Reading War II: Content Knowledge vs. Reading Strategies

by Robert Pondiscio
January 19th, 2009

If phonics vs. whole language was Round One of the reading wars, the new battle is shaping up to be reading strategies vs. content knowledge, says Dan Willingham at Britannica Blog.  “Like Round 1 of the battle, one side is mostly right (content knowledge) but there is some merit on the other side,” says Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Most of us think about reading in a way that is fundamentally incorrect. We think of it as transferable, meaning that once you acquire the ability to read, you can read anything. That is true for only part of what it takes to read. It’s true for decoding—the ability to translate written symbols into sounds….But being able to decode letter strings fluently is only half of reading. In order to understand what you’re reading, you need to know something about the subject matter. And that doesn’t just mean that you need to know the vocabulary—you need to have the right knowledge of the world.

Willingham produced a YouTube video that underscores the connections between content knowledge and comprehension.  His blog post points out what virtually every elementary school teacher knows: once children learn to decode, reading instruction is almost exclusively focused on comprehension “strategies”–asking students to find the main idea of passage, identify the author’s purpose, etc.  Reading strategies work “but it’s a one-time boost,” he notes.  “Fifty sessions of practice is no better than five sessions of practice” since strategies serve mainly to give students a better idea of what reading is for.

In early grades, there is tremendous emphasis on decoding, and there must be. But this emphasis leads kids to feel that if they’ve decoded a passage, then they have read it, whereas teachers want them to have the idea that they shouldn’t be satisfied with decoding—they need to understand. Reading strategies help drive home this new notion of reading—that it’s about communication. Small wonder that practicing reading strategies gives no added benefit. Reading strategies are an easily-learned trick, like checking your work in math. Useful, to be sure, but not something that needs to be practiced.  I’ve discussed this matter in more detail here.

This is important stuff, dimly appreciated inside schools and as a practical matter, not at all in the education policy and advocacy communities.  The message needs to be delivered early, often and loud: boosting class time spent on reading instruction is of little use, and could actively be damaging kids if that time is coming at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum.  The title of Dan’s video says it best:  teaching content IS teaching reading.

“The tragic irony is that schools desperately trying to meet AYP are reportedly cutting time from subjects like social studies and science to devote more and more time to reading. Unless they are using content-rich reading materials, that strategy not only won’t work, it will actually backfire,” Willingham writes.

Willingham is not sanguine about that “people will be persuaded by what is truly a mountain of data,” but if it takes Round Two of the reading wars to drive this point into the consciousness of parents, policymakers and educators, the fight will be well worth it.


  1. This is important stuff, dimly appreciated inside schools and as a practical matter, not at all in the education policy and advocacy communities… and ed schools.

    Comment by tm willemse — January 19, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  2. If you don’t think background knowledge of the subject matters, read the account of a cricket match found late in Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers. If you can visualize the action clearly, you must understand cricket. I have always been a serious reader, I read and understand ordinary British English and I have a general idea how cricket is played, but I can’t say that I really see that game.

    Comment by momof4 — January 19, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  3. Many people I taught with were essentially unfamiliar with the Core Knowledge philosophy but subscribed to it anyway. It was the district’s mantra that kids first learned to read (preK-2) so that later (3-6) they were able to read to learn.

    Also unbeknownst to many of my colleagues was the importance of verbal mothers which often led to well rounded children on many subjects. These parents were providing additional learning time for their children via all the (content) discussions they had with their children for the first five years of their lives. It goes without saying this was also an enormous advantage in the language development of each of these kids.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 19, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

  4. Interesting post. I, too was struck by this claim:

    “This is important stuff, dimly appreciated inside schools and as a practical matter, not at all in the education policy and advocacy communities.”

    I’m not sure that a working concept of what reading is for is “dimly appreciated” inside schools. Some of that emphasis on decoding, followed by endless strategies, comes from policy and the limited nature of what can be measured by mandated accountability testing–not from any desire on the part of teachers to repetitively use strategies. I think a large majority of teachers know what reading is for, but they may not know how to turn that into engaging lessons. Or they may not be allowed to, in scripted instructional models.

