We shouldn’t confuse skills with knowledge 

One of the most discussed topics in education today is that of the so-called ‘knowledge curriculum’. Its most famous proponent is E D Hirsch, who has written extensively on the subject. Hirsch argues that depriving students – especially poorer students – of the ‘cultural capital’ that middle and upper class children have access to perpetuates inequality and injustice. Instead, he believes that the curriculum should reflect ‘powerful knowledge’ that enables students to gain the same access to higher education and working opportunities that those in better-off circumstances tend to have.

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Hirsch, and many others, recognise that reading is an essential tool in this approach. The amount of knowledge that students need to consume in order to be well-equipped by the end of secondary school is vast. It is not possible to cover it all in lessons alone; nor is this desirable. Developing independence in learning is surely one of the major goals of education, and while we may debate how we achieve this, it is obvious that those with access to reading have a much greater chance of success. Conversely, students’ ability to access knowledge is greatly reduced by weak reading.

One of the seminal papers in this field is by Cunningham and Stanovich (2003) entitled “What Reading Does For the Mind”. Amongst the authors’ findings are that students encounter vastly more rare and subject-specific vocabulary in print than they do in speech, and that better readers develop better domain-specific knowledge which further helps their comprehension.

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What is perhaps less obvious is that learning to read is itself an exercise in acquiring knowledge. We tend to think of reading as a skill, or a set of skills, when in fact it is the application of knowledge. The fact that this knowledge is usually applied (by educated adults like teachers) at lightning speed, so that it seems effortless, the words almost disappearing while we contemplate their meaning, is on the one hand a remarkable tribute to the ability of the human mind, and on the other quite deceptive. In fact, Stanovich (and others) argue that what is really happening is that every letter-sound combination is being quickly and effortlessly decoded by the reader. In fluent readers, it is the auditory part of the brain that shows activity in scans. How can this be? Surely reading is a visual process?

The answer is to do with the fact that writing is, not language per se, but a representation of spoken language. As a result, any gaps in our understanding of spoken language will have an impact on our reading. This is why children who are very good readers will sometimes mispronounce an unusual word – they have come across the term in reading and often have worked out a sense of the meaning from context, but because it’s not part of their spoken vocabulary they aren’t sure which way to sound it out.

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Likewise, gaps in students’ appreciation of different sounds – their ability to distinguish between phonemes, or ‘phonemic awareness’ – will lead to complications in them learning to decode the relationship between printed and spoken language. This process in English is already complex because of the history of the language, but it is much more difficult if a student cannot, for example, hear the difference between /n/ and /ng/. So gaps in knowledge at the phoneme level, grapheme level, and word level can all make a major difference to how well readers are able to apply the code. Often we focus on the application level – how students use the knowledge – when the problem is that students simply don’t know enough, or know it well enough. For example, we worry about their comprehension strategies, when the issue is vocabulary, background knowledge or perhaps even decoding some of the text. They may be able to decode, but so laboriously and slowly that there is no room left in working memory for them to remember or analyse what they are reading. (This is sometimes used to argue against phonics, in the same way that being unfit is an argument against exercise.) The way to respond is not to try to get the student to superficially emulate a good reader (‘predicting’, ‘using context clues’, ‘using visual cues’) but to teach them what they don’t know, or to practice that knowledge until they can recall it effortlessly and fluently.

Understanding the problem in this way is liberating for teachers. Once we conceptualise reading problems as a matter of how clearly we have communicated knowledge, we are free to set to work to find a solution. We can stop looking for reasons within the child as to why they were ‘unteachable’ and instead, work out the missing knowledge and the most effective ways to teach it.

That is why, when it comes to reading, knowledge really is power.

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