Fix poverty, and until then focus on comprehension

Dr. Stephen Krashen is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He has written numerous books on his research into literacy and language acquisition. In recent years he has emerged as a persistent voice pointing towards the basic steps we should take to build literacy and strong academic skills for our students. He also points out the flaws in many of the premises of the "school reform" movement. This week, I asked him to share some thoughts with us on where things are headed. He offers us his views in this guest post.

What single strategy would you suggest to improve education in the US?

Here is a single strategy that has a long-term and short-term component.

The long-term part is to eliminate or at least drastically reduce poverty in the US.

How poverty hurts children

Decades of research confirm that poverty has a huge impact on student learning. Many studies show that more poverty means lower scores on all measures of school achievement. There are also many studies that show us just how poverty negatively impacts school performance. Here are the results, in brief:

Children of poverty are more likely to suffer from "food insecurity," which means slower language development, and behavioral problems.

High-poverty families are more likely to lack medical insurance or have high co-payments, which means less medical care, and more childhood illness and absenteeism, which of course negatively impacts school achievement. School is not helping: Poor schools are more likely to have no school nurse or have a high ratio of nurses to students.

Children of poverty are more likely to live in high-pollution areas, with more exposure to mercury, lead, PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) and smog, all of which impact health and learning, and often impact behavior as well.

Children of poverty also have very little access to books at home and in their communities, with less access to good public libraries and bookstores. Once again, school is not helping: Children of poverty attend schools with poorly supported classroom libraries and school libraries. Studies confirm that less access to books means lower reading achievement, which makes sense in view of findings that show that self-selected reading is a powerful predictor of reading achievement.

Poverty is the only serious problem

One of the reasons, we are told, that we need Race to the Top and other reforms is because our students do not do well on international tests, which indicates that there is a problem with education in America. The only serious problem is poverty.

American students from well-funded schools who come from high-income families outscore all or nearly all other countries on international tests. Only our children in high poverty schools score below the international average. The US has the second highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (22.4%, compared to Sweden's 2.6%) which of course pulls down our overall average. The success of American children who are not in poverty shows that our educational system has been successful; the problem is poverty.

When the problem of poverty is solved, all children will have the advantages that right now only middle-class children have. This will close the "achievement gap" between children from high and low-income families.

What school can do

Until poverty is drastically reduced or eliminated, school needs to defend children against the effects of poverty. This means providing nutrition, health care, a clean environment, and books. For policy, this means continued and expanded support for free/reduced meal programs, increased school nursing care, and, of course, improved school and classroom libraries.

We have good evidence that quality school libraries can mitigate the effects of poverty. Two recent studies, one in California and another involving students from 40 countries, have shown that access to a good school library has a large positive effect on reading test scores, about as large as the effect of poverty.

To summarize: What should schools focus on first? Food, health care, and books. Not on new standards and tests.

A modest proposal

It's never a good idea to propose a program without talking about how to pay for it and I have a suggestion: Drop all standardized testing, with the exception of one test, an improved NAEP.

There is no strong empirical evidence to continue, let alone expand our testing program. In fact, the available evidence suggests that standardized tests do not do any good. Nichols, Glass, & Berliner found no relationship between testing "pressure" in 25 states and achievement on NAEP math & reading. Two different studies found that high school grades were a good predictor of college success, and that adding SAT scores did not improve the predictive power of grades.

Teacher evaluation does a better job of evaluating students than standardized testing does: The repeated judgments of professionals who are with children every day is more valid than a test created by distant strangers. Moreover, teacher evaluations are "multiple measures," are closely aligned with the curriculum, cover a variety of subjects, and are "value-added," that is, they take improvement into consideration.

For those who argue that we need national standardized tests in order to compare student achievement over time and to compare subgroups of students, we already have an instrument for this, the NAEP.

The NAEP is administered to small groups of children who each take a portion of the test every few years. Results are extrapolated to estimate how the larger groups would score. No test prep is done, as the tests are zero stakes: There are no (or should be no) consequences for low or high scores. Our efforts should be to improve the NAEP, not start all over again, and go through years of fine-tuning with new instruments.

If we are interested in a general picture of how children are doing, this is the way to do it. If we are interested in finding out about a patient's health, we only need to look at a small sample of their blood, not all of it.

The money saved from eliminating standardized tests should be invested in improved libraries in high-poverty areas: If we do this, we will be investing in solving the problem, not just measuring it.

The cause of the problem: Isn't it all because of corrupt capitalism?

Yes, this is a factor, no doubt. Publishers make a lot of money on tests and on the accompanying materials and texts. But this isn't the whole story. Another important factor is the public's personal theory of how language acquisition and literacy development take place. The public believes in Skill-Building.

