The Knowledge Gap Book Review

It’s no secret that I’m an education nerd. I’m drawn to all things literacy and curriculum. Over my last ten years in education I have seen a lot of different theories, standards, and curriculum come and go with no real answers about how to improve the knowledge gap.

The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System- And How to Fix It, by Natalie Wexler, examines the struggles American schools face, how it affects students, and possible solutions.

As a reader, it usually takes me twice as long to get through a nonfiction education book because I need to take breaks. The writing styles of these texts are dry and I find myself taking social media breaks. However, I have to admit, Wexler did an absolutely incredible job making the content flow. I think a lot of that has to do with her breaking up the reading with real life examples from different classrooms, and history of curriculum in America. The change up in content definitely kept me engaged longer and allowed me to draw my own conclusions between the historical facts/accounts and the classroom examples.

While the title doesn’t mention literacy, this whole book truly dives into the deep end of reading and writing. As Wexler points out, reading and math tend to be the focal points in elementary classrooms because of state tests. Even though teachers may have science and social studies scheduled for once a week, it’s rare that those lessons happen because teachers feel the need to constantly hit on reading skills.

One of the main ideas is that using balanced literacy, leveled readers, and guided reading are not helping students improve their reading comprehension skills. The Reading Wars are discussed briefly, with both sides being explained. However, it is crystal clear that phonics based explicit instruction will help the majority of all students learn to read, including those who are English Language Learners, classified with a learning disability, etc. As a reading teacher I was doing a happy dance with the evidence supporting phonics instruction.

Of course, one can’t discuss balanced literacy without mentioning Lucy Calkins. Wexler makes a fantastic argument against the literacy guru that there are indeed flaws in this reading model (and writer’s workshop, too). Readers even “saw” examples in the sections where Wexler observed classrooms using this concept.

But, if balanced literacy is not helping students, then what will?

The author’s #1 point in the 263 pages, is that in order to improve reading comprehension, students need to have more background knowledge, which can only be accomplished by exposing early elementary students to science and history. Yes, some students have social studies where they learn about members in the community, but they need world and US history.

Students have a thirst for knowledge and want to be challenged. Obviously we don’t want students feeling overwhelmed and shutting down, but the classroom teacher is there to guide students. Students can handle advanced vocabulary if they are seeing it in content-rich curriculum. The point of the Common Core was to have American students build on their knowledge from year to year, which a content-rich curriculum does.

Wexler also mentions Daniel Willingham. For my loyal readers you know that I LOVE this man and his book Raising Kids Who Read. In The Knowledge Gap, Willingham is referenced for his contributions to education and the cognitive psychology. Yay!

Finally, Wexler’s last point was about teaching writing. I will admit during college and student teaching I was always told to teach that writing is a process. I have never used Lucy Calkin’s writing units, but would instead make up my own assignments/tasks with fellow colleagues. The author mentions Judith Hochman, who experimented with a teaching method that started with sentences and taught mechanics at the same time, and has seen great success. Not only has this approach been proven to improve student writing, it has also increased reading comprehension and the ability to critique information they are learning. Hochman and Wexler authored The Writing Revolution, which offers a road map for educators.

WOW!

I have so many parts underlined and marked in this book that there is no way I can share them all in a blog post. However, I would love to share my favorite line.

“…the transformation from a focus on comprehension skills and reading levels to one on content and knowledge is beginning to take hold.” (Wexler 259).

Education is changing. The Common Core sparked that change and caused a lot of educators to look at their teaching methods. As the education world continues to evolve, we need to remember that even though we live in a digital age where students can Google anything, we still need to be providing students with information. Knowledge rich curriculum makes sense for today’s readers. If we want to see changes in our students we have to start looking at the elementary school classrooms.

I recommend this amazing book for superintendents, principals, curriculum supervisors, teachers and anyone thinking about entering the world of education.

To purchase the book click here.

 

Test Prep Information for Parents

Every year around this time there is a shift in the education world from normal homework and routines to the dreaded test prep. Many teachers have been doing test prep all year long, but use this “crunch” time to make sure that students are fully prepared.

My third year teaching I taught literacy support and sent out an email blast with test prep suggestions for parents. I received a response from almost every parent with questions and gratitude for keeping parents “in the loop”. Today I want to share some of those suggestions as we start to get into the most dreaded time of the year.

This post is for parents of 3rd-8th grade parents.

