Why It’s Harder To Improve Students’ Reading Than Their Math

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Educators, policy makers and business leaders often fret about the state of math education, particularly in comparison with other countries. But reading comprehension may be a larger stumbling block, writes Motoko Rich in an important article in today’s New York Times

“Studies have repeatedly found that ‘teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores,’ said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School. He was a co-author of a study that showed that teachers who helped students raise standardized test scores had a lasting effect on those students’ future incomes, as well as other lifelong outcomes.

Teachers and administrators who work with children from low-income families say one reason teachers struggle to help these students improve reading comprehension is that deficits start at such a young age: in the 1980s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that by the time they are 4 years old, children from poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children with professional parents.

By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school.

‘Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations,’ said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. ‘But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.’

Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.

‘Math is really culturally neutral in so many ways,’ said Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools in Arkansas. ‘For a child who’s had a vast array of experiences around the world, the Pythagorean theorem is just as difficult or daunting as it would be to a child who has led a relatively insular life.’

Education experts also say reading development simply requires that students spend so much more time practicing.” (Read more here.)

This jibes very closely with what E.D. Hirsch and other have said for a long time about the “vocabulary deficit” that many students suffer. It takes a lot of reading and talking, starting early in a child’s life and extending throughout their childhood, to build up a rich, varied knowledge of words and their shades of meaning. And most of that reading and talking is going to happen at home.

With the help of intensive instruction and dedicated teachers, underprivileged kids may able to catch up in math. Doing so in reading will be much harder—that’s why we’ve got to encourage and promote a rich language environment in the home, starting Day 1 of children’s lives.

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One Response to “Why It’s Harder To Improve Students’ Reading Than Their Math”

  1. Methods for teaching reading have wildly fluctuated in the last thirty years. It was like a War Between The Reading Methods–phonetic versus whole language. Millions of kids did not get a sound foundation due to the extremes of the argument. So many of the current generation of teachers lack the blending of both methods. To teach reading has always been challenging. It is a very personal process for a child and demands personal interaction. Let’s be up to the task.

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