“The fact is, history is a series of stories. And kids love stories” (Wexler 28).
At the end of the summer Gary told me I should read Natalie Wexler’s book The Knowledge Gap, and since Gary gives very good advice, I did. Wexler writes about the failure of American schools to teach reading effectively, and her basic argument is that we fail because we don’t recognize that “reading comprehension” is not a discrete skill that can be taught, but a reflection of the reader’s background knowledge. She cites numerous studies that demonstrate that “the gap in comprehension [isn’t] a gap in skills. It [is] a gap in knowledge” (30). The solution she proposes is straightforward: use phonics to teach kids how to decode written words, and teach them a knowledge-rich curriculum that will allow them to understand much more of what they read.
If you’re old enough to remember E.D. Hirsch’s blockbuster The Schools We Need you’ll hear the echoes loud and clear, and you can get a short version of Wexler’s argument in her recent article published in the Atlantic Monthly. But the full length book is a good read, and I highly recommend it.
History Knowledge Matters
Wexler makes two crucial points that are relevant to this blog. The first is that a misguided focus on skills-based “reading comprehension” instruction has squeezed history out of the curriculum in the early grades. And it turns out that knowledge of history is crucial background content for understanding a broad range of texts, especially the ones we expect students to work with in high school history classrooms. When students don’t know basic geography, don’t know the difference between a continent and a country, and are unfamiliar with the differences between monarchies and republics, we history teachers have an almost impossible hole to fill before we can expect students to read even a short excerpt from something like The Federalist Papers successfully. You may think this is over-stating the problem. But this fall 4QM Teaching is working with a Boston public middle school that gives students no history instruction at all. In a telling confirmation of Wexler’s argument, we were contacted by a pair of ELA teachers who found that their students could not comprehend the historical novels they were reading for English class, because they lacked even the most rudimentary understanding of American history.
Stories Come First, and Are Fun!
A second point Wexler makes is that, “history is a series of stories. And kids love stories” (28). If you’re a regular reader of this blog or have heard us speak, you know we always say that the key to the Four Question Method is “Story First!” Kids need to know some history before they can practice thinking about it. And Wexler reminds us that teaching historical content can be really fun: “kids love stories.”
So this year we encourage you tell some good and important historical stories, and use them to activate student curiosity about what the people in them were thinking, why the story happened then and there, and what they think about those people and events. Natalie Wexler would say that when you do that you’re not just teaching history: you’re actually teaching reading too.
Welcome back to school, and have a great 2019-2020!