Reading ability

How To Teach Main Idea.

June 2017

Teacher question:

Last week, I read your article about how to teach theme to students by having them track character changes across a story and determine what lesson the character learns to determine the overall theme.Can you offer advice on determining the main idea of an informational text? Specifically, for third grade, students must determine the main idea, recount the key details and explain how the key details support the main idea. What is the best way HOW to teach this to third graders?

Shanahan’s response:

Teaching “main idea” might seem simple, but it’s actually kind of complicated.

Not everyone even agrees on what label to use. Are we talking about main ideas, central ideas, purposes, topics, central messages, or themes? I dealt with that vexing confusion previously, Dazed and Confused: The Main Idea of Main Ideas.

No need to retread that mushy ground today. Let’s just assume you mean what I mean when it comes to main ideas (and if there is any doubt, just read that previous blog entry).

But even when we agree on what a main idea is, there are lots of differences in what is taught in pursuit of main idea. In an examination of main idea instruction (Jitendra, et al., 2001), lots of distinctions had to be made. Were students taught main idea as an objective or a strategy? Was it for fiction or non-fiction? Short, medium, or long texts? Were students presented with main ideas, choosing main ideas, identifying them, or constructing them? Were the main ideas explicit or implicit? And, if they were explicit, where in the text did they appear?

Jitendra and colleagues found that different programs taught main idea in very different ways, and none were taught in ways that are very consistent with research results!

Those distinctions are important instructional considerations.

Let’s face it, it is one thing to find a main idea in a four-sentence paragraph in which the author signals its presence with language like, “The most important thing to remember …” and it is quite another to infer an unstated main idea from a 12-page chapter on electricity.

That study didn’t even exhaust the possible distinctions. Chang & Choi (2014) showed that the inclusion of particularly interesting or seductive information in a text (like the fact that George Washington had wooden teeth or that a lightning strike once restored a blind man’s sight) can block readers from developing coherent mental representations of expository texts. In other words, interesting facts like that can distract readers from getting the main idea.

And, then there is the range of topics possible, and the amount of prior knowledge kids may have with particular topics.

To teach main idea successfully one is going to have to provide lots of practice with a rich and varied collection of texts.

The problem here is that main idea location or identification is not a really a skill, per se. Skills are highly repetitive acts, but main ideas are so varied and arise in such a wide-ranging universe of texts that repetition is only possible in artificial instructional exercises.

That’s why, despite the success researchers have often found in teaching main ideas to kids, their results usually haven’t transferred to better performance on standardized tests (e.g., Sjostrom & Hare, 1984). Main idea teaching not only doesn’t usually lead to better general reading achievement, but doesn’t necessarily even improve kids’ performance on main idea questions — though this is because such questions don’t actually tap main idea as a separable skill (e.g., ACT, 2006; Davis, 1944).

I’d suggest the following guidelines for teaching main idea:

Since it isn’t really a skill and it doesn’t separate out from other “skills”, then teach it as part of a larger and more coherent reading strategy

The National Reading Panel (2000) found that teaching students to summarize as they read had a positive impact on reading comprehension and Graham & Hebert (2010) found that writing summaries of text was particularly powerful in the elementary grades. Summaries include main ideas of course, but these are embedded in a plethora of skills and actions.

For example, teaching summarization as a strategy means teaching students to use summarization to support their reading comprehension. They need to learn when to summarize. If I’m reading something that is difficult for me, I summarize more often — sometimes as much as every paragraph or so. In other cases, I may be able to wait until the end (or at least until the end of a section). Sometimes, I actually note these summaries down and other times it is enough to say them in my head.

In any event, the idea is that I am actively trying to understand and remember the text, by frequently stopping to retell myself the important ideas.

Reading ability

Who Decides What a Word Means?

There is a fact to bear in mind: no language has fallen apart from lack of care. It is just not something that happens – literally. Prescriptivist cannot point to a single language that became unusable or inexpressive as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar. Every language existing today is fantastically expressive. It would be a miracle, except that it is utterly commonplace, a fact shared not only by all languages but by all the humans who use them.

How can this be? Why does change of the decimate variety not add up to chaos? If one such ‘error’ is bad, and these kinds of things are happening all the time, how do things manage to hold together?

