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Elementary student in class thinking pensively about the lesson
Margaret Goldberg
Right to Read
Margaret Goldberg

When Language Is a Wall

Many texts contain language (figurative and literal) that can be a barrier to comprehension. We need to see those language walls and teach students how to scale them so their reading has meaning.

When I began to learn about phonics instruction, I saw spelling puzzles in words I’d never noticed before, and I gained appreciation for the difficulty of learning to decode. Now, as an increasing number of students at my school can read accurately, the challenge of comprehension is looming large.

It’s hard to identify potential barriers to comprehension when students read a text we ourselves can easily understand. And it’s harder yet to fix breakdowns in comprehension.

Language is pretty invisible if you know it well… if you don’t know it well, then it is a big wall.

Lily Wong Fillmore

I taught a group of third and fourth graders who were in fluency intervention, and this passage was at the center of the lesson:


We focused first on reading with accuracy and prosody. Then I asked, “What is this passage about?” and I expected students to say, “How water moves through trees.”

Instead, a debate unfolded:

Student 1: Celery

Me: Can you say more about that?

Student 1: The passage is about celery.

Me: How do you know?

Student 2: Because most of the passage is about celery. 

Me: Is that true?

Student 3: Yes! It says “celery” here, and here, and here.

By this time, several students had begun to support their case by counting the number of times the word “celery” appeared in the passage.

Me: Does anyone disagree and think this passage is about something other than celery?

Student 4: I think it’s about trees and how water moves through them.

Me: What makes you think that?

Some students held up their papers, pointing to the title.

Me: So some students think this passage is about celery and others think it’s about trees. How will we choose what to write in our gist statements?

I asked this question, truly not knowing the answer. I had been caught off-guard by the challenge this text posed. In my mind, I fast-forwarded to imagine the outcome of the strategy I usually use to illuminate the main idea of a text. I typically bracket each paragraph and ask students to identify the subject (“who” or “what”) and a predicate (“did what”) of each paragraph. It’s often easier to see what the whole piece is about after making sense of each paragraph. But that wouldn’t work with this passage.

While the words and sentences in the text were relatively simple, the piece was structured around an analogy which presented an unfamiliar challenge. Only the title and three meager sentences, of many, were explicitly about trees. In each paragraph, the majority of the text was about celery. Even the picture that accompanied the passage was of celery in a glass of water.

At that moment, it felt like everything in the text was conspiring to make an explanation difficult. I quickly began to think through how I might convince my students that introductory and concluding sentences can and should carry more weight with the reader than the (more interesting and more easily visualizable) parts in the middle.

Thankfully, a student raised her hand:

“Remember how last year we had those carnations and we put them in cups of water with blue food coloring and then the flowers turned blue?” 

The class nodded enthusiastically and she continued to explain:

“The directions in the passage for the celery, it’s the same directions we followed for the carnations. But the point isn’t the celery or the carnation or if the dye is blue or red. The point is that the experiment shows how water moves through plants…”

A few students called out, “Trees!”

“ water moves through plants or trees. The passage is about how water moves through trees and there’s an experiment to help explain.”

And at this point several students held up their papers again to point to the title.

Me: Let’s read through it one more time and think to ourselves, if this whole passage explains how water moves through trees, do I understand what’s happening?”

This discussion stuck with me long after the lesson. I was proud of my students — they had worked their way to comprehension of a text through discussion — but I felt worried about my own lack of preparation. How had I not seen how difficult it would be to make sense of the passage? Why did I assume that because the text (purpose-written for a fluency intervention) was a full level or two below the grade of my students, that meaning would come easily?

My students could read the words accurately, string the phrases together with expression, and they even had experience from an experiment like the one detailed in the passage — and yet many of them were lost. Only one student seemed to connect relevant background knowledge to the text. And if this text was hard, how difficult was it for my students to make sense of the grade level texts they encountered outside of intervention class?

Had my students left first grade reading at grade level, they would have gained experience reading and talking about text while in the second grade; countless texts similar to and more complex than “How Water Moves Through Trees.” And by now, in third and fourth grade, it would have been easier for them to read and comprehend a text like this.

I was attempting to compensate for missed reading opportunities with intervention and was feeling the challenges of making up for lost time. I often come back to this quote, from Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science:

Researchers now estimate that 95 percent of all children can be taught to read by the end of first grade, with future achievement constrained* only by students’ reasoning and listening comprehension abilities.

Louisa Moats

The first time I came upon the quote, years ago, I was flabbergasted to realize that even the “best” schools are severely underperforming. And I’ve come back to it, again and again, to emphasize the importance of early literacy so that every child leaves the primary grades reading.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed what may actually be the most important part of the quote from Louisa Moat — the asterisk. Right after the phrase, “with future achievement constrained” is an asterisk that leads to this footnote at the bottom of the article:

*It is important to note that students’ reasoning and comprehension abilities can also be enhanced through informed instruction. As students’ subject-matter knowledge and vocabulary grow, so will their capacity to think critically. 

If we assume that fluent reading combined with students’ spoken language will result in reading comprehension, we will never close the achievement gap.

Texts, even those written for the primary grades, contain language (figurative and literal) that can be a barrier to comprehension. We need to see those language walls and teach students how to scale them so their reading has meaning and texts can provide the learning opportunities they deserve.  

About the Author

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of the Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
October 19, 2023