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Assessing The Atlantic’s View of Literacy, Knowledge and Culture

By Jerome A. Steele

Natalie Wexler's April, 2018 article for The Atlantic entitled “Schools Are Failing to Teach Kids to Read" recently resurfaced and was widely circulated among educators on Twitter. Its author cited data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showing reading scores to be flat since 1998, with only 33 percent of students exceeding the NAEP’s proficiency benchmark. Wexler describes a panel that “concluded that the root of the problem is the way schools teach reading,” presenting the argument that literacy cannot be reduced to skills such as phonology and decoding. Among the problems, she asserts, is that “educators have also treated the other component of reading - comprehension - as a set of skills, when in fact it depends primarily on what students already know.”

Wexler invokes NAEP panelist D.T. Willingham, a noted cognitive psychologist from the University of Virginia stating “whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills.” This idea is supported by a significant body of research. In fact, UAlbany Child Research and Study Center researchers Lynn Gelzheiser, Laura Hallgren-Flynn, Margaret Connors and Donna Scanlon have developed the Interactive Strategies Approach-Extended (ISA-X), a literacy intervention aimed at supporting struggling readers for whom background knowledge is an obstacle to growth.

Wexler goes on to claim that “students from less educated families are usually the ones who are most handicapped by gaps in knowledge” and states “the best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts.” NAEP panelist Ian Rowe, a charter school executive in New York City, offered an example of how the lack of background knowledge inhibits comprehension: “a sixth-grader at one of his schools was frustrated that a passage on a reading test she’d taken kept repeating a word she didn’t understand: roog-bye. When Rowe asked her to spell the word, it turned out to be rugby.”

While Wexler’s claim that students would benefit from a broader curriculum is sound, her argument, and especially Rowe’s anecdote, reveal a telling blindspot present in a great deal of discourse around literacy. She laments the “gaps in knowledge” exhibited by “poorer students” and their “less-educated families” without exploring what constitutes “the kind of knowledge that is needed to succeed academically.” Wexler accepts at face value Rowe’s claim that a sixth-grader from the Bronx’s (where CEO Rowe’s schools operate) inability to identify the word rugby reflects an unacceptable knowledge deficit and a failure on the part of her family and teachers. Perhaps this student from the Bronx should be intimately familiar with the details of yachting and polo as well?

The word race is entirely absent from the article, but is present nonetheless through colorblind proxy representations like “less educated,” “poorer,” “lower income” and “neediest.” Wexler states that “wealthy children are more likely to acquire knowledge outside of school.” This implies that the stories, expressions, cultural practices and ways of thinking and being exhibited by “poorer” students and their families do not amount to knowledge. It is clear that for Wexler and Rowe’s argument, knowledge is defined and legitmated by the dominant white culture.

Wexler decries schools’ failure to improve reading scores over the past 20 years without acknowledging that English Language Learners “are the fastest-growing student population in the country, growing 60 percent in the last decade, as compared with 7 percent growth of the general student population (Grantmakers for Education, 2013). She states that “most” elementary teachers “have been trained in methods not supported by research, and that many are resistant to change.” She makes this claim ignoring nearly 30 years of research and an entire tradition of practice in culturally responsive/sustaining pedagogy that began to be articulated by Gloria Ladson-Billings and has been elaborated by many other scholars.

CASDA is proud to be hosting “Building Culturally Responsive Literacy Using Text Sets” a workshop that will be facilitated by Kerri Messler, K-12 English Language Arts and Library Coordinator for Schenectady City Schools and Carmella Parente,  K-12 Social Studies, World Language, and Family Consumer Science Coordinator for Schenectady City Schools. They will share their experience adapting the ISA-X approach articulated by UAlbany Child Research and Study Center researchers Lynn Gelzheiser, Laura Hallgren-Flynn, Margaret Connors and Donna Scanlon to develop culturally responsive text sets that cultivate background knowledge that reflects, embraces and sustains the diverse cultures of the students and families of Schenectady. Messler, Parente and their colleagues at Schenectady recognize that both knowledge and literacy are not monolithic and are working to advance instructional practices that support achievement and celebrate the diverse cultures of their students and community.


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