The answer is that language is a system. Sounds, words and grammar do not exist in isolation: each of these three levels of language constitutes a system in itself. And, extraordinarily, these systems change as systems. If one change threatens disruption, another change compensates, so that the new system, though different from the old, is still an efficient, expressive and useful whole.

Begin with sounds. Every language has a characteristic inventory of contrasting sounds, called phonemes. Beet and bit have different vowels; these are two phonemes in English. Italian has only one, which is why Italians tend to make homophones of sheet and shit.

There is something odd about the vowels of English. Have you ever noticed that every language in Europe seems to use the letter A the same way? From latte to lager to tapas, Italian, German and Spanish all seem to use it for the ah sound. And at some level, this seems natural; if you learn frango is ‘chicken’ in Portuguese, you will probably know to pronounce it with an ah, not an ay. How, then, did English get A to sound like it does in plate, name, face and so on?

Look around the other ‘long’ vowels in English, and they seem out of whack in similar ways. The letter I has an ee sound from Nice to Nizhni Novgorod; why does it have the sound it does in English write and ride? And why do two Os yield the sound they do in boot and food?

Nobody in a 15th-century tavern (men carried knives back then) wants to confuse meet, meat and mate

The answer is the Great Vowel Shift. From the middle English period and continuing into the early modern era, the entire set of English long vowels underwent a radical disruption. Meet used to be pronounced a bit like modern mate. Boot used to sound like boat. (But both vowels were monophthongs, not diphthongs; the modern long A is really pronounced like ay-ee said quickly, but the vowel in medieval meet was a pure single vowel.)

During the Great Vowel Shift, ee and oo started to move towards the sounds they have today. Nobody knows why. It’s likely that some people noticed at the time and groused about it. In any case, there was really a problem: now ee was too close to the vowel in time, which in that era was pronounced tee-muh. And oo was too close to the vowel in house, which was then pronounced hoose.

Speakers didn’t passively accept the confusion. What happened next shows the genius of what economists call spontaneous order. In response to their new pushy neighbours in the vowel space, the vowels in time and house started to change, too, becoming something like tuh-eemand huh-oos. Other changes prompted yet more changes, too: the vowel in mate – then pronounced mah-tuh – moved towards the sound of the modern vowel in cat. That made it a little too close to meat, which was pronounced like a drawn-out version of the modern met. So the vowel in meat changed too.

Throughout the system, vowels were on the move. Nobody in a 15th-century tavern (men carried knives back then) wants to confuse meet, meat and mate. So they responded to a potentially damaging change by changing something else. A few vowels ended up merging. So meetand meat became homophones. But mostly the system just settled down with each vowel in a new place. It was the Great Vowel Shift, not the Great Vowel Pile-Up.

Such shifts are common enough that they have earned a name: ‘chain shifts’. These are what happens when one change prompts another, which in turn prompts yet another, and so on, until the language arrives at a new equilibrium. There is a chain shift underway now: the Northern Cities Shift, noticed and described in the cities around the Great Lakes of North America by William Labov, the pioneer of sociolinguistics. There is also a California Shift. In other words, these things happen. The local, individual change is chaotic and random, but the system responds to keep things from coming to harm.

What about words? There are only so many vowels in a language, but many thousands of words. So changes in the meanings of words might not be as orderly as the chain shifts seen in the Great Vowel Shift and others. Nonetheless, despite potential harm done by an individual word’s change in meaning, cultures tend to have all the words they need for all the things they want to talk about.

In researching Samuel Johnson’s dictionary I made a startling find. Johnson, in describing his plan for the dictionary to the Earl of Chesterfield in 1747, wrote that

[B]uxom, which means only obedient, is now made, in familiar phrases, to stand for wanton; because in an ancient form of marriage, before the Reformation, the bride promised complaisance and obedience, in these terms: ‘I will be bonair and buxom in bed and at board.’

When most people think of buxom today, neither ‘obedient’ nor ‘wanton’ is what comes to mind (To my good friend: this is why a Google Images search for buxom is in my search history, I promise.)

Turning to the OED, I found that buxom had come from a medieval word buhsam, cognate to the modern German biegsam, or ‘bendable’. From physical to metaphorical (the natural extension), it came to mean ‘pliable’ of a person, or – as Johnson put it – obedient. Then buxom kept on moving: a short hop from ‘obedient’ to ‘amiable’, and then another one to ‘lively, gay’. (William Shakespeare describes a soldier of ‘buxom valour’ in Henry V.) From there, it is another short jump to ‘healthy, vigorous’, which seems to have been the current meaning around Johnson’s time. From ‘good health’ it was another logical extension to physical plumpness, then to plumpness specifically on a woman, to big-breasted.

