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Tests and Reading: A Narrower View (page 2)

Tests and Reading: A Narrower View

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Updated on Nov 2, 2009

Van Kleeck says Kamhi is responding to the whole language approach to reading that was implemented in the 1980s. “The philosophy of whole language is that if you engage children in meaningful and interesting uses of print, this will be the critical foundation for them for learning how to read,” she explains. “The extreme version of it was, ‘Don’t worry about the decoding. It will take care of itself.’”

And that’s where the problems started to occur, according to van Kleeck. Though the approach might have worked just fine for most of the children, she says, those who didn’t have the language background or who had problems learning, weren’t getting the support the needed. “They couldn’t make the leap themselves,” she says.

By the late 1990s, there began a lot of talk about balancing comprehension instruction with instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, and this where No Child Left Behind got its start. “The NCLB law was signed, and by then the pendulum had shifted,” van Kleeck says. “NCLB had good intentions—the problem is in the implementation. There’s too much testing and not enough time for teaching.”

Kamhi’s position is that subject-specific teachers—teachers of social studies, science, and history—are the ones who should teach comprehension. “Essentially, they are teaching comprehension,” he says, “and they should know that in order to teach effectively.”

Comprehension is difficult to teach, Kamhi says. “Kids can learn to decode. It might take them a while, but it’s a highly teachable skill,” he says. “But it’s difficult to improve comprehension, because there’s no manual or program to improve comprehension. And the reason is because the best predictor of comprehension is familiarity with a topic.” Which is why Kamhi says subject-specific teachers are better positioned to teach comprehension skills.

But van Kleeck disagrees. “In some ways, it can be easier to package the decoding part of it, but I think manufacturers have been doing a great job making language-based, literacy-based products,” she says.

Kamhi points to E. D. Hirsch, who made famous the concept of “core knowledge,” a body of information across the curriculum that every child should know. “Hirsch said it takes five grade years to improve a standardized reading score,” Kamhi says. “But people who do an intervention are going to want to see immediate results.” He argues that by using the content courses—a core-knowledge-based curriculum—children’s knowledge, and therefore comprehension, will improve. But it will take time.

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