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.