What is the best way to promote, and improve, the practice of reading amongst the young? The most frequent response is usually something like this: the love of reading has to be developed allowing young readers to choose books that are of interest to you, mostly works of fiction. That is to say, the development reader, passes by the side fun learning to read.
Needless to say, not everyone agrees. There are teachers who, while acknowledging the importance of the playful aspect of learning, maintain that it is necessary to pay greater attention to the background knowledge that allows you to develop reading ability: the reading comprehension is highly determined by the background knowledge that the individual possesses. And it may be that that knowledge should be actively encouraged among the readers, through the use of nonfiction texts, without relying too much on readers to emerging develop only through the pleasure of reading for reading.
In the midst of these controversies, we have recently published the results of a study in the public schools of the city of New York (reviewed in the New York Times) that shows that learning reader based on the texts of non-fiction improves reading skills compared to learning reader-based texts of fiction.
The approach based on non-fictional texts was taken from the initiative’s Core Knowledge, an independent foundation, nonprofit, founded in 1986 by E. D. Hirsch Jr., professor emeritus of the University of Virginia. As we are told on its website, the task of the foundation Core Knowledge is based on a simple principle, and well-established by cognitive science: new knowledge builds on prior knowledge, so the more they know, the more it is able to learn and know.
The study was initiated in the year 2009 by the then responsible for the education of the city of New York, Joel I. Klein. During three years, we monitored the reading ability of nearly 1,000 students in 20 schools, from his time in kindergarten to second grade. Half of the schools adopted the curriculum, based on the initiative Core Knowledge, while the other half used curricula based on what is called “balanced literacy,” where the emphasis is on the dissemination of the practice of reading through works of fiction.
The study found that over the three years, students with the curriculum Core Knowledge improved their reading comprehension in comparison with students in the standard curriculum. That difference in reading comprehension was more pronounced in students of nursery, where the results of the students under the curriculum Core Knowledge exceeded in five times the results of the rest of the schools. As the students progressed of course, the differences were reduced, but remained significant in favor of students using the curriculum Core Knowledge.
In addition, students under the curriculum experimental had higher scores on standardized tests on social studies and science students with the curriculum traditional, although in a test on reading comprehension and oral vocabulary scores were not significantly different.
It is only a study and, as usual, will have to wait to initiatives similar to contrasting results, but gives rise to interesting reflections.
The education based on what we know (even temporarily) will usually be labeled paternalistic, if not reactionary and pursuing the indoctrination ideological. On the contrary: critical thinking and the ability to learn on one’s own may only be based on what we already know.
Related to the fear of paternalism or indoctrination, is the question of what counter-productive it can be to try to encourage reading based on the obligation, and not in the taste for reading. It might be a concern is unfounded, because there have to be perspectives, and contradictory. As we are told in the report of the study on the blog Brainstorm:
the more unfamiliar to text’s topic is, the more difficult it is for the student to understand the text, and the more painfull is the reading process. In other words, background knowledge is a large component of “love of reading.” If we want to increase the volume of reading students do and raise their capacities, give them a rich liberal arts and sciences curriculum, that provides enough background knowledge sufficient to make that next reading assignment easier.
Image by Karin Beil