children reading books at park against trees and meadow in the park


We hear it all the time – why can’t our kids read better? Our guest has some thoughts on the issue and offers some suggestions to parents, educators and policymakers about how expanding our children’s knowledge base in school will help make them better readers overall.

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Robert Pondiscio is the Executive Director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, DC, and a former inner-city elementary school teacher.

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Reading Education: Expand knowledge for better readers

Marty Peterson: How do you teach kids to read and read well? That’s as big question in education today as it’s been for decades. The “No Child Left Behind” policies of the early 2000’s sought to rectify poor reading grades among American students with a focus on bolstering the “skill” of reading. Our guest says that the policy was a good start, but it didn’t look deep enough into the issue of what reading actually is. Robert Pondiscio is the Executive Director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign and a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, DC – an education think tank. He’s also a former inner-city elementary school teacher in New York City, so he’s had plenty of experience with grade school curricula. He says that the Knowledge Matters Campaign’s mission is to expand kids’ learning environment and, as a result, make them better readers.

Robert Pondiscio: Its mission is really to restore a sense of wonder and awe, we like to say, to elementary education. I don’t want to be critical to my fellow education reformers, but I think it’s not unfair to say that over the last generation or so we’ve really reduced a child’s education in many of our elementary and middle schools to really a kind of a dull, dry regimen of just reading and math and not much else. And there’s good reasons for that. We want every child to be able to read and do math on grade level, but for complicated reasons, once you take away things like history and science and arts and music – even gym and field trips – you’re really damaging a child’s ability to read. We think of reading as a skill, but it’s really not. It’s really more a reflection of your general state of knowledge. Not only is restoring knowledge to the curriculum a good thing because it engages children, it’s also the way to build strong readers.

Peterson: Pondiscio says that reading is not just a “skill” like riding a bicycle is a skill. There’s more to reading than just recognizing words and sentences.

Pondiscio: If you remember when you learned to ride a bike as a child, you learned to ride your bike and then you realized that you could ride every single bike. So that would be what we would call a “transferable skill.” Most of us think of reading that way – that once you learn how to read you can read anything: the sports pages, a novel, a memo from your boss. You know, reading is reading is reading, either you can do it or you can’t. That’s not exactly true. I could put nonsense words in front of you and you could read them out loud even though they don’t exist. That’s what reading specialists would call “decoding.” Now that is a skill. But reading is really not about decoding. Reading is about being able to understand the words we read.

Peterson: He says that cognitive scientists say reading not a transferable skill like riding a bike, but a “domain-based” skill that goes much deeper.

Pondiscio: What that means is, I know a lot about baseball so I can read a piece of text about baseball with deep understanding. I don’t know a thing about architecture so I might struggle to read a passage about architecture. So we have this broad conception – or I would say misconception – that reading is a transferable skill and that it doesn’t really matter what we read, as long as we’re reading or teaching children how to read. But it turns out that unless children are broadly educated – all the history, science, art, music, etc. – they’re not going to become broad proficient readers. So that’s why the Knowledge Matters Campaign I think matters because it’s trying to send the message to schools and parents that, hey, what your kid reads and what your kid learns in school matters quite a lot.

Peterson: Much of reading curricula today is based on teaching kids “skills” to make them better readers. Pondiscio, himself, was taught to teach reading in that way but he found out that what educators consider skills are not just rote exercises but a result of a broad knowledge and interest in a variety of topics.

Pondiscio: When I taught elementary school in the South Bronx which I did for several years, the way that we taught reading or that I was taught to teach reading was that you would practice a skill. So you would say, “Okay, today we’re going to learn how to make inferences, boys and girls.” And then kids would go off, 25 kids, 25 books, to practice the skill of inferencing. Well, the problem there is that inferencing is not a skill. So if I say to you, for example, “I walk in, my clothes are wet and I’m carrying an umbrella, what can you infer?” Well, you could infer clearly that it’s raining outside. But it’s not because you’ve mastered the skill of inferring, it’s because you have experience, you have background knowledge, you understand wet clothing, umbrellas. You associate that with raining. Now if I asked you, “Okay, 6-4-3 double play, make an inference about what’s happening in the game,” you can’t do that unless you understand baseball. So we try to teach the skill of making an inference that’s not a skill at all, it’s dependent upon your knowledge.

Peterson: Unfortunately, with the recent focus on test scores and achievement goals, much of the school day is devoted to math and reading while many other subjects are reduced to just a few minutes.

