The Brighter Side of Education

How Using a Knowledge-Based Curriculum & Cognitive Science Increases Reading Success with Author Natalie Wexler

January 12, 2023 Dr. Lisa R. Hassler Season 1 Episode 7
The Brighter Side of Education
How Using a Knowledge-Based Curriculum & Cognitive Science Increases Reading Success with Author Natalie Wexler
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In this episode, I focus on curriculum as a variable for student success with education writer and author Natalie Wexler. She discusses the importance of using a knowledge-based curriculum in schools and explains how cognitive science plays a vital role in how we teach it.
This is important because the American nation's report card (NAEP) showed that 60 percent of high-school graduates were unprepared for postsecondary training or schooling and that racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps persist despite large-scale federal, state, and local reform initiatives aimed to improve student performance.
However, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy reported how studies identifying comprehensive, content-rich curriculum as a critical factor in student academic success was the common feature of academically high-performing countries as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
This podcast discuss what content-rich, knowledge-based curriculum is available to our schools now.

So here is the call to action: Make curriculum a top priority. Follow the research, use what cognitive scientists are telling us, and look at what is successful around the world. Use a content-rich, knowledge-based curriculum to give students the best chance at learning to read and to ultimately have a better future.

You can find out more by going to Natalie gives information about her books The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System--and How to Fix It (2019), and The Writing Revolution: Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades (2017). Sign up for her newsletter Minding the Gap to stay up to date with education and cognitive science!

To find more on knowledge-based curriculums visit

Want a free content-specific curriculum? Go to

Finally, here are two resources for effective

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The music in this podcast was written and performed by Brandon Picciolini of the Lonesome Family Band. Visit and follow him on Instagram.

Books I've Authored:
America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis: What we learned from COVID, A guide to help educational leaders, teachers, and parents change the game, is available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and iTunes.
My Weekly Writing Journal: 15 Week...

Curriculum and Cognitive Science with Author Natalie Wexler


·       Lisa Hassler

·       Natalie Wexler

LH: Welcome to the brighter side of Ed podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Lisa Richardson hassler here to enlighten and brighten the class classrooms in America through focused conversation on important topics in education. In each episode, I discuss problems we as teachers and parents are facing and what people are doing in their communities to fix it. What are the variables and how can we duplicate it to maximize student outcomes? In this episode, I focus on curriculum as a variable. Our nation's report card, NAEP, shows that 60% of high school graduates are unprepared for post secondary training or schooling and that racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps persist despite large scale federal, state and local reform initiatives aimed to improve student performance. So how do we change that? Well, recently the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy reported how studies identifying comprehensive, content rich curriculum as a critical factor in student academic success was the common feature of academically high performing countries as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment Pisa. So what is this curriculum and why does it work so well? Here to discuss curriculum in education is Natalie Waxler. She is an education writer and board member of the Knowledge Matters campaign's parent organization called Standards Work. She is the author of The Knowledge Gap the Hidden Cause of American's Broken Education System and how to Fix it. Published in 2019. And co author with Dr. Judith C. Hackman of The Writing Revolution advancing Thinking through Writing in All Subjects and Grades, published in 2017. She's also a senior contributor to the Education Channel on Welcome to the show, Natalie.

NW: Thank you, Lisa. I'm delighted to be here.

LH: Before we begin, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself as an education writer and what the Knowledge Matters campaign is?

NW: Sure. So I've been writing about education for maybe the last ten years or so, and as you mentioned, I've written or co authored those two books and I'd like to say that the area of my interest is literacy, cognitive science and fairness kind of sums it up. And I also do have a free substac newsletter called Minding the Gap if people are interested in subscribing and the Knowledge Matters Campaign, I'm glad you asked. It is an organization that's been around for some years now, maybe five, six years, but I think recently it's really been doing some great work, shining a spotlight on the importance of content rich, knowledge building curriculum. And there is a wealth of information at the Knowledge website, everything from articles that go into lesser or greater depth on these things, but also videos of interviews with teachers, parents, accounts of what goes on in classrooms that are using this kind of curriculum that can really be transformative. And it's particularly focused on the elementary level and mostly on literacy.

LH: So going back to your most recent book and The Hidden Cause of Americans Broken Education System and how to fix it, what do you believe is the cause to our broken education system and how do you recommend it be fixed?