The leap from ‘obedient’ to ‘busty’ seems extraordinary until we look at it step by step. Nice used to mean ‘foolish’. Silly used to mean ‘holy’. Assassin is from the plural of the Arabic word for ‘hashish(-eater)’, and magazine from the Arabic word for a storehouse. This is just what words do. Prestigious used to be pejorative, meaning glittery but not substantive. These kinds of changes are common.

I don’t know how we did without hangry so long in English, because I spent about a third of every day hangry

Two paragraphs ago, I used the words ‘leap’ and ‘jump’. But we see the ‘leaps’ only when lexicographers, looking back, chop up a word’s history into meanings for their dictionaries. Words change meaning gradually, as a small number of speakers use them in a new way, and they in turn cause others to do so. This is how words can change meaning so totally and utterly; mostly, they do so in steps too small to notice.

Again, no chaos results. Every time buxom changed meaning, it could have theoretically left a hole in the lexicon for the meaning it had left behind. But in each case, another word filled its place: in fact, the ones I have used above (pliable, obedient, amiable, lively, gay, healthy, plump and so on). For useful concepts, it seems, the lexicon abhors a vacuum. (I don’t know how we did without hangry so long in English, because I spent about a third of every day hangry. But sure enough, someone coined it.)

There are several predictable ways that words change meaning. Some people insist that nauseous means only ‘causing nausea’. But going from cause to experiencer is a common semantic shift, just as many words can be used in both active and agentless constructions (consider I broke the dishwasher and The dishwasher broke). Yet true confusion is rare. For nauseous’s old meaning we have nauseating.

Words also weaken with frequent use: The Lego Movie (2014) was on to something with its song ‘Everything Is Awesome’, because Americans really do use this word rather a lot. Once powerful, it can now be used for anything even slightly good, as in This burrito is awesome. It can even be near-meaningless, as in Steven Pinker’s lovely example: ‘If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.’

But do we really lack ways of communicating that we’re impressed by something? No language does, and English-speakers are spoiled for choice from the likes of incredible, fantastic, stupendous and brilliant. (All of which have changed from their etymological meanings of ‘unbelievable’, ‘like a fantasy’, ‘inducing stupor’ and ‘shiny, reflective’, by the way.) When those get overused (and all are in danger of that), people coin new ones still: sick, amazeballs, kick-ass.

The thousands of words in the language are a swirling mass constantly on the move. Again, when one piece moves, threatening a gap or an overlap, something else moves too. The individual, short-term change is random; the overall, long-term change is systemic.

At the level of grammar, change might seem the most unsettling, threatening a deeper kind of harm than a simple mispronunciation or new use for an old word. Take the long-term decline of whom, which signals that something in a question or relative clause is an object (direct or indirect), as in That’s the man whom I saw. Most people today would either say That’s the man who I saw or just That’s the man I saw.

What word is the subject in a clause, and what is the object, is a deeply important fact. And yet, precisely because this is so, even radical grammatical change leaves this distinction intact. Readers of Beowulf are in no doubt that virtually every word in that epic poem is vastly different from its modern counterpart. What those who can’t read Old English might not realise is how different the grammar is. English was a language like Russian or Latin: it had case endings everywhere: on nouns, adjectives and determiners (words such as the and a). In other words, they all behaved like who/whom/whose does (there was even a fourth case).

Today, just six words (I, he, she, we, they and who) change form when they are direct or indirect objects (me, him, her, us, them and whom). In a longer view, modern Anglophones speak godawful, brokendown Anglo-Saxon, lacking all the communicative power that those endings provided. How, one can imagine Alfred the Great asking, do English-speakers know what is the subject of a sentence and what are the objects without those crucial case endings?

The answer is boring: word order. English is a subject-verb-object language. In I love her, case is evident by the form of I (a subject, in the nominative case) and her (a direct object, in the objective case). But the meaning of Steve loves Sally is just as clear, despite the lack of case endings. Subject-verb-object order can be violated in special circumstances (Her I love the most) but it is expected; and that expectation, shared by all native speakers, does the work that the case endings once did.

