixth-grade history on Anglo-Saxon England, and I had this very young teacher who made it very experiential. We formed ourselves into guilds and we pretended to be peasants.  We ended the year with a medieval feast where we didn’t have napkins and we wiped our hands on dogs. That has stuck in my mind, and I think this tells me a couple of things. One is that there’s a widespread feeling in education that the way to teach is through very experiential, hands-on learning. What I realized in retrospect was that my teacher was skilled at making sure we not only remembered wiping our hands on the dog, but we also remembered things about medieval farming and the feudal system. She got a lot of content into our heads. That was what stuck with me, not just those experiences, but that knowledge. 

I was very lucky. I had an excellent education and I had highly educated parents who talked to me all the time. I went to a private school where I had great teachers, but my education left a lot of things out. But, I had this foundation of a critical mass of academic knowledge and vocabulary that equipped me to find out a lot of things about the world that were left out of my education. Even though I went to an all-girls school, we didn’t learn about women’s history. So, I delved into women’s history and I’ve learned a lot about African American History and all sorts of things. I happen to love history, but I’ve been able to educate myself through my life about all sorts of things, including education, which I did not know much about ten years ago. The reason I could do that was not that I’d learned those specific things in school, but because I had learned enough stuff, generally, that I had a lot of vocabulary and general knowledge in my head. It’s not like kids need to learn in school everything they’re ever going to learn. But, they do need to learn enough so that they can then keep on learning. It’s not a question of teaching them skills for learning, because that goes along with the knowledge. If you don’t have the knowledge, if you don’t have the vocabulary, you’re not going to have the skills. 

It's not a question of teaching them skills for learning, because that goes along with the knowledge. If you don't have the knowledge, if you don't have the vocabulary, you're not going to have the skills.

EF: From your research and learning, what can we hold on to in education that we know works, particularly around literacy?

NW: One thing we know works is systematic instruction in phonics. We’ve had a lot of evidence about that for a long time, and it still hasn’t really penetrated a lot of classrooms and a lot of institutions of higher education. That’s certainly one thing that we know can work. 

Cognitive science has made great strides in the last 30 years in uncovering principles that govern all learning, most of which, unfortunately, have not really made their way into teacher training programs. And some things are still being taught in teacher training programs that contradict those principles of cognitive science. 

From my perspective, the low-hanging fruit here is the way we approach reading comprehension, which we spend a lot of time on. What we know from cognitive science is that the key factor, but not the only factor, in reading comprehension is how much you know about the topic and how much vocabulary you have relating to the topic. That frees up space in your working memory to do things like understanding what you’re reading so you’re not juggling so many things like, “What does that word mean?” We know that starting to build kids’ knowledge at a young age will increase the store of knowledge they have in their long-term memory and that’s what they’re going to need to succeed at a high school level. We have to keep that in mind when we’re teaching little kids. It’s not just that we’re preparing them to read what they can read right now on their own. We need to be preparing them for what they’re going to be expected to read 10 or 12 years from now. The most efficient way to get a lot of knowledge into the heads of kids who are still learning to read is by reading aloud to them and having discussions. Those are the things that can work.

It's not just that we're preparing [students] to read what they can read right now on their own. We need to be preparing them for what they're going to be expected to read 10 or 12 years from now.

EF: The word “knowledge” is used a lot right now—it’s a little buzzy. Can you just describe for us what you mean by knowledge? And what you would want educators to take away from this idea that “knowledge works.”

NW: There are different kinds of knowledge. I think what a cognitive psychologist would say is that it’s a change in long-term memory. So, it could be knowing the definition of the word “verb.” You might have memorized that definition, and that’s one kind of knowledge. But then knowing how to construct a sentence using a verb is another kind of knowledge. There’s knowing that and there’s knowing how. I think of this particularly in connection with writing. You can know that the definition of a sentence is, “a group of words containing a subject and a predicate and expressing a complete thought.” That doesn’t mean you know the difference between a sentence and a sentence fragment, which isn’t really a sentence and could contain a subject and a verb. It could be, “Although I drank the glass of water.” You may know the definition of a sentence, but not understand that that’s not a sentence.