NW: Well, of course, it's a bit of an oversimplification. There are lots of factors, but I do think this is a fundamental one that has been overlooked, which is that really has to do with the way we go about trying to teach kids to read. And there are two basic components to that. One is just teaching them how to decipher or decode words. And there have been a lot of problems with the way we've gone about that that's been getting a fair amount of attention lately. People may have heard a lot about the need for more phonics or a more systematic approach to phonics instruction, and that's important. But what I mostly focused on, and what the book mostly focuses on, is our approach to the other aspect of reading, which is comprehension, which is huge, really is very different from decoding words. And the standard approach to reading comprehension instruction, which takes a lot of time in the school day in elementary school, is to see it as a set of skills and strategies like finding the main idea or making inferences. And the theory is that you can just teach these skills in the abstract and have students really practice finding the main idea on texts that are easy for them to read on random topics, because it doesn't really matter. What they're reading as long as they're practicing the skill, and that that will equip them to find the main idea of pretty much anything that's put in front of them. But cognitive science has found that that is really not the way that reading comprehension works. It has much more to do with knowledge, either knowledge of the topic or general academic knowledge and vocabulary, than with some kind of abstract skill.

LH: Yeah, I would say that as a teacher, that was definitely the way I was trained to teach reading comprehension in first and second grades when I did that over the last 20 years. And it was always something that was kind of I didn't like, only because, along with other teachers, we would always go, oh my gosh, we're behind. The story of the week is this weekend. And it was immense amount of strategies and skills that were packed into the week. It wasn't just one. We were up to five a week. And so when you think of five skills and strategies to help with reading comprehension in one week, it was ridiculous. It was too much for us. I could imagine what it was like for kids. And so it was a lot of cyclical things where you would come back to the main idea and go, okay, we're doing this one again, but chunked into units and you would come back to those skills and strategies. But it always just felt like it was I would agree that disjointed abstract, we're teaching this skill. It happens to be with this story of the week. And I know that as a teacher and my colleagues at well did not care for that system, we felt as though it was not a really great way to do it. So I'm glad that that's been recognized, and I like the idea what you were talking yeah. And I think that that would be a relief for some teachers to hear, actually. Oh, there's a better way, because I think that's something that we struggled with as well as the students. And so how to be able to constantly it was almost every day, okay, we're going to do this one skill, and then the next day we're remembering about this one, but we're going to focus on this skill. And like I said, it was cyclical, so it was an ongoing issue. So I'm glad that there's been some focus on it. That leads me to my next question, and that is what is curriculum? And can you describe what is a knowledge based curriculum? And I have to say that this is stemming from there's a lot of conversation and debate over what really is curriculum, and a lot of people have different ideas as to what that is. So I would love your expert opinion on this.

NW: Yeah, I think that's a good question because it's a slippery term, means different things to different people. I would say it is a collection of well organized sequence of instructional materials, both for teachers and for students, that ideally take students through a logical sequence of learning so that when they are supposed to be learning the next thing in the curriculum. The curriculum has already built the background knowledge they need to learn whatever is expected for them to learn next. But there are all kinds of curricula out there. There are curricula that focus on these reading comprehension skills that we just talked about, and then there are curricula. That the kind that I would advocate that focus on content, on and on building academic knowledge and vocabulary. And I would say that in the elementary literacy world, that kind of curriculum didn't exist until maybe five or six years ago, really? And now there are about half a dozen of them, and they are described at some length at the knowledge matters campaign website. If people want to know, what are these different curricula and what do they do? And they all cover different bodies of knowledge in different ways. So there are choices for schools out there, but they all have, I'd say, a couple of things in common. These knowledge building curricula, or knowledge based, whatever you want to call it. One is that they are organized by topic rather than by the skill. Skill of the week, skill of the day, whatever.

LH: Yeah.

NW: And they spend at least two or three weeks and sometimes much more on a, on a rich topic. You know, it could be sea mammals. It could be one of these curricula spends time on the War of 1812 in second grade, and the kids love that. I know most American adults are like, what's that?

LH: Or going, wow, 1812, right?