To any six-year-old, everything is epic, which strikes my ear as awesome must have done my parents’

Why did the case endings disappear? We don’t know, but it was probably sped up as a result of two waves of conquest: adult Vikings and Normans coming to Britain, and learning Anglo-Saxon imperfectly. Then as now, things such as fiddly inflections are hard for adults to learn in a foreign language. Many adult learners would have neglected all those endings and relied on word order, raising children who heard their parents’ slightly stripped-down version. The children would then have used the endings less than earlier generations, until they disappeared entirely.

Once again, the grammar responded as a system. No civilisation can afford to leave the distinction between subjects and objects to guesswork. Word order was relatively flexible in the Anglo-Saxon period. Then the loss of case endings fixed it in more rigid form. The gradual disappearance of case signalling resulted in a potential loss of information, but the solidification of word order made up for it.

We now have a framework in which both the prescriptivists and the descriptivists can have their say. Sound changes can be seen as wrong, understandably, by people who learned an older pronunciation: to my ear, nucular sounds uneducated and expresso is just wrong. But in the long run, sound systems make up for any confusion in a delicate dance of changes that makes sure the language’s necessary distinctions remain. Word meanings change, by both type (a change in meaning) and by force (a change in how powerful a word is). To a six-year-old, everything is epic, which strikes my ear the way awesome must have done to my parents. A lunch just cannot be epic. But when epic is exhausted, his kids will press something else into service – or coin something new.

Even the deepest-seeming change – to the grammar – never destroys the language system. Some distinctions can disappear: classical Arabic has singular, dual and plural number; the modern dialects mostly use just singular and plural, like English. Latin was full of cases; its daughter languages – French, Spanish and so on – lack them, but their speakers get on with life just the same. Sometimes languages get more complex: the Romance languages also pressed freestanding Latin words into service until they wore down and became mere endings on verbs. That turned out OK, too.

Spontaneous order doesn’t sit well with people. We are all tempted to think that complex systems need management, a benign but firm hand. But just as market economies turn out better than command economies, languages are too complex, and used by too many people, to submit to command management. Individual decisions can be bad ones, and merit correction, but we can be optimistic that, in the long run, change is inevitable and it will turn out all right. Broadly trusting the distributed intelligence of your fellow humans to keep things in order can be hard to do, but it’s the only way to go. Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius.

Reading ability

Never has so much been crammed into one word.

Depression feels terrifying. Your world is dark, heavy, and painful. Physical pain, you think, would be much better—at least the pain would be localized. Instead, depression seems to go to your very soul, affecting everything in its path.

Dead, but walking, is one way to describe it. You feel numb. Perhaps the worst part is that you remember when you actually felt something and the contrast between then and now makes the pain worse.

So many things about your life are difficult right now. Things you used to take for granted – a good night’s sleep, having goals, looking forward to the future, now seem beyond your reach. Your relationships are also affected. The people who love you are looking for some emotional response from you, but you do not have one to give.

Does it help to know that you are not alone? These days depression affects as much as 25 percent of the population. Although it has always been a human problem, no one really knows why. But what Christians do know is that God is not silent when we suffer. On every page of Scripture, God’s depressed children have been able to find hope and a reason to endure. For example, take 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV):

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Come to God with your suffering

You can start to experience the inward renewal that the apostle Paul experienced when you come to God with your suffering. God seems far away when we suffer. You believe that He exists, but it seems as if He is too busy with everything else, or He just doesn’t care. After all, God is powerful enough to end your suffering, but He hasn’t.

If you start there, you’ll reach a dead end pretty quickly. God hasn’t promised to explain everything about what He does and what He allows. Instead, He encourages us to start with Jesus. Jesus is God the Son, and He is certainly loved by his heavenly Father. Yet Jesus also went through more suffering than anyone who ever lived!

Here we see that love and suffering can coexist. And when you start reading the Bible and encounter people like Job, Jeremiah, and the apostle Paul, you get a sense that suffering is actually the well-worn path for God’s favorites. This doesn’t answer the question, Why are you doing this to me? But it cushions the blow when you know that God understands. You aren’t alone. If we know anything about God, we know that He comes close to those who suffer, so keep your eyes open for Him.

