HM - Feb. 2015 - Klemm

Views on History

History Matters for Even More Reasons Than You Might Expect
By David Klemm
Muskegon Area Intermediate School District, MI

A few years ago with the onset of the Common Core, I posed a question to local administrators.  I asked them to imagine an elementary school that had successfully implemented the Common Core, an elementary school that had made the tough decisions about curriculum and instruction and worked hard to become successful with strongly literate students. Which approach was more likely to bring them to this desired result:
  •  A school where the majority of time was spent on reading and writing instruction with history and other content subjects integrated into that instruction when there was time?
  •  A school where the majority of time was spent on history and other content-rich subjects and reading and writing were taught through those subjects? 
In the practical schedule of the elementary day, I fundamentally was asking this: Should we have 2-hour blocks for reading and 90 minute blocks for writing with some history and other content sprinkled in and relegated to a few 30 minute sections per week? Would a better strategy be large blocks of time devoted to exciting, content-rich instruction with reading as a skill learned in the context of acquiring content knowledge?

Many looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Over a decade down the road from No Child Left Behind, many educators, including those in administration, have spent their entire careers knowing no other federal education policy than one that relegated history and other content-rich subjects to a back burner.  My question was a non-starter for many; if you want better readers and writers, you need to spend more time on reading and writing they reasoned. Everyone knows that. It makes sense.  And when tests show students struggle to read at grade level,  pull them out for more supplemental  reading or writing intervention (probably from history or some other subject deemed less valuable or perhaps just less impactful on the school’s accountability measure).  After all, once a student can read, he or she can learn anything, or so they reasoned. History? Other content-rich but unmeasured subjects? Fit those in when we can, maybe three times a week, but don’t worry too much about them.  Reading and Writing: that’s what matters.

Those administrators truly wanted what was best for students. They had recognized a significant problem faced by their students and millions of others and were working to address it through commonly-used strategies to improve their students’ reading comprehension.  But their approach, spending even more time with reading and writing and limiting time spent on history and other content-rich subjects, may have the opposite of the desired effect. Huge blocks of time spent on reading at the expense of other subjects may be doing more harm than good in the struggle to improve reading comprehension. Improving reading comprehension requires the foundational knowledge being crowded out of the curriculum by excessive time spent on reading and writing instruction.

Most historians can tell you why history matters:  It is through history that students learn of civic virtue and engagement, the values necessary for becoming efficacious citizens.  It is through analysis of claims in history that students learn to evaluate arguments and question conclusions.  These are reasons why many of us in the history education community have advocated for social science education at the elementary level for years, and we must continue to advocate for these reasons. But alone, those arguments have not been successful in an education world dominated by reading and writing accountability. The lack of time spent on history and other social sciences at the elementary level are evidence enough for that claim. The time has come to add another piece of evidence to the argument for history education at a young age: students must learn something about their world in order to grow reading comprehension skills. 

Richard L. Allington and Patricia M. Cunningham, authors of Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write, state fairly succinctly that, “The most important factor in determining how much readers will comprehend and how well writers will be able to communicate about a given topic is their level of knowledge about that topic.”  They cite an example also used by E.D. Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio and many others.  If you read, “A-Rod grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game,” no reading strategy is going to help you. Provided you recognize “A-Rod” as a proper noun - the nickname of a person - you certainly know all of the vocabulary in the sentence, so more vocabulary instruction is not going to help you either.  If you do not have some general knowledge of baseball, you are going to appear like a very poor reader, no matter your educational attainment. Meanwhile, a 5th grade student with a basic knowledge of baseball, especially major league baseball, could answer a host of questions about the game including, Who lost the game? (The New York Yankees) Where did Alexander Rodriguez hit the ball? (To the shortstop) How many runners were on base? (At least one on first base) What inning did this most likely occur? (The 9th, though it could have been the 10th or higher, but only if the Yankees were playing at home and the visiting team had scored in the top half of the inning).

No reading strategy could have helped anyone answer those questions. If this was on a reading comprehension test and you had little foundational knowledge of baseball, at that moment your reading comprehension would have looked, well, not as smart as a fifth grader. The title of Hirsh and Pondiscio's article is appropriately titled, "There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test".  Indeed, unless the foundational knowledge of the readers is roughly the same about the topic of the passage, attempting to measure reading comprehension is a rather futile endeavor and a rather significant waste of valuable educational resources, producing results which may say more about students’ foundational knowledge than their ability to comprehend what they read.

While there is certainly more research that needs to be done on how students acquire knowledge, one thing is clear: without some knowledge of the world, students will find it more and more difficult to make sense of increasingly complex informational text, the kind we rely upon more and more as  education progresses and the kind that will be used on tests to measure reading comprehension.  Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, who works to apply the findings of psychological research to educational practice, argues that much-used reading strategies do in fact provide a one-time boost for students, but that once they are learned, practicing them produces no further benefit. In his online post, The Reading Wars Round 2: Content Knowledge vs. Reading Strategies,  Willingham’s simple explanation and short video rather entertainingly make it clear that in order to handle informational text the reader must have some knowledge of the subject they are reading.  Sadly, he writes that is what we are increasingly eliminating from the elementary school day. 

Many who are passionate about the need for early history education have honed the argument on its importance well, yet have found themselves frustrated when faced with an education infrastructure dominated by reading and writing.  But advocating for history and other content-rich subjects can be done for the purposes of reading comprehension, not in competition with it.  Even if there is no test in history, even if the only goal seems to be to improve reading and writing, history matters for reading comprehension reasons. Those in the history and broader social science communities must communicate that we desire the same goals as those who want better readers. But it is our job to point out that the direction we have gone with inordinate amounts of time and energy being put toward reading instruction and strategies to the neglect of history and other subjects is working against that goal. It is our job to point out the growing amount of data demonstrating that in order for students to become better readers, they need to know something about the world. Only when we give students well rounded contextual knowledge will they be able to handle increasingly complex informational text. We already know history education at an early age will produce more thoughtful and efficacious citizens; it turns out, history matters for producing better readers, too.

Allington, Richard L. and Cunningham, Patricia Marr. Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write. 3rd Edition. Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2007.  
(To read an excerpt from Allington and Cunningham’s Schools that Work, follow this link:
Hirsch, E. D. Jr. and Pondiscio, Robert. “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test.”  American Educator, v34 n4, p50-51, Win 2010-2011.
Willingham, Daniel.  “The Reading Wars Round 2: Content Knowledge vs. Reading Strategies.” Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, 2009.

David Klemm is a Consultant for Social Studies and Special Projects at the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District in Muskegon Michigan.  In addition to working with local teachers and schools, Mr. Klemm advocates for state and national educational policy that better serves the needs of students and society by restoring history and other social sciences to a place of prominence.