    I have a friend who teaches a HS course called “Reading for Pleasure.” What started, a few years ago, as a catch-all class for a very mixed group of kids who needed to fill an opening their schedule, has turned into a well-developed course she teaches every hour of the day.

    Her students read widely, write about what they’ve read, and when they find a book they like, she can recommend 10 other books they might be interested in–she’s a human Amazon Recommends. Testimonies from kids who “hated to read” until they got to her class are legion. And, best of all, it’s the one class in the school that is utterly democratic–AP kids and special ed students get comfortable together and read for an hour each day in her room.

    For her highest-functioning kids, who spend the rest of the day reading college-level textbooks, RFP class is a blessed relief, and a chance to explore fun literary genres that aren’t on the AP list. For her struggling readers, it’s a chance to read without having to be endlessly quizzed about the main idea, the POV, the topic sentence, etc. They can read about things they’re interested in. And being interested in something can lead to career goals, civic engagement, new knowledge and…pleasure. Who knew?

    But back to policy. Over the years, my friend has looked at testing data before and after kids take RFP–and there is some evidence that students, especially those who come in at lower levels, make gains in reading comprehension after taking RFP. But guess which class has been targeted for elimination in the budget crunch, as “fluff” courses give way to “rigorous” courses?

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 19, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

  5. Hi Nancy. To clarify, what I think is dimly appreciated, even by elementary school teachers is the connection between content and comprehension. Clearly, teachers understand what reading is for, but per Dan’s post, we tend to teach reading as a stand-alone skill: First decoding, then vocabulary and reading strategies. If it were widely understood that a) content knowledge drives comprehension and b) reading strategies were of limited utility, then we wouldn’t spend years — literally, years — reminding students about strategies and practicing them. We’d be enriching them by exposing them to history, geography, science and the arts.

    I have to question the idea (if I understand you correctly) that it’s ed policy that has turned reading instruction into mere strategy lessons. If you’re referring to NCLB, that didn’t happen until 2002, and strategy instruction was well entrenched as the primary form of reading instruction by then. It’s been a long time since I studied this, but my recollection is that there were seven reading strategiees identified by David Pearson and his colleagues 25 or 30 years ago, and that his work forms the basis of the reading strategy instruction we practice to this day.

    One of Pearson’s seven strategies was teaching children to “activate prior knowledge” about their reading. But clearly it’s impossible to activate knowledge you do not have. And that’s what’s “dimply appreciated: if we want kids to be better readers, we should be giving them a rich, full curriculum, not narrowing their horizons to pure reading instruction, insisting (tacitly or explicitly) that reading is a transferable skill. It ain’t.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 19, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

  6. What’s stopping teachers from exposing kids to history, geography, science, and the arts? Their dim understanding of the connection between content and comprehension? Or the fact that history, geography, science and the arts aren’t on the test?

    I fully agree with Dan’s post–it’s the characterization of teachers committing to decoding-followed-by-strategies as a professional choice that I am a little dubious about. Reading strategy instruction–reading programs and professional development–is chosen by districts or school administrators, designated as “best” for the students they serve. And programs are often chosen to result in high test scores, as evidence of improved reading skills–not an increase in student knowledge. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is.

    I’m hardly blaming NCLB for this practice. We’ve had statewide assessments in Michigan for 30 years, and we’ve also been correlating tested skills with “effective” instructional programs for 30 years. And yeah, before the tests, there were teachers whose reading “programs” were a disgraceful mess. Still–let’s not claim that *teachers* don’t get the link between what kids know and reading comprehension, therefore choose endless reading strategy worksheets, limiting time for important and rich curriculum.

    I love what Dan Willingham and you are saying here–kids need to know about a wide range of things, in order to understand why we read. Stephen Krashen said this: “We learn to read by understanding what is written. Our ability to decode complex words is the result of reading, not the cause.”

    The fact that nobody threw tomatoes at Krashen for saying that is a sign that we may be making headway in improving teaching and learning.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 20, 2009 @ 12:26 am

  7. But Nancy, you’re illustrating my point when you ask, “What’s stopping teachers from exposing kids to history, geography, science, and the arts? Their dim understanding of the connection between content and comprehension? Or the fact that history, geography, science and the arts aren’t on the test?”

