Getting Past the Education Establishment’s Reading Wars: Give schools more content in the reading curriculum

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

A recent report from Statistics Canada found that reading proficiency is a strong predictor of how likely students are to complete high school and to acquire a post-secondary degree. This is one of many reports that confirms the importance of ensuring students learn how to read.

 Many people assume the ongoing phonics v. whole language battle, whereby educators argue over the merits of teaching students to sound out words phonetically, reflects the entire spectrum of debate over the best approach to reading instruction. The reality, however, is quite different.
In order to read any given text, a potential reader must do two things: decode, or sound out, the words on the page and also understand what they mean. While the reading wars have focused on the best way to teach students how to decode words, reading comprehension is an equally important component that deserves more attention than it currently receives.
It is common for students to be highly skilled at decoding words and yet completely unable to understand a text placed in front of them. Many students are able to sound out all the words on a textbook page but find it impossible to answer even the simplest questions about what they have just read.
“Well then,” say many educators, “the logical response is obvious. We need to teach students reading comprehension skills.” Just as teachers can help students decode words through a phonics or whole language approach—so the argument goes, teachers should provide students with strategies they can use to improve their reading comprehension.
This methodology of teaching reading comprehension as an easily transferable skill is widely reflected in language arts curriculum guides. For example, the Manitoba grade eight provincial assessment encourages teachers to focus on reading comprehension strategies with their students using a variety of texts. Although the teacher support document contains a list of recommended resources, there are no specific texts mandated for all grade eight students.
While there is a certain amount of logic to looking at reading comprehension as an abstract skill, this approach is inherently flawed. Instead, the best way to improve comprehension is to provide students with a content-rich curriculum that helps them acquire the background knowledge they need. And this means that specific content needs to be prescribed.
In his 2006 book, The Knowledge Deficit, well-known education reformer E. D. Hirsch, Jr. cites an exhaustive number of research studies that back up his contention that background knowledge, often called cultural literacy, is the key to reading comprehension.
One of the studies Hirsch cites was conducted by education professors Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie and appeared in the Journal of Educational Psychology. In this study, researchers divided students into four different reading groups on the basis of their decoding skills and background knowledge of baseball and asked them to read an article about baseball.
Recht and Leslie found that students with limited decoding skills but substantial baseball knowledge were better able to comprehend what they read than students with higher decoding skills but little baseball knowledge. This is only one of many research studies finding that students are most likely to comprehend what they read when background knowledge about that subject has already been acquired.
This common sense proposition explains how it is that students can often read books and magazines at a more advanced reading level than their decoding skills on reading tests indicate is possible. Students are readily able to comprehend material when it is on a topic they know something about.
The implication for reading instruction in schools is significant. Our curricula, particularly in language arts, must be rewritten to incorporate a more content-rich approach.
Unfortunately, most language arts curriculum guides fail to specify a single book or author that must be read by all students in a particular grade level. This lack of specified content reflects a wasted opportunity. If we don’t focus on increasing the cultural literacy of our students, their ability to read effectively is compromised.
The Core Knowledge Foundation (, an organization founded by Hirsch, publishes detailed content-rich standards that are in stark contrast to the vacuous generalities offered by provincial language arts curriculum guides. Curriculum writers and school administrators should examine these core knowledge standards and find ways to implement them in our public schools.
Reading comprehension is not simply a skill for students to learn in a vacuum. Our students are most likely to comprehend what they are reading when they have the necessary cultural literacy. It’s time to move beyond the phonics v. whole language debate and focus on providing our students with a content-rich curriculum.