God speaks to you in the Bible

Keep your heart open to the fact that the Bible has much to say to you when you are depressed. Here are a few suggestions of Bible passages you can read. Read one each day and let it fill your mind as you go about your life.

  • Read about Jesus’ suffering in Isaiah 53 and Mark 14. How does it help you to know that Jesus is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief?
  • Use the Psalms to help you find words to talk to God about your heart. Make Psalm 88 and Psalm 86 your personal prayers to God.
  • Be alert to spiritual warfare. Depressed people are very vulnerable to Satan’s claim that God is not good. Jesus’ death on the cross proves God’s love for you. It’s the only weapon powerful enough to stand against Satan’s lies. (Romans 5:6-8, 1 John 4:9,10)
  • Don’t think your case is unique. Read Hebrews 11 and 12. Many have walked this path before you and they will tell you that God did not fail them.
  • Remember your purpose for living. (Matthew 22:37-39, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 2 Corinthians 5:15, Galatians 5:6)
  • Learn about persevering and enduring. (Romans 5:3, Hebrews 12:1, James 1:2-4)


Try one step at a time

Granted, it seems impossible. How can someone live without feelings? Without them you have no drive, no motivation. Could you imagine walking without any feeling in your legs? It would be impossible.

Or would it? Perhaps you could walk if you practiced in front of a large mirror and watched your legs moving. One step, wobble, another step. It would all be very mechanical, but it could be done.

People have learned to walk in the midst of depression. It doesn’t seem natural, though other people won’t notice either the awkwardness or the heroism involved. The trek begins with one step, then another. Remember, you are not alone. Many people have taken this journey ahead of you.

As you walk, you will find that it is necessary to remember to use every resource you have ever learned about persevering through hardship. It will involve lots of moment by moment choices: 1) take one minute at a time, 2) read one short Bible passage, 3) try to care about someone else, 4) ask someone how they are doing, and so on.

You will need to do this with your relationships, too. When you have no feelings, how to love must be redefined. Love, for you, must become an active commitment to patience and kindness.

Consider what accompanies your depression

As you put one foot in front of the other, don’t forget that depression doesn’t exempt you from the other problems that plague human beings. Some depressed people have a hard time seeing the other things that creep in—things like anger, fear, and an unforgiving spirit. Look carefully to see if your depression is associated with things like these:

Do you have negative, critical, or complaining thoughts? These can point to anger. Are you holding something against another person?

Do you want to stay in bed all day?Are there parts of your life you want to avoid?

Do you find that things you once did easily now strike terror in your heart? What is at the root of your fear?

Do you feel like you have committed a sin that is beyond the scope of God’s forgiveness?Remember that the apostle Paul was a murderer. And remember: God is not like other people—He doesn’t give us the cold shoulder when we ask for forgiveness.

Do you struggle with shame?Shame is different from guilt. When you are guilty you feel dirty because of what you did; but with shame you feel dirty because of what somebody did to you. Forgiveness for your sins is not the answer here because you are not the one who was wrong. But the cross of Christ is still the answer. Jesus’ blood not only washes us clean from the guilt of our own sins, but also washes away the shame we experience when others sin against us.

Do you experience low self-worth?Low self-worth points in many directions. Instead of trying to raise your view of yourself, come at it from a completely different angle. Start with Christ and His love for you. Let that define you and then share that love with others.

Will it ever be over?

Will you always struggle with depression? That is like asking, “Will suffering ever be over?” Although we will have hardships in this world, depression rarely keeps a permanent grip on anyone. When we add to that the hope, purpose, power, and comfort we find in Christ, depressed people can usually anticipate a ray of hope or a lifting of their spirits.

Reading ability

The true gospel of Paul.

This past year, I burdened the English-speaking world with my very own translation of the New Testament – a project that I undertook at the behestlllllll, but that I agreed to almost in the instant that it was proposed. I had long contemplated attempting a ‘subversively literal’ rendering of the text. Over the years, I had become disenchanted with almost all the standard translations available, and especially with modern versions produced by large committees of scholars, many of whom (it seems to me) have been predisposed by inherited theological habits to see things in the text that are not really there, and to fail to notice other things that most definitely are. Committees are bland affairs, and tend to reinforce our expectations; but the world of late antiquity is so remote from our own that it is almost never what we expect.