There are different levels of knowledge. Some of this comes down to what cognitive psychologists call “deliberate practice.” It could be just hearing concepts or words again and again, and maybe using them in conversation. It could be doing something over and over again, under the guidance of a teacher or a coach who is modulating your cognitive load so that you’re not overwhelmed because there’s just too much going on, but also it’s not so easy that you get disengaged because it’s boring. These different kinds of knowledge are going to require different amounts of deliberate practice or exposure to things and engagement with things. There’s no simple definition of the word knowledge.

EF: I think a lot of educators come at the word knowledge as the recall knowledge from Bloom’s Taxonomy, but what I’m hearing you say is far more multifaceted than that.

NW: I think that Bloom’s Taxonomy has been misinterpreted because people see knowledge there at the bottom, and think, “That’s low level, we don’t need to waste time on that.” But, if you don’t have the knowledge, you can’t move up to those so-called higher-order things like analysis and synthesis. You’ve got to start at the bottom of that pyramid. Your knowledge base should be really broad. The broader your knowledge base, the more things you know, the better equipped you’re going to be to analyze or critically think about all sorts of things.

CG: Natalie, if you have the chance to sit down with some school leaders in the next couple of months, and their questions were, “What can we do to start planning for next school year? What are two or three things we can do so that we can get it right?” What is the advice you can give them? What are some things that school leaders can start planning for now for post-pandemic when our kids are all back in school?

NW: I would warn them to be cautious about the standard way of measuring what’s being called “learning loss.” Certainly on the literacy side, in the elementary and maybe middle school levels, teachers are going to test for kids’ “reading level.” If they’ve lost ground, then you put them at a lower reading level. One of the things that flow from understanding the importance of knowledge to reading comprehension is that these reading levels are largely illusory. There is no such thing as a fixed individual reading level; it’s going to depend on the topic that you’re reading about and how much you know about it. If we want kids to be able to read at a so-called “higher level,” what we need to do is expand their knowledge, not have them practice their “skills” on books that are easy for them to read, on a random variety of topics. Sure, kids need some time to read books for pleasure, things that they’re interested in that they can read fairly easily. I’m not saying they should never have that opportunity. But, we’ve got to get away from the idea that it should be the centerpiece of the literacy curriculum.

If I were running the world (and this is not my idea; I think a cognitive psychologist suggested this), I would redefine the word “reading,” so that reading just means those foundational skills, phonemic awareness and decoding skills. Because, when you think of reading as this subject that is largely comprehension, then you silo it off from all the things that actually do fuel reading comprehension—history, geography, science, arts, and literature. It’s not that kids don’t need to learn how to think about what the main idea is or to be making inferences, but those are not the things that should be in the foreground. What should be in the foreground is content, and then you ask kids questions that require them to find the main idea, that require them to make inferences. But it’s not like, “Okay, now we’re going to practice those skills.” And you need to spend enough time on the topic and go into it in enough depth, so that kids are equipped to make inferences, etc.

I would also bring in here the importance of writing. Writing is the hardest thing we ask kids to do. We have totally underestimated its difficulty. But if it is made manageable and embedded in the content of the curriculum, it’s a hugely powerful lever for building and deepening knowledge and filling in gaps in comprehension and gaps in background knowledge.

Writing is the hardest thing we ask kids to do. We have totally underestimated its difficulty. But if it is made manageable and embedded in the content of the curriculum, it's a hugely powerful lever for building and deepening knowledge and filling in gaps in comprehension and background knowledge.

For school leaders at the elementary level, I would say to adopt a coherent, content-focused curriculum. They are labeled as a ELA curricula, but they cover topics that might be considered social studies or science. At upper-grade levels, high schools are trying to teach content and a lot of the problem there is that kids have such huge gaps in background knowledge that they’re not able to access that content at a high school level. There, you can’t just say, “Okay, now, what are all the things these kids have missed? And let’s just start at the beginning and teach them all those things.” You should start at 10th-grade material or whatever grade it is. You can then use writing to figure out what it is that students need to know about this topic that will allow them to access this information. And if you start at the sentence level, you will not only be teaching them how to write, which is important in itself, but you’ll also have them think about, “What do I need to finish this sentence stem? What information have I read that I can plug in here and put into my own words?” When you do that, it’s cemented much more firmly in their long-term memory, and they have essentially learned it.

