A wise friend on Twitter this morning posted, apropos of this thread, "Time to look much harder at the education kids receive & not so much at those who deliver it."
To which I can only say, amen. Success with struggling inner city school is seldom attributable to a single factor. If a school is successful with TC Readers and Writers Workshop (as evidenced by state test scores), I'd want to know more about the other factors that might contribute to that success, i.e., a commitment to content and enrichment in other parts of the school day.
The best argument I can make for why content is essential to reading comprehension is a well-known study that was performed some years ago: researchers looked at junior high school students who were either "good" or "poor" readers based on standardized test scores. In both of those groups, there were some kids who knew a lot about baseball and some who knew little. All of the kids were given a passage describing a half inning of a baseball game and as they read, they were asked to move players around a model baseball field to illustrate the actions they were reading about.
If reading comprehension were a transferable skill that could be taught, practiced, and mastered—-the way we teach it and test it-—then the students who were "good" readers should have had no trouble outperforming the "poor" readers, right? Either you’re a good reader or you’re not. And once you become a good reader, you’re always going to be a good reader, no matter what. Right? So what did this experiment reveal?
“Good readers” who didn’t know baseball got 18.8 out of a possible 40 items correct. “Poor readers” who knew baseball: 27.5 out of 40
You read that correctly. The poor readers with high content knowledge outperformed good readers with low content knowledge. Put differently, knowing a lot about the subject MADE them good readers. Knowing this, it makes no sense to separate content knowledge from reading. If you want to achieve broad, general competence in reading, you must have broad general knowledge.
Teaching content IS teaching reading.
Now let's go back to our kids at PS 277 who read books they choose based on their own interest, and write about topics they find appealing. We teach such children the techniques and habits of good readers so that they might learn and practice those techniques:
“Good readers ask questions”
“Good readers create pictures in their minds”
“Good readers make connections when they read”
If you are reading about unfamiliar topics (such as those you might encounter on a state reading test) how will these strategies help? In the research referenced above, how does it help to "create pictures in my mind" of a baseball game when I know nothing of the game?
In short, it is not enough to teach children what good readers and writers DO. We must also teach them what good readers and writers KNOW.