Ask, for instance, the average American Christian – say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible – what gospel the Apostle Paul preached. The reply will fall along predictable lines: human beings, bearing the guilt of original sin and destined for eternal hell, cannot save themselves through good deeds, or make themselves acceptable to God; yet God, in his mercy, sent the eternal Son to offer himself up for our sins, and the righteousness of Christ has been graciously imputed or imparted to all who have faith.

Some details might vary, but not the basic story. And, admittedly, much of the tale’s language is reminiscent of terms used by Paul, at least as filtered through certain conventional translations; but it is a fantasy. It presumes elements of later Christian belief absent from Paul’s own writings. Some of these (like the idea that humans are born damnably guilty in God’s eyes, or that good deeds are not required for salvation) arise from a history of misleading translations. Others (like the concept of an eternal hell of conscious torment) are entirely imagined, attributed to Paul on the basis of some mistaken picture of what the New Testament as a whole teaches.

Reading ability

Reading Equity

Many primary school teachers who works with economically disadvantaged schoolchildren, can be discourage to hear phrases like “significant achievement gap” or “30-million-word gap” in discussions of the reading and vocabulary development of our students. But research does bear those phrases out: There are clear trends of underachievement in academics for students of low socioeconomic status (SES).

I’ve taught in a Quintile 1school in Cape Town for six years, with experience in fourth through sixth grades, and year after year, I worked with students who are reading drastically below grade level. There are many things that affect my students that I can’t control, but research has shown that strong, intentional, and explicit instruction can positively impact the reading trajectories of all students, especially those with economic disadvantages.

Low SES status alone is not a strong predictor of reading achievement, but when combined with other factors such as a non – literacy – rich home environment, poor classroom instruction, or being an English language 2 learner, the chances of reading difficulties increase. This is often referred to as “double disadvantage”: The poorest students often attend schools with the fewest resources.

Teachers in these schools have been found to use less complex vocabulary with their students, hold them to lower expectations, and provide less explicit instruction. Without clear instruction and high expectations, how can students succeed


Teachers have the day-to-day responsibility of fostering a love of reading, providing meaningful instruction, and thus improving student outcomes. In fact, teacher instruction is one of the most important factors attributed to student success. By holding students to high expectations, asking challenging questions, involving students in their learning, and explicitly modeling good reading habits, teachers can help all students improve their reading outcomes. It isn’t only what teachers teach, but how they teach that ultimately matters.

Intentional and explicit planning is the backbone of literacy instruction. Teachers should be intentional with book choice, questions and prompts, student partnerships, and classroom environment. For example, when choosing a book, a teacher might consider whether it will catch students’ interest and whether it has relatable characters and experiences for their students, while also allowing for their teaching point. Being intentional with book choice can help increase student engagement.

When planning stopping points, we can give students opportunities to talk with a reading partner before a whole group share. Doing this multiple times throughout a lesson will allow all voices to be heard. After the reading and writing block, it’s a good idea to have students come back together to reflect on their learning—this allows the teacher to see how students took the learning objective and applied it to their reading.


School-wide programs should be put in place to give students more access to books and parents more knowledge about how we are teaching their children. Community literacy nights are a way to provide meaningful resources to parents and students. While it may be challenging to engage families in literacy nights, hosting such events in common community centers such as apartment club houses or the public library can increase participation.

Schools can can come incentivice attendance by providing food and holding raffles for books or practical needs such as gift cards or coupons from local grocery stores or department stores.

Community reading programs are another way to support home literacy for students. The public librarian could come to the school to advertise and get students excited for reading sessions as it might even be possible to sign them up for library cards while they’re at school. Another option is setting up a Recycled Reading program, in which students trade in their own already read books for another to keep.

By providing students with access to new books, these programs can help foster a love of reading.

The obstacles to student learning can seem endless. Poverty is often considered one of these obstacles, but it doesn’t need to be. Even when poverty is combined with other risk factors, effective interventions put in place by schools and teachers can positively impact a student’s reading trajectory.

Reading ability

The bad news on human nature.

It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or are we, deep down, wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers, and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but here we shine some evidence-based light on the matter through 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:

We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. One striking example of this blatant dehumanisation came from a brain-scan study that found a small group of students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Other studies show that people who are opposed to Arab immigration tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women. What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (of people from a different city or a different gender to the child) as less human than in-group faces.

