If you have not been paying attention to trends in grade school pedagogy over the last couple decades, the first thing you should know is this: The way public school students—and particularly those in low-performing, low-income districts—are taught to understand books looks little like the way most readers of this site, myself included, probably learned themselves.
The changes have occurred in two somewhat contradictory directions. Instruction today is both more progressive and child-centered—where literacy instructors are discouraged from assigning one-size-fits-all whole class novels and students are expected to be given maximum freedom to choose books that they’re interested in—and more rote—where students are drilled in the practice of a dozen or so “reading skills” that attempt to teach comprehension as a stepwise process similar to multiplying fractions or performing long division. My own view of this approach—which goes by the term “balanced literacy”—was conceived during two years teaching sixth grade literacy in the Bronx, NY, and it evolved from a dim initial reading to the more favorable opinion I hold today.
The skills taught in balanced literacy are by themselves entirely uncontroversial. Students are expected to be able to read a text and perform these mental operations: summarizing, generalizing, drawing conclusions, making inferences, identifying main ideas and supporting details, making connections between the text and their own lives, identifying the author’s purpose, analyzing poetic devices like simile and personification, and recognizing point of view. These are the modes of thinking that all literate adults apply when they read (and when they think about complex information in any setting) and the question is not whether students should be able to make generalizations, but rather whether explicitly teaching students what generalizations are and how to perform them is the best way to inculcate a skill that is as much an art as a science, and which many readers of this site probably learned osmotically, in the same way that they learned language.
A main indictment of skill-based instruction is that it takes something like reading which should be wide-open, joyful and curious and turns it into a drab mechanistic procedure. This is the view that the educational historian Diane Ravitch has come to. In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, she cites the work of two researchers who have questioned the wisdom of attempting to bring lagging students up to grade level through explicit instruction in how to think:
“We have to consider the possibility that all the attention we are asking students to pay to their use of skills and strategies and to their monitoring of these strategies may turn relatively simple and intuitive tasks into introspective nightmares.” They suggested that “what really determines the ability to comprehend anything is how much one already knows about the topic under discussion in a text.”
From the time I began teaching in 2003 until quite recently this about summed up my view of skill-based instruction. My critique was buttressed with arguments similar to the ones above, but really it was rooted in my own education as a reader: I had never been taught how to generalize or to draw conclusions; those skills had come as a matter of course through repeated encounters reading, talking, writing and thinking about books.
Recently, though, I had the opportunity to write a reading curriculum for a well-regarded urban charter school and my thinking about skill-based instruction began to change. The curriculum typified the pedagogical approach critiqued by Ravitch: It was skills-based, attuned to the dictates of standardized tests, and it de-prioritized any specific content choices in favor of what could be termed “ways of thinking” about books. The more I delved into breaking down and sequencing the skills, however, the less I came to view them as “relatively simple” operations that amounted to droll fodder for standardized tests, and the more I thought of them as a high-stakes crash course in how to think that, when looked at in the right light, was more thrilling than just about anything I ever learned in middle school.
Take summarizing, for example, which would seem to be as vanilla a skill as there is. To disprove the contention that knowing how to summarize comes naturally, all you need to do is ask a typical ten-year-old to distill the movie he saw over the weekend. What you’ll get is a blow-by-blow of the plot that’s longer than the movie itself. This is where the work of teaching a child how to think comes in: How do you weigh information as more or less important? What aspects of the characters, the setting, and the overall theme should be woven in among the plot, and at what point in the sequence of the summary should they be included? These are plain questions, maybe, but they also cut to the heart of the challenge of making sense of information in any situation—and even as an adult I find that I could be better at it when narrating my weekend to my brother or telling a friend about a book I just finished.
Or take the skill of generalizing. Even if asked to make generalizations about a topic I know as well as any in the world—the members of my own family—it would still take me some time to get my bearings. I’d start with a surface generalization like “we all live in the northeast” and try to make my way to more substantive insights. I’d say “we all like adventures”—except that then I’d think that maybe my sister doesn’t—and then I’d think she’d object to being labeled that way, so maybe either my definition of adventuresome or my assessment of her is off. There’s no end to the way you can slice a topic, define essential qualities or sift for similarities, and there are no hard and fast rules for when degrees of difference turn a generalization into an overgeneralization. We all know how to generalize in the same way that we all know how to run—but can we leap hurdles, run a marathon, and launch our minds twenty feet through the air? It’s not unreasonable to expect that students will need some help figuring out how to do these things on their own.
Ravitch’s argument says that the ability to apply comprehension skills depends largely on familiarity with the underlying topic—if I knew my family members better, the connections among them would be self-evident. This is true to a point. You obviously can’t generalize about 19th-century American literature unless you’ve read a lot of it, but familiarity alone is not going to teach a student how to look for the less-obvious threads that tie Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, and Huck Finn together.
Like most dichotomies that crop up around a topic as complex and difficult as teaching kids how to read, the “skills vs. content” divide is a false one. Students who have fallen off of grade level pace usually want for both, and it doesn’t make sense to try and teach one without the other. But neither does it make sense to take comprehension skills—which is really just a euphemism for sophisticated thinking—for granted.