[AAACE-NLA] The "Skills" vs "Knowledge" Debate

tsticht at znet.com tsticht at znet.com
Tue Apr 11 18:54:28 EDT 2006


April 11, 2006

The Great "Skills" Versus "Knowledge" Debate and Adult Literacy Education

Tom Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education

Earlier I posted a note on the aaace-nla list about knowledge and reading.
Here I have revised that piece slightly in light of new evidence that
the decades old debate about "phonics" [ synthetic, decoding emphasis]
versus "whole language" [analytic, meaning emphasis] still rages in
education circles. Now this debate appears to be being joined by another
decades old debate, the "skills" versus "knowledge" controversy.

On the "skills" side of the debate, the BBC News education service reported
on April 11, 2006
[http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/education/4897272.stm]  that
the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said that "The national
curriculum should be fundamentally reformed with more focus on skills than
specific subjects." The Association  "wants ministers to give children
"entitlements" to broad skills, such as creativity and physical
co-ordination, rather than specific knowledge." The ATL general secretary
Mary Bousted reportedly said at a conference, "skills" were needed, rather
than knowledge on its own. Subjects could be used to "illustrate" them."

On the "knowledge" side of the debate I found it ironically amusing that the
day before the BBC news article appeared, I received my copy of The American
Educator, a magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers.  The 
Spring 2006 issue presents a lengthy series of articles and sidebars arguing
against the position taken by the U.K teachers association and stating that
in the U. S. schools there needs to be less of a focus on broad general
skills and a much larger focus on subject matter knowledge.

The American Educator Spring issue was lead by an article by E. D. Hirsch
Jr, a major commentator on education the U. S. The old adage: "You’ve got
to know something to learn something" provides a succinct summary of the
gist of E. D. Hirsch Jr’s article (also see his latest book entitled "The
Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American
Children." (available online at Amazon.com). In his book and article,
Hirsch presents an extensive review of research that demonstrates that
approaches to the teaching of reading with underachieving students that
focus on "skills" or "strategies’ while largely ignoring the importance of
content knowledge are likely to produce students with good decoding skills,
but with poor comprehension ability. The reason is that for the most part
students who lack vocabulary and comprehension of various bodies of
knowledge when these are assessed by listening before the students start
school, are the ones most likely to have poor comprehension skills after
they learn to decode the written language. This is extensively documented
in Sticht et al. (1974) which Hirsch cites in his new book to support his
argument for the importance of content knowledge in reading comprehension.

Knowledge Development in Adult Literacy Education

While the "skills" versus "knowledge" debate addressed above aims at
children’s education, the role of knowledge in reading is even more
important for adult literacy education, where the time for developing
"broad general skills" is typically very limited. The role of relevant
background knowledge for adult literacy education was illustrated in
research colleagues and I did to develop a 45 hour reading program for the
U. S. Navy. In this work special readability formulas were developed to
determine how much general reading ability, as measured by a standardized
reading test, was needed to comprehend written materials about the Navy
with 70 percent accuracy. We found that as background knowledge about the
Navy increased from very little to a lot,  the general reading ability
needed to comprehend with 70 percent accuracy fell from the 11th grade to
the 6th grade. In this case, high knowledge relative to what was being read
was as effective as 5 grade levels of general reading ability in influencing
reading comprehension.

In additional work for the Navy, we applied the findings of the importance
of relevant background knowledge and developed a 45 hour reading program
that used navy relaed content in which to embed reading skills instruction.
We then compared a general reading program the Navy had which used a variety
of general reading materials to the Navy-related program that used
Navy-related materials.  We developed and administered  a Navy Knowledge
test, in which students read and answered questions dealing with
Navy-related knowledge but with no passages to read on the test. We also
administered a reading in which students answered questions by reading
paragraphs about the Navy with the information they needed to correctly
answer the questions. Additionally, a standardized reading test that
provided grade level scores in general reading was administered to all
students.

When compared to the general reading program that used general, civilian
school-related materials, the Navy-related program made greater
improvements in both Navy-related knowledge and Navy-related functional
reading than did the conventional, non-job-related program. The lowest
reading ability personnel (6th grade or below) in the Navy job-related
program also made considerable improvements in general reading. The general
reading program made more improvement on the general reading test for
personnel across the reading skills spectrum, but that skill did not
transfer to the performance of the Navy-related material, which is the
material that the Navy personnel had to read for job advancement.

For adults in basic skills programs who generally have little time to devote
to improving their reading,  it is important to develop their reading skills
using as the vehicle for instruction the content knowledge in which they are
most immediately in need. Developing a fair amount of knowledge in some
specific area, such as health knowledge, computer knowledge, consumer
knowledge, job knowledge,  etc., can often be done in a relatively brief
period of time when the instruction is well focused on the content to be
taught. With continued practice in reading in a wide range of materials,
adults can develop into more generally knowledgeable and skilled literate
adults.

References

Sticht, T. G. et al. (1974). Auding and Reading: A Developmental Model.
Alexandria, VA: Human Resources Research Organization.

Sticht, T. G. (1987, March). Functional Context Education: Workshop Resource
Notebook.  San Diego, CA: The Applied Behavioral & Cognitive Sciences, Inc.

Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133
Email: tsticht at aznet.net







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