We experience Schadenfreude (pleasure at another person’s distress) by the age of four, according to a study from 2013. That sense is heightened if the child perceives that the person deserves the distress. A more recent study found that, by age six, children will pay to watch an antisocial puppet being hit, rather than spending the money on stickers.

We believe in karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate. The unfortunate consequences of such beliefs were first demonstrated in the now classic research from 1966 by the American psychologists Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons. In their experiment, in which a female learner was punished with electric shocks for wrong answers, women participants subsequently rated her as less likeable and admirable when they heard that they would be seeing her suffer again, and especially if they felt powerless to minimise this suffering. Since then, research has shown our willingness to blame the poor, rape victims, AIDS patients and others for their fate, so as to preserve our belief in a just world. By extension, the same or similar processes are likely responsible for our subconscious rose-tinted view of rich people.

We are blinkered and dogmatic. If people were rational and open-minded, then the straightforward way to correct someone’s false beliefs would be to present them with some relevant facts. However a classic study from 1979 showed the futility of this approach – participants who believed strongly for or against the death penalty completely ignored facts that undermined their position, actually doubling-down on their initial view. This seems to occur in part because we see opposing facts as undermining our sense of identity. It doesn’t help that many of us are overconfident about how much we understand things and that, when we believe our opinions are superior to others, this deters us from seeking out further relevant knowledge.

We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts. This was demonstrated dramatically in a 2014 study in which 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants opted to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks rather than spend 15 minutes in peaceful contemplation.

We are vain and overconfident.

Our irrationality and dogmatism might not be so bad were they married to some humility and self-insight, but most of us walk about with inflated views of our abilities and qualities, such as our driving skills, intelligence and attractiveness – a phenomenon that’s been dubbed the Lake Wobegon Effect after the fictional town where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average’. Ironically, the least skilled among us are the most prone to overconfidence (the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect). This vain self-enhancement seems to be most extreme and irrational in the case of our morality, such as in how principled and fair we think we are. In fact, even jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public.

We are moral hypocrites. It pays to be wary of those who are the quickest and loudest in condemning the moral failings of others – the chances are that moral preachers are as guilty themselves, but take a far lighter view of their own transgressions. In one study, researchers found that people rated the exact same selfish behaviour (giving themselves the quicker and easier of two experimental tasks on offer) as being far less fair when perpetuated by others. Similarly, there is a long-studied phenomenon known as actor-observer asymmetry, which in part describes our tendencyto attribute other people’s bad deeds, such as our partner’s infidelities, to their character, while attributing the same deeds performed by ourselves to the situation at hand. These self-serving double standards could even explain the common feeling that incivility is on the increase – recent researchshows that we view the same acts of rudeness far more harshly when they are committed by strangers than by our friends or ourselves.

We are all potential trolls. As anyone who has found themselves in a spat on Twitter will attest, social media might be magnifying some of the worst aspects of human nature, in part due to the online disinhibition effect, and the fact that anonymity (easy to achieve online) is known to increase our inclinations for immorality. While research has suggested that people who are prone to everyday sadism (a worryingly high proportion of us) are especially inclined to online trolling, a studypublished last year revealed how being in a bad mood, and being exposed to trolling by others, double the likelihood of a person engaging in trolling themselves. Initial trolling by a few can cause a snowball of increasing negativity, which is exactly what the researchers found when they studied reader discussion on, with the ‘proportion of flagged posts and proportion of users with flagged posts … rising over time’.

We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits. The American personality psychologist Dan McAdams recently concluded that the US President Donald Trump’s overt aggression and insults have a ‘primal appeal’, and that his ‘incendiary Tweets’ are like the ‘charging displays’ of an alpha male chimp, ‘designed to intimidate’. If McAdams’s assessment is true, it would fit into a wider pattern – the finding that psychopathic traits are more common than average among leaders. Take the survey of financial leaders in New York that found they scored highly on psychopathic traits but lower than average in emotional intelligence. A meta-analysispublished this summer concluded that there is indeed a modest but significant link between trait psychopathy and leadership, which is important since psychopathy also correlates with poorer leadership.