NW: But, yeah, but they've already gotten the back where they've already if they've gotten this curriculum since kindergarten, they've already learned about the colonial era and the American Revolution. They understand all of the issues in the war of 1812. So it's not like, boom, here's this war, and you don't even know what Great Britain is. You don't really know what America is. But in addition to that, spending time on a topic. And that's important, by the way, because for kids to retain a vocabulary and information and long term memory, they need to hear the same vocabulary, the same concepts repeatedly in different contexts. So this current approach, we focus on skills. So we're just jumping from topic to topic. Clouds today, zebras Tomorrow doesn't give kids an opportunity to retain that information. And the other thing that these knowledge building curricula have in common is that they give all students in a classroom access to the same complex text. So grade level or above grade level text that these children might well not be able to read themselves. And that's really important because the best way, the most effective way to build academic knowledge and vocabulary in the first instance before kids are fluent readers is through reading aloud and discussion. And once kids through the reading, read-alouds and discussion, once they have vocabulary knowledge about a topic in long term memory, then they can read at a higher. Studies have shown they will be able to read at a higher level and write at a higher level about that topic once they've acquired the knowledge through read alouds and discussion. So those things read alouds and discussion of complex text with a focus on the content and questions that focus on the content rather than putting the skill in the foreground. That's really crucial.

LH: Yeah, I was looking at one of your articles that you had linked in your newsletter, talking a little bit about that, saying that learners that are learning on about a new topic need explicit instruction with teacherled, but plenty of interaction between the teacher and the students, working far better than the student directed inquiry or discovery. And having that factual information about a topic stored in long term memory is actually what enables people to think critically about it. So that would boost comprehension. So I could see that that was definitely a good point, a good aspect of the knowledge based curriculum. And then going back to you were mentioned the War of 1812 for second grade. And I know some of our listeners may think, wow, 1812, and in second grade, doesn't that come in high school or something? But actually I was looking at as part of that CKLA knowledge inventory, and so I was wondering about that myself, being in second grade and then first grade so long, like, did they have the other? And they most definitely do because going back to looking at PreK, it talks about important people in American history. And in kindergarten, there's colonial towns and townspeople, presidents and American symbols and so Columbus and Pilgrims and in first grade, so your early world civilizations and early American civilizations, it's all building on each other. So you're building that knowledge base. So by the time they're coming into second grade, they have a firm understanding of what would lead to that. And so it's not just like this disjointed abstract information we're throwing at them. They would really have the base of knowledge already there. So I just thought that was fantastic because I had wondered, like, do they get to the American symbols? Of course they do, but earlier. And so I think that's really wonderful. So how is a knowledge based curriculum then different than a skills based curriculum? I think you already had talked a little bit about how that was.

NW: The focus on. And it's not that you can never ask kids, so what's the main idea here? But it's not that we're teaching the skill and we'll bring in some text to teach the skill. Rather it is we're teaching this content, this subject, and maybe ask a question about the content that implicitly requires kids to make an inference or a prediction or whatever.

LH: Right.

NW: And using one other thing I'd like to mention is to use writing to help kids get at those deeper understandings. Writing is very hard, so it has to be done carefully. But if you do sequence it carefully, writing can be a really powerful supplement to or it's usually built into these curricula that they have students writing about what they're learning, which strangely, we often don't do in the standard approach. We often have a separate writing curriculum where kids are writing about some topic that they may not know very much about. And it's hard to read about a topic you don't know much about, but it's really impossible to write about it. So what I've been told is that once kids have all this information, kids who were reluctant writers often become eager writers because they're really excited about it and they want to show what they know and explain it to a reader.

LH: Yeah, I think that's one of the hardest things is when you give a writing assignment to a student and they look at the piece of paper and they're going, I don't know where to begin, or I don't know what to write about. But if they have that base of knowledge, then they have those critical thinking skills already developed based on the deep questions, based on the conversation, the higher context and text. So they're able to think about those ideas and maybe start to percolate their own opinions on them, which would lead them to maybe more questions and then have some ideas of better topics to be writing about. So I would see that it gets them a little bit more excited about it as well. Especially if you can stay on a topic for a couple of weeks at least. Then they don't feel like they have to race to get to the next week with the next topic or this is an old one and maybe doesn't flow or fit as well into the picture. So I think that when used with the knowledge based curriculum, that could kind of support it a little bit better. So that's exciting to hear and I know that's really what your second book is about. I mean, well, I wrote I said your second book, but your first book is on the writing. And is that really where that focus is on those skills and how writing is an important part of comprehension?