General  Testing Information

  1. Know the test. Here in NJ we are in the third year of administrating the PARCC test. Prior to PARCC, there was NJASK, which was completely different in every way, shape, and form. As parents, the first thing you need to do is be familiar with the test. How many days of math are there? How many days of English/Language Arts? How many essays are there? Can students use calculators on all math days? All you have to do is find your test guide online (make sure it is for spring 2017) and read through it. The more you know as a parent the easier it will be to understand the score results.
  2. Understanding the results. Each test calculates their score differently, so please make sure you are looking at the most current information for your state as testing companies like to make frequent changes to things. Look back at your child’s scores from last year. How did he or she do? What were some of their strengths? What were some weaknesses? Now think about present day. Are those answers the same? If you’re unsure, please reach out to your child’s teacher. Teachers have a ton of information they can give you about your child’s progress this year, so they are your lifeline.
  3. Practicing the weaknesses. Based on previous test scores, conferences with the teacher, and current report cards you will have a lot of information at your fingertips. Depending on how your child has grown academically, there may be only a fewtest anxiety areas to improve on, but sometimes there can be quite a few. DO NOT try and fix everything at once. It will be extremely frustrating for both you and your child. Instead, pick one or two concepts that are manageable for your household. See below for ideas on improving literacy scores.
  4. Read all the school information. Testing days are THE WORST for teachers and administrators because it often means schedule changes. The school may also include information on snacks, breaks, etc. Be on the look out for any emails or letters home that outline information from the school. This will cause you less stress during testing days.
  5. Eating and sleeping. During testing time, please be observant about when your child goes to sleep and what they eat. My first year teaching I taught eighth grade and some of my students decided to have a sleepover the night before testing (which was English). The girls came to school on three hours of sleep and struggled to stay awake during the test. Consequently, when the scores came out in the fall, I had some parent emails asking how their daughter could have scored so low when she had high grades in my class all year. I also had a student last year eat a strawberry pop tart and a can of diet Coke for breakfast right before testing. The student was super engrossed in the test the first hour, but fell asleep during the second part of testing. Please make sure your child is getting adequate sleep and eating a healthy breakfast during testing time.

Improving Literacy Scores

There are tons of easy ways to work with your child to improve their literacy scores. Remember, always choose a text your child will like. Take them to the library or bookstore and have them pick out what they want to read. Below are some suggestions you can do at home.

  1. Nonfiction reading
    1. Magazine subscription- Purchase a subscription on a topic or hobby that your Common Corechild enjoys and spend time reading it together. For instance, if your child enjoys nature, get a subscription to Kids National Geographic. When it comes in, read the cover story with your child and discuss what they read. Do they agree or disagree? Why? How was it interesting?
    2. Daily/Weekly article- Either you or your child finds an article that interests them. Sit down together and read it and then discuss it. This is a great way of keeping up with what’s going on in the community and keeps your child up with current events.
  2. Fiction reading
    1. Find a book they want to read. This is half the battle and I discuss how do to thisHomework Help  (here). Once you have the book, read it together. You can read it in the car on the way to soccer practice, or ten minutes before bed. Make sure you always talk about the book and share your opinions.
    2. Book and a movie. Some kids require a little more work to read, so choose a book with a movie. Still read the book together, but then make it a family movie night when you finish reading the book. Afterwards, compare and contrast the book and the movie and discuss why things were done in each media form. Harry Potter is my normal go to book and movie suggestion for parents because it is such a great series and can be read starting at around 4th grade.
  3. Writing. For most kids at this age, they struggle with generating ideas and writing quickly.
    1. Writing prompts. Give your child a little writing prompt every few days and Writing Storieshave them write you a paragraph (can be longer in 7th and 8th grade).
    2. Keep a journal. Suggest to your child they start keeping a journal. Have them pick out the journal, or if they want to do one in Word, allow them to be creative with the colors and font. Depending on your child, you can read their entries or they can remain private. I have had some students that would show me their journals daily.
    3. Write stories. It’s incredible how many students love to write stories. Last year I had a sixth grade boy write about a super hero and it was amazing to see how excited he was to have me read it. Encourage your child to write fan fiction, poetry, or short stories. This is their free space to be as creative as they want to be.

To purchase any of the books you see on this post, click here. If you have specific test prep questions feel free to email me at littlereadcoach@gmail.com.