We are sexually attracted to people with dark personality traits. Not only do we elect people with psychopathic traits to become our leaders, evidence suggests that men and women are sexually attracted, at least in the short term, to people displaying the so-called ‘dark triad’ of traits – narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism – thus risking further propagating these traits. One study found that a man’s physical attractiveness to women was increased when he was described as self-interested, manipulative and insensitive. One theory is that the dark traits successfully communicate ‘mate quality’ in terms of confidence and the willingness to take risks. Does this matter for the future of our species? Perhaps it does – another paper, from 2016, found that those women who were more strongly attracted to narcissistic men’s faces tended to have more children.

Don’t get too down – these findings say nothing of the success that some of us have had in overcoming our basic instincts. In fact, it is arguably by acknowledging and understanding our shortcomings that we can more successfully overcome them, and so cultivate the better angels of our nature.

Reading ability

Developing Executive Function in Learners.

Simple classroom strategies can assist students with deficits in executive function skills like time management and active listening.

Executive function is an umbrella term in neuroscience to describe the neurological processes involving mental control and self-regulation. Executive functions control and regulate cognitive and social behaviors like controlling impulses, paying attention, remembering information, planning and organizing time and materials, and responding appropriately to social situations and stressful situations.

Experts believe executive function is regulated by the frontal lobe of the brain—the prefrontal cortex. Because humans are born with brains that are not fully developed, children are not born with these skills, but they have the potential to develop them.

Some students do not develop executive functions to the same degree as their peers. For these students with deficits, additional support in the classroom may improve their development of executive function.


Addressing a deficit requires understanding the type of deficiency the student faces. If a student lacks knowledge, he or she does not know what to do or how to do a task. For example, if students lack the ability to regulate their impulses to speak while others are talking, the behavior of active listening should be explicitly taught by identifying examples of active listening. Educators might also create a chart with what it looks and sounds like when students are engaging in active listening.

A student may know what to do to complete a task, but may have trouble knowing when and how to apply the appropriate skills. For a student with this type of deficit, the teacher may confirm that he or she has all the required materials to complete a task. The teacher could provide a checklist with the necessary materials. For older students, the teacher could ask the students to generate the list and then gather the appropriate materials.

Metacognition: Another strategy for addressing deficits in executive function is using metacognitive language. For example, with a younger student, articulating the challenge could be useful. “I see that you are missing a pencil. You will need a pencil to complete the assignment. Where could you find one in the classroom?”

Displaying the steps or questions that students could ask themselves in the classroom is also helpful to promote independence with a skill. Students can repeat directions to a partner and then have a volunteer repeat the direction for the whole class. This process takes less than a minute but allows additional time for auditory processing and repetition for any students who may need it.

Time management: Posting schedules can be a useful tool in developing time management skills. A classroom schedule outlines the entire day and prepares students for what’s coming next. An activity schedule breaks down a block of time into smaller chunks and outlines how each period will be used and in what order activities will be presented. These schedules are commonly placed in spots where every student can refer to them during the day.

Long-term assignments can be particularly challenging for students with deficits in executive function. One way to address this issue is by directly teaching students how to map out larger projects and break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Use a calendar to determine when each smaller assignment will need to be finished, and place the smaller benchmark goals on the calendar.

Review before new learning begins: Provide opportunities for students to review previous learning. This review may be a quick oral presentation, or teachers can pair students and have them share what they remember from the previous day.

A review might also take the form of a mind map or concept map created in small groups. Concept maps are useful graphic organizers for note taking, comparing/contrasting, and writing. Graphic organizers can be particularly helpful for students with executive function deficits because organizing thoughts can be as difficult as organizing time and materials.

Teacher interaction: Teacher behavior is also influential in supporting students who may have deficits in executive function. Teachers should check in frequently with students who are known to have deficits and provide discrete support when needed. In addition, having a caring demeanor and using positive reinforcement with students with deficits can positively affect their school experience.


Environmental support means creating a space where children can thrive. Some easy ways to help students improve executive function include:

  • Post a daily schedule. Clear and consistent routines and procedures offer structure to students.
  • Provide visual supports such as posters with problem-solving steps or routines, and color-coded schedules and folders. Consider highlighting key words and ideas in texts.
  • Minimize clutter and create clearly defined areas in the classroom.


Executive function takes time to fully develop, and it develops at different rates in different children. The prefrontal cortex of the human brain is constantly growing and changing in young children as well as adolescents. Because of the human brain’s plasticity and enormous capacity for learning, it is possible to improve the executive functions of students with deficits through classroom strategies and support.