    Those subjects ARE on the test.

    Dan’s video makes the point that there’s a strong correlation between broad general knowledge and reading test scores. If we understood that, there wouldn’t be this mad rush to drill home test-taking strategies and reading strategy instruction would not dominate the way we teach reading. We would understand that a broad curriculum is BOTH the best course of reading instruction and the best test prep, and our use of school time would reflect that. Instead, as Dan pointed out, the average first-grader spends 2% of class time on social studies, 4% on science and 62% on ELA. This isn’t mandated by government policy, but a reaction to it.

    Likewise, take a look at the results from earlier this month of the National Early Literacy panel. David K. Dickinson, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told EdWeek the panel’s report “places a very strong emphasis on the narrow range of skills related to decoding, phonemic awareness, and other memory kinds of skills, and places in a second-tier language and conceptual knowledge.” Vocabulary, oral language, and background knowledge, he added, may not demonstrate their value until 3rd or 4th grade when children need to comprehend more complex texts and information across subject areas. “I’m not at all questioning the importance of those skills outlined in the report,” he said. “What concerns me greatly is that the message that might be taken by practitioners is to further narrow [instruction] and focus on the discrete skills.” The members of the panel are all academics, not policymakers.

    Still I’m happy to concede the point. I have ZERO interest in blaming anyone for what’s going on in schools. How we got into this mess matters less than getting out of it. Indeed, my interest is simply in getting everyone who’s anywhere near education to understand that regardless of how you feel about accountability and standardized testing, curriculum narrowing is the enemy of reading achievement.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 20, 2009 @ 6:25 am

  8. Robert, thank you for making your point about the interaction between content knowledge and the ability to read content. I am coming fresh from Obama’s speech in which he urged all of us to accept responsibility for the improvements that our country needs. I sometimes feel, in conversations with teachers, that many have resigned from any sense of personal responsibility. This does not say that they do not care profoundly about teaching or about their students. But there is something of a scapegoating bad attitude that creeps in. Sort of a “they want me to improve reading scores, well fine, but it’s going to cost them,” kind of reaction that leads to overlooking what we know about all of the qualities that go into reading (even reading as it is measured on standardized tests). As a result, we haven’t improved scores very much–but other important content areas are being held hostage.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — January 20, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  9. [Margo/Mom] “I sometimes feel, in conversations with teachers, that many have resigned from any sense of personal responsibility. This does not say that they do not care profoundly about teaching or about their students. But there is something of a scapegoating bad attitude that creeps in. Sort of a “they want me to improve reading scores, well fine, but it’s going to cost them,” kind of reaction that leads to overlooking what we know about all of the qualities that go into reading.

    [Nancy] You’re leaving teachers in a “damned if they do/damned if they don’t” situation here. Either they focus on the tested strategies (which is what their administrators are demanding that they do) or they put their energies into deeper reading for content mastery and take the risk that their students will not be able to parrot back the topic sentence or identify two think-and-search questions. Which would be a crisis indeed in a school struggling to make AYP. And if you don’t think that’s what’s being measured on most statewide assessments, up through the 7th and 8th grade, you haven’t seen a reading test lately.

    So “we” know what qualities go into solid reading comprehension– but teachers with their bad attitudes are refusing to teach in ways that build knowledge? And are using the tests as an excuse? Because teachers have resigned from any sense of personal responsibility? And you know this…how?

    [Robert]“… the average first-grader spends 2% of class time on social studies, 4% on science and 62% on ELA. This isn’t mandated by government policy, but a reaction to it…”

    [Nancy] Well, we could call that an unintended consequence: a policy that was not designed to narrow curriculum but, de facto, does. This is not an argument about that point, however. I agree with everything you wrote, Robert, in both post and comments. My hackles raise, however (obviously) when any suggestion of ways to improve or re-think curriculum and instruction begin with an indictment of teachers and the decisions they make in the classroom.

