Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Learning to Read in Order to Learn: Building a Program for Upper- Elementary Students

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Learning to Read in Order to Learn: Building a Program for Upper- Elementary Students

Article excerpt

After instituting a successful K-2 reading program at the Family Academy in Harlem, David and Meredith Liben faced a new challenge. They set out to learn everything they could about reading comprehension, which they realized was the key to expanding their older students' knowledge of the world.

OUR SCHOOL, the Family Academy in Harlem, had recently undergone our own version of the "Reading Wars," fought out over our K-2 reading program. From this struggle emerged a new K-2 literacy curriculum that was working remarkably well. It was grounded in current research and had been field-tested; the program greatly enhanced our children's reading abilities, especially decoding and fluency.

While we felt that our students were responding to what they read energetically and intelligently, we were not sure that their increased fluency necessarily meant they also possessed strong reading comprehension skills. In the year prior to the institution of our new reading program, our oldest students, then in third grade, had come in dead last in New York City on the citywide reading test. We knew there was nowhere to go but up. And we wanted to see how far up our children could go.

In the first year that our students had the benefit of our K-2 curriculum changes, their scores increased from 8% above grade level to 31%. An impressive increase, though still far from where we wanted them to be (our goal was to have a majority of students above grade level and only a tiny minority in the bottom quartile). We had succeeded in outperforming our neighboring schools by almost a 2-to-1 margin. Still, we felt strongly that our students were as capable as any, and we believed they could read with zest and understanding. We were determined to find out why they were not closer to achieving "national average" performance levels.

In developing our K-2 program, we had blended close observation of our students' practices (including discussing with the children their own thought patterns) with cognitive science and educational research. We were determined to use the same potent combination to develop a "best practices" curriculum for the older elementary children.

We began our quest by looking at the nature of standardized tests themselves. We believed at the outset that these tests were neither complete nor accurate measures of students' knowledge and reading ability, a view that was also common among our colleagues. But no one we knew had ever looked closely at reading comprehension tests, and we felt that we must understand them if we wanted to figure out exactly what caused urban students to underperform.

Our primary goal was to create a program that facilitated children's thinking and reading ability simultaneously, but we knew the primary measure of our success as a public school would be how those same children performed on reading comprehension tests. First, we examined the passages used on standardized tests. Were they more difficult than most of the material our urban students were reading? Looking closely at the passages, we could see that the vocabulary and syntax were not appreciably different from what was common in the material our students read. Nor were the topics of the passages themselves more sophisticated or esoteric. In fact, the passages seemed easier than the material that the majority of our students were reading. We also looked at the voluminous commercial test-prep material available, reasoning that the workbooks must be based on specific tests and designed to be as similar as possible. Once again, the material seemed easier than the books our students customarily read.

If the problem wasn't the children and it wasn't the passages, what was the stumbling block for urban children on these tests? There was only one possibility left, the test questions themselves. We looked closely at thousands of questions on tests and in commercial materials. We put them into categories and displayed them in a list of 25 "types," ranging from "Detail" to "Main idea" to "Author's purpose. …

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