Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

by Robert Pondiscio
January 9th, 2009

A little over a year ago, I saw Dan Willingham give a talk at the Education Trust conference in Washington, DC titled “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading.” He demonstrated convincingly why background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension–and why broad, content-rich education is the best way to ensure kids can understand what they read.  Having been force-fed the idea that all kids needed is the ability to decode, vocabulary and “reading strategies” in order to comprehend, I thought – I still do — the phrase “teaching content is teaching reading” ought to be on the lips of every elementary educator in America.  

Dan has made an intriguing video on the main ideas of his presentation and posted it on YouTube. It’s terrific. 

Great work, Dr. Willingham.  If you know an elementary school teacher, forward the link to Dan’s video.


  1. Fab video, even though Dan barely makes an appearance (smiling). One thought on the recommendation: forward the video to every teacher you know, not just the elementary folks.

    The video does a nice job of debunking the myth of “decoding is all that really matters” (and appears on the scene at a very opportune moment in the review of ed policy/practice around reading). But it does more than that. It demonstrates–without a lot of jargon–that learning to “read” efficiently is a very fluid and individualized process, and not as linear and predictable as some might believe/wish. We needn’t wait for kids to develop the skills of decoding, phonemic awareness, fluency, etc. to surround them with rich content, as they’re acquiring it continuously. Not a linear, sequential process–but a language-knowledge-gestalt thing.

    Secondary teachers, who often believe they teach content but should not have to teach reading, should also be aware of the “I read it, but I don’t get it” syndrome. We’re all reading teachers, all the time.

    You do realize this runs somewhat counter to the increasing specialization we find in K-12 schooling (somewhat driven by HQT language in NCLB)? Today we have more reading specialists and/or reading skills coaches, science teachers who have stopped discussing interesting articles from science magazines (not tested), the disappearance of integrated humanities courses in HS (too hard to track test results), and a phalanx of striated learning disabilities specialists to diagnose maladies that might well disappear with more knowledge. It’s not about surrounding kids with rich, layered, integrated content –it’s about sifting out what they “need” to know and measuring their skills, these days.

    I will be interested to see what people across the edupolitical spectrum have to say about the video, but I give it five stars.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 10, 2009 @ 11:51 am

  2. This is why I really think the tecno-ethusiasts are dangerously misinformed when they claim that computer skills have made learning facts obsolete. Sure, I can quickly pull up a YouTube video of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But to really understand what he’s saying in it requires a significant level of background knowledge. I discovered this last year with my then-5 year old, that I had to explain to her not just the complex vocabulary but also all the references he made to the Bible, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc. Had I not done so, much of the speech would’ve gone completely over her head.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — January 10, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  3. I am constantly appalled by the inability of most Americans to understand that ‘reading comprehension’ is a false construct. If you do not understand what you have read, you will not understand it if someone reads it to you. It really is that simple. Reading comprehension is comprehension–period. The divisibility of decoding skills and understanding is easily demonstrated: I could read an academic paper to an audience of specialists without understanding what I said, yet my listeners would understand me perfectly. It would be absurd to say that I hadn’t been taught to read properly.

    Go to any university library, and it will be packed with books you won’t understand. This does not mean that you are a poor reader–it simply means that you don’t know everything. The Gestalt notion that ‘reading’ is some mystical whole ruined two years of my son’s life, and for the last 19 years my life’s work has been to teach basic phonological skills to other children who have been damaged by this pernicious nonsense.

    We have won the war of ideas in Britain, where the educational system is coming to accept that decoding skills can be taught very quickly and easily to very young children–this is now official policy. Once these skills are in place, then children’s overall cognitive growth can take off. Children who can decode effortlessly read more, and the more you read, the more you learn.

    However, it is not usually enough merely to read a lot. Schools have a vital role to play in introducing them to the world of culture and ideas–if this is done, children will read much more challenging material, and their vocabularies will grow. But the whole process cannot even begin until decoding skills are in place. The evidence from Scotland and England demonstrates that teaching these skills is in fact a very simple matter–even if children have learning difficulties–so long as you use a straightforward linear approach.

    The American obsession with reading comprehension has–as Prof Hirsch has long argued–led to an absurd emphasis on teaching formal ‘reading comprehension skills’. In fact, by far the most important determinant on a ‘reading comprehension’ test is one’s domain knowledge. Jeanne Chall pointed out that after the age of 9, reading tests are mostly tests of verbal intelligence. There may be a significant genetic component to this, but without question the quality of one’s education is the major factor.

    Comment by Tom Burkard — January 16, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  4. Writing is the uncoding of the spoken word. Reading is the decodiing of what is written. Comprehension has nothing to do with it. If I want you to “Get me the trick wedge tacker” you won’t comprehend it if I say it or if you read it either. Comprehension requires knowledge beyond reading.

    Comment by tom zurinskas — January 16, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  5. As a HomeSchool mom I have researched every “theory” from Phonics to Whole Language; and, from direct teaching to total unschooling. A journey that eventually brought me back to my starting position. It does not matter what you read, hear, or write if you don’t understand the context. Without context you don’t have comprehension. Without comprehension you cannot show intelligence on a subject. Without intelligence on the subject no one can comprehend what you are saying. The end result is the communication loop (coding/decoding/coding/decoding etc) is never completed (coding//decoding/learning//recoding etc) and knowledge is not passed on to the next generation.

    Unfortunately, as we gain more education we get a more narrow focus on the subject. Instead of adding our deep but narrowed knowledge base to the greater more holistic vantage point, we create theories from our narrowed position. This is not working for our kids because they don’t comprehend beyond their own lives or the fabricated lives of their visual idols (TV and Music). The final loss is not just the ability to read well but to dream big beyond their current circumstances. That loss hurts us all.

    Comment by Dee Adams — January 18, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

  6. That makes so much sense! I remember being SO bored in school when they taught all those reading strategies. I thought, “I know how to read, can we move on now?”
    This is a great confidence booster to us homeschoolers who wonder if we’re doing enough when we take our kids out to explore and learn as much as we can, but don’t really do a lot of structured “lessons” at home :D

    Comment by Miranda — January 19, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

  7. I tried accessing the video but got the information that it was no longer available in YouTube. PLease let meknow how and where I can access it. Thank you!

    Comment by aurora — January 20, 2009 @ 1:18 am

  8. This video is perfect for the teacher training I do on reading instruction. Having taught at a “Core Knowledge” school, I have seen first hand the benefit to reading ability through increased background knowldege.I taught in a public elementary school that adopted Core Knowledge as a reform model before NCLB. Once fully implemented we saw increased proficiency scores on state assessments in reading and math. As the years went on, our staff attributed this positive change to the fact that our students had a broader knowledge base. When AYP came into being we were one of the top 22 in a system of over 200 schools. As one of our parents stated” Our students know stuff!” In my trainings, this video will be a wonderful compliment to my message that teaching reading is every teacher’s responsibility. Our content teachers need more professional development so that they can also become better teachers of reading in the valuable time students spend in their classes.

    Comment by T.D. — April 9, 2009 @ 10:15 am

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