The public assumes that students first need to consciously learn their "skills" (phonics, grammar, vocabulary, spelling), and only after skills are mastered can they actually use these skills in real situations. This assumption, the "Skill-Building Hypothesis," insists on delayed gratification. Only school-work counts, only what you learn consciously and deliberately and then practice counts. Only after hard and tedious work do we earn the right to actually read and write and enjoy the use of language.

There is an alternative. It hypothesizes that mastery of the components of language is acquired as a result of understanding what we read and hear. It claims that grammatical competence and vocabulary knowledge are absorbed as a result of listening and reading, and that writing style and most of spelling competence is the result of wide, self-selected reading.

The Comprehension Hypothesis does not require delayed gratification. It claims that we can enjoy real language use right away: We can listen to stories, read books, and engage in interesting conversations as soon as they are comprehensible. The Comprehension Hypothesis, in fact, insists on pleasure from the beginning, on acquirers obtaining interesting, comprehensible input right from the start.

There is, in my opinion, overwhelming evidence that the Skill-Building hypothesis is wrong and that the Comprehension Hypothesis is right. My work shows this, the work of Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman shows this, as well as hundreds of studies by others. But for the public, the Skill-Building hypothesis is not a hypothesis, it is an axiom. Most people, even many education professionals, are unaware that the Comprehension Hypothesis even exists.

Until the public understands that Skill-Building is incorrect, we have little chance of getting rid of massive testing and dry lessons based on skills. Until the public understands the Comprehension Hypothesis, there will be little support for libraries and self-selected reading, and little understanding of the problem of lack of reading material for self-selected reading. And little chance of closing the achievement gap.

What do you think? Is poverty the culprit for most of the problems in our schools? Would a clear focus on comprehension make instruction more meaningful and successful?


Poverty has a huge impact:

White, K. 1982. The relation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Psychological Bulletin 9: 461-81.

How poverty negatively impacts student achievement:

Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit.

Coles, G. 2008/2009. Hunger, academic success, and the hard bigotry of indifference. Rethinking Schools 23 (2).

Martin, M. 2004. A strange ignorance: The role of lead poisoning in "failing schools."

Poverty and access to books:

Di Loreto, C., and Tse, L. 1999. Seeing is believing: Disparity in books in two Los

Angeles area public libraries. School Library Quarterly 17(3): 31-36.

Duke, N. 2000. For the rich it's richer: Print experiences and environments offered to

children in very low- and very high-socioeconomic status first-grade classrooms. American Educational Research Journal 37(2): 441-478

Feitelson, D. & Goldstein, Z. (1986). Patterns of book ownership and reading to young children in Israeli school-oriented and nonschool oriented families. The Reading Teacher, 39, 224-230.

Neuman, S.B. & Celano, D. (2001). Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities: An ecological study of four neighborhoods. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 1, 8-26.

Less access means lower achievement:

Lance, K. 2004. The impact of school library media centers on academic achievement. In Carol Kuhlthau (Ed.), School Library Media Annual. 188-197. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited. (For access to the many Lance studies done in individual states, as well as studies done by others at the state level, see

McQuillan, J. 1998. The Literacy Crisis: False Claims and Real Solutions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Self-selected reading and reading achievement:

Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Second edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Co. and Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited McQuillan, J. 1998. The Literacy Crisis: False Claims and Real Solutions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

American students outscore ...:

Bracey, G. 2009. The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. publication/Bracey-Report Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13.

Child Poverty:

See nationmaster report at: Other reports arrive at similar figures using different methodologies, e.g. UNICEF, 2007. An Overview of Child-Well Being in Rich Countries. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Report Card 7. The United Nations Childrens Fund.

School libraries can mitigate:

Achterman, D. 2008. PhD dissertation,

Krashen, S., Lee, SY, and McQuillan, J. 2010. An analysis of the PIRLS (2006) data: Can the school library reduce the effect of poverty on reading achievement? CSLA Journal, in press. California School Library Association.

Effect of standardized tests:

Bowen, W., Chingos, M., and McPherson, M. 2009. Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Universities. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Geiser, S. and Santelices, M.V., 2007.

Validity of high-school grades in predicting student success beyond the freshman year:

High-school record vs. standardized tests as indicators of four-year college outcomes. Research and Occasional Papers Series: CSHE 6.07, University of California, Berkeley.

Nichols, S., Glass, G., and Berliner, D. 2006. High-stakes testing and student achievement: Does accountability increase student learning? Education Policy Archives 14(1).

See also: Kohn, A. 1999. The Schools Our Children Deserve. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Kohn, A. 2000. The Case Against Standardized Testing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. is a rich source of information on this topic.

Arguments for The Comprehension Hypothesis and against Skill-Building.

Krashen, S. 2003. Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Second edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Co. and Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited Smith, F. 2003. Understanding Reading. Erlbaum. krashen_fix_ poverty_an.html

Stephen Krashen: Fix Poverty, and until then, Focus on Comprehension


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