    I began teaching in 1974, and can say, definitively, that teacher autonomy has gradually been reduced over the past three and a half decades. Generally for the better, as the standards movement and continuous research on best practice have become part of the understanding of what it means to be a good teacher. So if we’re discussing an important issue–and this is an important re-think about reading comprehension–let’s not begin the discussion by assuming that teachers, en masse, don’t understand or appreciate the connection between comprehension and content.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 20, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

  10. I enjoyed Dan Willingham’s article, and I see Nancy’s point. I have objected from the start to the overemphasis on reading strategies–but in PDs and ed courses, all I heard about was strategies, strategies, strategies. An ed professor said once (or more than once), “The content is just the vehicle for the strategy.”

    Several misconceptions fuel the stragegy craze. Among educators and policymakers there is confusion not only about reading comprehension, but about (a) books’ inherent value and (b) the optimal level of abstraction in learning (Willingham has discussed both points in various articles).

    The “strategy pushers” see strategies not only as the first key to comprehension, but also as the primary good that one can take from a book. That is, they often see the contents of the book as secondary in value to the strategies one might apply to it.

    I adamantly disagree. In The Wind in the Willows, Toad’s character is inherently important, as is the language that conveys it. Reading strategies pale before the following:

    “Ho, ho!” he said to himself aas he marched along with his chin in the air, “what a clever Toad I am! There is surely no animal equal to me for cleverness in the whole world! My enemies shut me up in prison, encircled by sentries, watched night and day by warders; I walk out through them all, by sheer ability coupled with courage. They pursue me with engines, and policemen, and revolvers; I snap my fingers at them, and vanish, laughing, into space. I am, unfortunately, thrown into a canal by a woman fat of body and very evil-minded. What of it? I swim ashore, I seize her horse, I ride off in triumph, and I sell the horse for a whole pocketful of money and an excellent breakfast! Ho, ho! I am The Toad, the handsome, the popular, the successful Toad!”

    What a shame to use such a passage only to model a “text-to-life connection” or other strategy! I can “visualize” the Balanced Literacy coach whispering to the teacher: “Now do a think-aloud. Say, ‘hmmm…. does that remind me of anyone I know?’” I can “predict” what will happen next: independent or guided practice! Why, why, why?

    Instead, why not read and reread the passage out loud, hear it in different voices, discuss what’s funny about it, look at the hyperbole and distortions, and talk about Toad himself? Why not honor it for its own qualities?

    So there, Balanced Literacy.

    The other problem has to do with abstractions. I see a common assumption that “the more abstract, the better.” Learning objectives, many believe, should be as broad and encompassing as possible so that they will apply to the greatest number of situations. We see this assumption reflected in the New York State ELA standards, for instance.

    According to some, teachers should plan their units around the “essential questions”: so-called “big” questions that go beyond the specifics of subject matter. If one is studying Greek mythology, an “essential question” for a unit might be: “What is the role of mythology in culture?”

    That sort of abstraction is counterproductive. Such questions are not “bigger” than the more specific questions. In fact, they may be “smaller,” as the students are in no position to address them. One must strike the appropriate balance (which differs from topic to topic and level to level) between specificity and abstraction.

    So, yes, subject matter aids reading comprehension. Moreover, it is valuable and grand in itself. It is in no way lower than abstract questions, no matter how profound they may seem.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 20, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

  11. I work in various schools teaching science enrichment. In one of my poorer performing schools, a teacher recently told me that her principal told all 1st grade teachers to skip science so that they could focus on “reading strategies” for the next few months. The school missed APR last year. We both sighed over the the fact that this school system sees no value in reading about science as a way to improve reading!

    I used to privately tutor students. I had one student for several years who was perfect at decoding words. The first impression was that she was a great reader. But she was not. She could barely understand her middle school text books because her English vocabulary was very limited for two reasons: 1)her home life involved no reading or enrichment from her ESL (loving) parents; and 2) her poor performing elementary school focused on “reading strategies” and “math strategies” while forsaking social studies and science all together, in hopes that this would raise their test scores. It didn’t.

    Comment by Jenna Riazi — January 21, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.