The Knowledge Gap – a Book Review
Click to jump right to these sections in this post.
What is the Knowledge Gap?
Many years ago, I sat in a meeting with my fourth grade colleagues and we analyzed the scores from the previous years’ standardized test. To everyone’s surprise, my class had far surpassed the other classes on the fiction reading portion of the text. When we anaylzed it even further, we realized that my classes’ high scores were mostly attributable to one passage – an excerpt from Gary Soto’s The Skirt. When my colleagues asked how I had achieved such high scores, I was at a loss. I didn’t know. Now I know.
In her book, The Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler explores the importance of background knowledge and vocabulary in comprehension. My experience with that standardized test mirrors some of the education research that she cites in the book. First, Gary Soto is a poet that I admire, and my students and I had read and analyzed some of the poems in his book, A Fire in My Hands. That experience probably gave them familiarity with his themes, symbolism and style, which helped them understand the text on the test. Second, because I speak Spanish, Hispanic students were generally put into my classroom. The Skirt is written in English, but the main character is from Mexico, and the text is sprinkled with Spanish words. My students had the relevant Spanish vocabulary to understand that text. Even my English speakers, because of their exposure to his poetry, had strategies for using context to decipher Spanish words. Even though many of my students’ reading levels were below grade level, their background knowledge and vocabulary compensated, and resulted in high comprehension of that text, and therefore, higher scores on the test.
Early in the book (Chapter 2), Natalie Wexler cites two studies that directly relate to my experience. One, The Baseball Study by Recht and Leslie, showed that middle school students with high knowledge of baseball, but a low reading level had higher comprehension of a baseball text than students with a high reading level but a low knowledge of baseball. Click here to read the study, published in 1988 in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Natalie Wexler also cites a study of preschoolers’ comprehension. In this study, published in 2014 in Reading Psychology, scientists found no difference between the comprehension of students from low socio-economic familes and students from wealthier families when background knowledge and vocabulary were the same. The two studies, when taken together, form the backbone of Nataile Wexler’s thesis – we are creating the achievement gap by focusing too much time on reading instruction that does not include knowlege building. In other words, the knowledge gap IS the achievement gap.
But what about Reading Strategy Instruction?
Most of us have spent years learning about reading strategies and how to teach them in the hopes that a thorough grounding in reading strategies would result in higher comprehension. We have seen studies that show strategy instruction boosts scores on comprehension tests. So, where does that fit into this picture? Wexler addresses this question in Chapter 3. According to Daniel Willingham, one of the cognitive psychologists she cites frequently, strategies help students understand that the goal of reading is comprehension, not decoding. Strategy instruction can also remind students to check for understanding. So, strategy instruction can be beneficial, but it is not sufficient. According to Willingham and Wexler, elementary schools today have gotten the balance wrong. We are spending too much time on strategy instruction, and not enough time building vocabulary and background knowledge.
“Nearly all teachers have come to see comprehension not as something that arises naturally with sufficient information, as cognitive scientists have concluded, but rather as a set of strategies that need to be taught explicitly. Many dedicated and well-intentioned teachers have worked their tails off trying to teach reading, but because they’ve been given the wrong information about how to do it, or in some cases none at all, the results have been disastrous, both for their students and for society as a whole.”Natalie Wexler in The Knowledge Gap, chapter 3
This great video from Daniel Willingham illustrates that point beautifully.
Does The Knowledge Gap correlate with Science of Reading?
The short answer is, yes, totally. The Knowledge Gap is based on scientific research done by cognitive psychologists like Daniel Willingham as well as instructional research done by education professionals like Timothy Shanahan. In my last blog post, I let you know that one of my filters is making sure that any changes I make in my classroom are based on brain research AND research on effective instruction. This book definitely draws on a wide variety of scientific research as Wexler explores her thesis.
The Science of Reading is a broad effort to bring together science and instruction. It is often equated with systematic phonics, and that is a component of reading instruction that has been well validated through a lot of research. But there is research that shows that systematic phonics isn’t enough. In The Knowledge Gap, Wexler explores how knowledge and vocabulary are critical to comprehension. In chapter 4 she endorses systematic phonics, but argues that it isn’t sufficient.
“Reading, it is generally agreed, is all about making meaning. Cognitive scientists would say that decoding – the part of reading for which phonemic awareness and phonics skills are essential – is a necessary stepping-stone in the process of making meaning from written text…. It’s true that some children will learn to read without systematic phonics instruction – probably somewhere between half and a third, according to reading experts. But all children can benefit from it, and many won’t learn to decode well without it.”-The Knowledge Gap, chapter 4
So, What Does This Mean for My Classroom?
The last part of the book focuses on Wexler’s thoughts on reform. This is where the book fell down for me. The recommendations are fairly generic. She has a high regard for curricula like Core Knowledge and Engage NY, both open source and availabe for free. She would like to see fewer district initiatives and more sustained focus on system-wide shifts over time toward content-rich curricula. She recommends close reading of text and anlytical writing. And she mentions an effort in Lousiana to require certain texts each year, and then base the state test on those texts, ensuring that all Lousiana students share a common curriculum. All of these are interesting ideas, but not particularly useful when I face my kindergarteners tomorrow.
Of course, Wexler is an education journalist. Her degrees are in history and the law, not instruction. So it’s probably reasonable for her to use her journalist expertise to gather all of the sources together in one book, and then allow education experts to turn those insights into classroom practice. She is the co-author of The Writing Revolution, which is currently waiting for me on my bedside table, and seems like it will be more practical than theoretical.
Who Should Read This Book?
I recommend this book for every elementary teacher and administrator who wants to understand how to raise reading achievement in their school. I think the book is especially important for primary teachers. Most primary classrooms in the United States spend the majority of the day teaching reading (62% of the day according to some estimates), and it seems to be working just fine. When primary teachers give reading tests like the DRA and BAS, most students do well. But, without a focus on building knowledge in the primary grades, comprehension slows down and reading achievement decreases in upper grades. That’s when the cracks start to appear. But because the kids are out of our classrooms by that point, we primary teachers don’t notice the change.
I’ve spent the past 4 years teaching fifth grade, and this year I moved to kindergarten, in part because I wanted to figure out why reading achievement shifted so dramatically from primary grades to intermediate grades in my school. I think this is a huge part of the reason, so as a primary teacher, I am working to bring systematic phonics AND content learning to my kindergarteners. I think any primary teacher who reads The Knowledge Gap will be ready to come along on that journey with me, as we work to help our readers succeed today AND tomorrow.
I give The Knowledge Gap five stars, and it’s on the top shelf of my book case. I have already reread many parts of the book, and I am sure that I will be reaching for it often as I figure out how to shift my classroom and help my students become proficient readers.