Wasting time in English lessons

Time is limited. We all know that. And awareness of the limits of our own time is often what drives us to make meaning in our lives. It is therefore immoral, in my view, to knowingly waste the time of others. And this moral imperative is even more pronounced when we are referring to the time that children spend in school. We tell them that school is good for them and we make them go.

This is why I am so keen to examine the evidence, flawed as it is, for the effectiveness of different educational approaches. If we know that some methods lead to more learning, more quickly then I think this trumps whatever particular tastes and fancies we have.

The simple view of reading is well supported by evidence. Although it is not universally accepted, it provides a pretty strong model. It’s simplicity is also a strength. Scientists often employ the heuristic of Occam’s razor: If there are two possible explanations for a phenomenon then the simplest is likely to be the best.

In short, the simple view of reading is that reading consists of two components; decoding ability and linguistic comprehension. We have to be careful here. Many teachers will read the word ‘comprehension’ and think of all sorts of things but its meaning is reasonably straightforward in this case. If you can understand a phrase when someone says it to you then you have linguistic comprehension of that phrase. If you can translate that phrase from written words into real or imagined sounds then you can decode. If you can put these together then you can read.

The obvious way to build linguistic comprehension is to build a child’s verbal vocabulary. A child may be able to decode the word “discrete” from letters on a page into sounds, real or imagined, but if she doesn’t know what “discrete” means then she will not comprehend. However, there is more to it than that. “Discrete” has a number of meanings and she will need to know these in order to work out which meaning is likely to be intended. Sometimes we know what a word means but we know little about the context. As we read we build up a mental picture of what we are reading about but if the area is unfamiliar then this is going to be hard to do.

Consider this. I tell you that a quickly promoted colleague has ‘wings held together by wax’. Do you comprehend the allusion? If so, is it important that children should learn enough to be able to grasp it? What would we need to teach them in order to increase their chances of comprehending such a phrase?

The solution is to make sure that children know about a lot of stuff so that they will have large vocabularies and can build myriad mental pictures. This has to be a key aim of elementary schooling, not because the stuff itself is always particularly useful but because knowing stuff allows access to more stuff; a virtuous circle. It has been estimated, for instance, that you need to know 90-95% of the vocabulary in a passage in order to learn new things from it.

But comprehension takes on a very different nature in today’s classrooms. Sometimes we talk of ‘guided reading’. At other times we hear about ‘critical literacy’. The idea is that we don’t need children to learn lots of stuff at all. There are techniques that can be deployed so that even if children lack background knowledge or only have a very sketchy understanding then they can still comprehend passages that they are presented with.

If true, this represents efficiency. We can cut-back on all the content – children can learn about it as and when they need to by using these comprehension strategies. And some of the signs are encouraging. Research demonstrates that explicit teaching of these strategies leads to better reading comprehension.

So how come we haven’t seen a massive improvement in reading scores? Indeed, I understand that under ‘No Child Left Behind’, some U.S. schools abandoned large parts of the elementary curriculum – history, science, music – in order to focus on reading comprehension and yet to largely no avail. Why is this?

It seems that reading comprehension boils down to just a couple of strategies and that these are not skills in the sense that they improve with training. Yes, teaching kids these strategies – such as asking yourself questions while reading – improves comprehension but practising it over and over again leads to no further gains. Why? Because children are still limited by background knowledge.

If this is true then we are wasting children’s time. A lot of it.

After pausing to reflect upon that, it is also worth considering that some of the discourse around comprehension comes from a very strange place indeed. If we chase ‘critical literacy’ back down its rabbit-hole then we arrive at Karl Marx via Paolo Freire. Freire is the educationalist who admired Chairman Mao’s attempts to forge a more democratic kind of education in the crucible of the cultural revolution. Why would we be basing our ideas on this rarefied kind of thing rather than a more prosaic analysis of basic research on reading instruction? It makes you wonder.

Here is Allan Luke on critical literacy:

“What happens when a ‘radical’ educational idea moves from the political outlands to become a key concept in state curriculum? Postcolonial, feminist and sociological theory of the last two decades proposes a critical educational project as a key step in challenging and transforming dominant discourses and ideologies in postindustrial economies. “

He’s right. This stuff has been integrated into state curricula. It doesn’t really sound like it’s about reading though, does it?

John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


7 thoughts on “Wasting time in English lessons

  1. David Williams says:

    Interesting. Why do you think guided reading is somehow separate from building knowledge necessary to improve comprehension?

  2. Geng says:

    I agree 100%. I have been teaching Spanish for 20+ years and the vocabulary of students has shrunk considerably. None of them can recognize cognates anymore because they do not know that they are words that actually exist in English! And of course grammar isn’t emphasized at all. I get high school students that can’t find a subject or think that noun and subject are the same thing. Makes it difficult for them to make their subjects and verbs agree. And even though Spanish is SO much more phonetic than English some students seem to have very little concept of letters equating to sounds.

    All of these things comprise the background knowledge that would allow students to progress with language much more quickly and efficiently.

  3. Tami Reis-Frankfort says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    The importance of knowing stuff in order to develop reading comprehension. A thoughtful article by Greg Ashman.

  4. We have a great opportunity here in England to bring back a thorough general education in preparation for the entirely unseen new English Language GCSE. Unfortunately, many teachers are still stuck in the comprehension strategies mindset, and just introduce more complicated ones that are supposed to help you decode Dickens when you know next to nothing about the nineteenth century.

  5. A very interesting post. I am leaving my position as an ‘outstanding’ English teacher this Christmas and outlined above are some of the myriad of reasons I am leaving. We add little value to the pupil’s lives by coaching pupils through assessment after assessment looking at ‘extracts’ and ‘summaries’ to save time for more assessment.

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