NW: Yeah, an important part of learning. And I want to make clear that it's the method that's described in that book, the Writing Revolution. It's also the name of an organization that provides training in the method. It's not my method. It was developed by my coauthor Judith Hoffman, who's a veteran educator and developed it over many years. And it's not a curriculum, it's a method that's designed to be adapted to any content that is being taught at any grade level. But writing helps to you have to, first of all, start with some knowledge of what you're writing about. That's a requirement. But in the process of writing we ideally deepen and cement that knowledge in long term memory and come to a better understanding of what when we're writing, we're constantly making connections, we're making inferences, we're finding the main idea and details. We're doing all of those things, but in a much more powerful way than sitting and reading some simple book on a topic we may not know anything about and supposedly practicing finding the main idea. But it is really as I mentioned, writing is really hard. I think it's probably the hardest thing we ask kids to do in school and so it's easy for inexperienced writers to become overwhelmed if we just ask them to write. So one of the fundamental principles of the Writing Revolution is we need to modulate that heavy cognitive load that writing imposes on working memory, which is a way of saying it's really hard. Right? And if writing is hard, then writing at length just makes it harder. So one of the principles is to modulate that cognitive load by starting writing instruction at the sentence level, if that is what students need, and embedding it in the content they're writing about. And eventually the method gets through argumentative essays. It doesn't stop at sentences, but that sentence level work is crucial for laying the foundation for later independent writing.

LH: Excellent. Recently we've been hearing a lot of discussion about the science of reading, the explicit instruction in phonics. But what are some of the key differences between what cognitive scientists have discovered about the process of learning, including the science of reading, and the way most educators have been trained.

NW: Yeah, I mean, I would just take a minute to say that the science of reading, that's a term, it's like a lot of these terms in education is starting to mean different things to different people. And often it is defined sort of mostly in reference to phonics. I'm not saying that science of reading advocates have said phonics is all there is to reading. They don't say that. They say, yes, comprehension is important too. But the focus has been on problems with phonics or foundational skills instruction. And there's a growing assumption, I think, out there, which is dangerous, that that's the only thing we need to change about our approach to literacy instruction. And in fact, if you look at the science of reading or the science of learning more broadly, there are a lot of things wrong, as we've just been discussing with our approach to comprehension as well. And I think some of the misconceptions about what the science of reading actually says come from the National Reading Panel report, which was issued in 2000. And it's great on the phonemic awareness and phonics side, but it's, it's often seen. So they, they define these five pillars of early literacy. You may have seen this infographic that looks like a Greek temple with five pillars phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. And all of that report talks about in the section on comprehension is teaching comprehension strategies. And so the assumption has been, well, that's all you need to do for comprehension under the science of reading. In fact, what that panel asked when it came to comprehension was not how can we help kids understand what they read? It was a much narrower question. It was, is there evidence that teaching comprehension strategies works? And they found, yes, there was evidence, but that doesn't mean that that's all you need for kids to be able to understand. And they didn't mention anything about background knowledge or becoming familiar with the complex syntax of written language. That just wasn't what they were looking at. It doesn't mean those things are not important. And so I think we have to look beyond this sort of narrowly defined idea of the science of reading to understand how we can help kids comprehend, especially comprehend, complex text. And so there's a lot that we can draw on from cognitive science generally. And there's studies, a number of studies have found that, for example, the baseball study is one of them. Knowledge of the topic is going to be more important in understanding a text than general reading comprehension skill or ability. And this was done with kids, some of whom were poor readers, according to a standardized test. But they were baseball experts. And it turns out when they were reading about baseball, they did really well understanding what they were reading better than the good readers who didn't know much about baseball. And it's not just topic knowledge. It's general academic knowledge and vocabulary. The more of that you have, the better your chances of understanding anything you're asked to read.

LH: So what are some cognitive science strategies that teachers can incorporate into their current practices to promote learning?