EF: It sounds like you’re suggesting a new construct of what we think of as reading, and maybe getting into a new construct of the standards and how they relate to each other across disciplines in some ways. Is there anything you’d want to expand on?

NW: I think standards have their uses but they’ve been problematic, especially literacy standards that don’t specify any particular content and read like a list of skills. Teachers think, understandably, that they should be teaching the standards. So if the standard says, “Students will be able to connect a claim to evidence in text” and doesn’t specify anything about what text, teachers will just try to teach directly that skill of connecting a claim to evidence in text. That doesn’t work if the kids can’t understand the text, for example. And helping kids to understand a text has to consist of more than providing them definitions of a few words they don’t understand in that text, etc. So, I do think literacy standards have been part of the problem. 

EF: You’ve touched on a few of these, but what else do you see people trying that we know doesn’t work and that you hope we don’t perpetuate in the next couple of years? 

 NW: Aside from what I’ve already mentioned about leveled reading and just focusing on comprehension skills, I hope that there will be a healthier respect for the idea that teachers can and should impart information, and that it’s not all about kids discovering things for themselves. We all do construct our own knowledge, but that doesn’t mean we have to figure out our own information. 

There’s a long-standing mindset among American educators that you shouldn’t be the “sage on the stage,” you should be the “guide on the side.” But, when students don’t know much about a topic, there’s a whole bunch of research showing that the most effective way to get them to learn is to be that sage on the stage. I don’t mean exclusively, of course; you don’t just lecture to a bunch of six-year-olds. But, you do explain things. One of the many tricky things in teaching is finding that sweet spot. You don’t want to just explain everything, but you have to provide enough information so that when you ask them a question that requires them to make an inference, they actually have that information. And then you might be amazed at what they can do. 

One of the many tricky things in teaching is finding that sweet spot. You don't want to just explain everything, but you have to provide enough information so that when you ask [students] a question that requires them to make an inference, they actually have that information.

When I was researching the book The Knowledge Gap, I watched a class of second graders who had been getting a lot of information about the world since kindergarten, and the thoughtful discussions that they were capable of, and the connections they could make between things they learned a year or two before and what they were learning now…it was pretty powerful to see that. I hope we can get away from this idea that the teacher should just stand back as much as possible.

EF: With a lot of due respect for the difficulty of teaching, why do you think changing practices in literacy encounters so much resistance?

NW: There are three categories of obstacles for classroom teachers. One is intellectual. If you’re hearing stuff that contradicts what you heard in your training, it is natural for there to be some resistance to that message. 

Then, maybe more powerfully, there are emotional obstacles. I’ve talked to a lot of teachers who told me that they felt tremendously guilty when they realized that what they had been doing, in the sincere belief that they were helping kids, turned out not to have been what was going to help kids and, in fact, it may have been holding them back. I think it’s natural to raise defenses against feeling that kind of guilt if you’re a classroom teacher. And if you are a trainer of teachers and you’ve been sending people out into the world for years to do certain things, it’s very hard to hear that those were the wrong things to do.

Lastly, teaching is such a complex activity. Even if you want to do something different in the classroom and you understand the need for it, it can just be hard to remember in the moment. It’s so easy to fall back into your long-standing habits. 

Another big obstacle here is the way we go about testing reading in this country. It’s disconnected from any particular body of knowledge. Even if you’ve been using one of these content-rich curricula and building students’ knowledge about Greek myths and the human digestive system, when they get into the testing room the passages may be all about the Inuit or Amelia Earhart. They may not yet have that critical mass of knowledge and vocabulary that will equip them to answer those questions. That can be very discouraging for teachers. And if you haven’t even reached the point of adopting a content-focused ELA curriculum, you may just feel like social studies is not important because that’s not going to be on the test. What’s going to be on the test is their skills, and so that’s what you’re going to focus on.

EF: I do think at the very least, we should be aligning the reading passages to the existing science and social studies standards in a state. 

NW: Louisiana has this pilot where they’re pioneering a new kind of reading test that is actually connected to topics in the state’s ELA and social studies curriculum. It just amazes me that it’s taken this long for somebody to think, Why don’t we test kids on the stuff we’ve actually taught them, rather than the stuff that they may have just picked up somewhere?