Pondiscio: I think what has happened — and parents of young children will nod and understand or recognize this — we have expanded what we call the “literacy bloc” to take up virtually the entire school day. So what is happening we’re spending hours a day on the practice of reading which is not really, as I’ve been saying, a skill, and what has been happening we’ve been taking away all the other things. There’s some data that show that kids, on average, get something like 16 minutes a day on average of science and history, and they get two hours a day of reading. Now I’m not suggesting that we should completely reverse that, but we should make sure that kids are getting many more minutes a day of science and art and music.

Peterson: Pondiscio says that one of the reasons why parents and some educators shy away from bringing in more performing arts, history, science and field trips into the curriculum is because they’re afraid that much of the content will be too difficult for kids to absorb.

Pondiscio: I think we do underestimate children’s abilities to learn, and frankly their interests. We condescend a little bit to children by assuming, oh, this is way too complicated, this is way too advanced, let them learn about trucks and dinosaurs and whatnot. In the hands of a good teacher, children will follow where we lead them and we should never underestimate, not just their ability, but their interest in learning about the world around them.

Peterson: Pondiscio adds that sacrificing science, history, the arts and other subjects to concentrate on reading hurts the very students we’re trying to help become proficient readers – those kids who attend schools in poor neighborhoods.

Pondiscio: Teachers are kind of the guides to the universe where they expose children to all this wonderful stuff that they may not know about, especially frankly our poorest children. I’m an inner-city schoolteacher. Every child that I’ve ever taught has been a low-income kid of color in New York City. And kids like that they just don’t get the opportunities for travel or enrichment that more affluent kids get. They’re the ones who are most likely to suffer under an education that is narrow, that is not broad. They’re the ones, especially if we want to close the achievement gap in this country – and we do, they’re the children that most need this kind of full, rich, well-rounded education.

Peterson: What about kids who are older, who have fallen behind in reading since first grade? Do they have a chance to catch up if a broader, richer curriculum is adopted?

Pondiscio: The principle that a K-12 education should be well rounded and very, very broad is a sound one. On the other hand, I used to tell my fifth grade students in a different context that it’s easier to keep up than to catch up. So the problem is really best addressed, I would argue, at the elementary school level because if you have a child, say in middle school or high school who really did not get a very broad, well-rounded education it’s awfully difficult to get caught up on eight or nine years of education you didn’t get in the sciences, in history, in the arts and whatnot. It’s never too late to start, but I think for a policy matter this really does argue that we should get started from the very first days of school (and) we should be making every effort to make a child’s education rich and well-rounded.

Peterson: So was “No Child Left Behind” a totally failed policy? Do we need to lay blame or scrap it entirely and start over? Pondiscio says that it was a well-intentioned policy that just didn’t go far enough.

Pondiscio: I would describe it as wrong for all the right reasons. In other words, we certainly do have a reading crisis in this country. We have far too many children who read below grade level. If you look at the data, which is how I spend my days, only about one out of three children graduate high school being able to read at what we would judge at a proficient level. So, the diagnosis behind No Child Left Behind which is — back in the day they said that, yeah, every child was going to be reading on grade level by the year 2014, well that didn’t happen – I would argue it didn’t happen because we were just incurious about how to fix that problem. So, in other words, if No Child Left Behind basically sent the signal to schools, “focus like a laser on reading,” that’s not a bad signal. Unfortunately we have so many misconceptions about what reading is and isn’t, it had this effect that I described before: It narrowed the curriculum.

Peterson: Pondiscio says that parents who wonder if their children are receiving a well-rounded education need to look at what their kids are learning as well as how well they’re reading. The best place to start is in that treasure trove of school content – their kids’ backpacks.

Pondiscio: Go through it not just for those notes home about field trips and school lunches, but look at the books they’re reading, look at the textbooks they’re reading. You can get pretty good evidence about what kids are doing in school all day simply by looking at the material and the homework that children bring home. And that’s the question you need to ask, “Is there evidence here that my child really is learning a lot about the world? Are they getting science every day? Are they getting social studies every day? Do they get art and music and physical education on a regular basis?” And if they’re not ask “Why?” And if the answer is, “Well, we’re focusing on the skill of reading,” then that’s when the alarm bells should ring. Reading is not a skill.

Peterson: Parents are not powerless to change their schools and change what their kids are learning. To find out more about what a rich, well-rounded curriculum looks like and for data on how it can help build better readers, Robert Pondiscio invites listeners to visit the website, To learn more about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.