NW: Yeah, I'm glad you asked, because these are not things that teachers learn during their training. There's been this you know, it's a systemic problem. It's not like anybody wants to make teachers jobs harder than they need to be. But that's in fact what's happened, because there's been this divide between schools of education and teacher prep programs on the one hand, and what goes on in departments of psychology and cognitive psychologists in the same university who are studying the learning process. These two groups don't communicate. And so what teachers are often trained to believe, often contradicts what cognitive psychologists have found will work. So one of the strategies that cognitive scientists have found really is helpful for learning, for teaching, is called retrieval practice. And that's just the idea that the more you practice retrieving a certain item of information, the more likely you are to be able to retrieve it when you need it. This is important because when we're learning things, when we're learning new things, that imposes a burden on working memory called cognitive load. Because working memory is very limited, it can only juggle maybe four or five things for about new items for about 20 seconds before it starts to get overwhelmed. And we don't have the cognitive capacity to understand what we're trying to take in. But if you have stuff stored in long term memory and you can just bring it out when you need it, you don't have to juggle that in working memory, and you have space for understanding more new information. So retrieval practice could be like quizzes after students have learned something, not not a quiz to give them a grade, but a low stakes quiz just to help reinforce that information in their memories and get it to stick. And it doesn't you know, even if you get the wrong answer, just the effort of trying to retrieve it is helpful. Of course, you should be told what the right answer is. You do need that feedback. And writing is another form of retrieval practice. If it's done in a way that modulates cognitive load, that can be extremely effective. There are also things like spaced practice, so you don't want to just study things like cramming before an exam doesn't work as well as spacing out, doing a little bit each day. And along with that, there's something called interleaving, which is sort of once you've taught one concept, it's a good idea to bring that back in, bring in concepts that have already been taught, and mix things up a bit. So again, it reinforces those things in long term memory. But there's much more about this. I can recommend a website called I think it's org. And they have yes,, and they have, I think, six different strategies that they talk about. It's really directed at students, primarily, but these things are all they require some effort. So students, especially younger students who may not be surfing the internet, they may not do these on their own. And I think, really, teachers need to be aware of them because teachers can have students do them, and students will benefit, you know, even if they find it initially kind of a drag to have these quizzes or whatever. I was listening to a college professor of cognitive psychology who said she did this with her course in psychology. She had students do these low state quizzes after every class, and at first they kind of grumbled about it, but then they saw it was really helping them learn, so they thought it was a great idea.

LH: Yeah. And that is something that I think what is exit tickets. Sometimes teachers can do that, and that can be in the form of low stakes testing, where it's just, tell me what you remember about this. And it's just that retrieval. So I think that some teachers already do that in the form of things like exit tickets or even cahoot quizzes. They really like those cahoot clicker games where it's competition. And so that's a way that you can incorporate where it's that retrieval process. But yeah. And so make it so that maybe they're more engaged, but the long term effect is that they're going to be learning more, and it's going to be in their deeper long term memory. So that's exciting. Yeah. Well, thank you for that. To wrap up the conversation, I just wanted to go back to the curriculum that you had talked about for those listeners who might be admins or principals or even teachers that maybe are saying, hey, listen, maybe we want to look at a different curriculum for this upcoming school year. What would you recommend they use? Knowing what you know about cognitive science and research.

NW: Well, I don't endorse any particular curriculum. I think there are different choices out there, and they're going to be different ones that are right for different districts, different schools. We've mentioned Core Knowledge Language Arts, which is published by Amplify. There's also a free version of it available at Core Knowledge. It's a foundation that initially developed the curriculum, and it's the same curriculum. It's just if you go to the Core Knowledge website, you can download it for free, but you will have to print out all of the resources. But it's a great way to see what is in this curriculum and maybe try it out, try out a unit. And if you go to Knowledge, the Knowledge Matters campaign website, you'll see that the six there are five others in addition to CKLA that are described. The ones that I'm most familiar with. In addition to CKLA, there's one called Wit and Wisdom. And all of these have different, as I said, cover different bodies of knowledge, have different aspects that might appeal to different schools. I think CKLA has the most historical content. Kind of appeals to me because I have a background in history as a historian. Wit and Wisdom, one of the nice things about that curriculum is that it incorporates works of art that students look at and discuss nice. There's one called El Education that has more of a project based approach and with deeper dives and they spend much more time, there are fewer topics. So CKLA might cover twelve different topics over the course of a school year and El might cover just four. So you could have to figure out what it is would work best for you. And there's some others that are quite good that you can read more about. It the Knowledge Matters campaign.

LH: Excellent. Well, thank you for that. Okay, so here is the call to action as we wrap up. Make curriculum a top priority. Follow the research. Use what cognitive scientists are telling us and look at what is successful around the world. Use a content rich, knowledge based curriculum to give students the best chance at learning to read and to ultimately have a better future. Thank you, Natalie, for joining me today to talk about the importance of using a knowledge based curriculum in schools and for explaining how cognitive science plays a vital role in how we teach it. To learn more, visit her website at www dot natalie that's Nataliewexler. And if you have a story about what's working in your schools that you'd like to share, you can email me at Dr. Lisa or visit my website at www dot dr. and send me a message. It is the mission of this podcast to shine light on the good in education so that it spreads affecting positive change in schools. So let's keep working together to find solutions that focus on our children's successes.

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