Willingham: Reading Is Not a Skill

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2009

Dan Willingham reviews the draft voluntary national standards in reading and sees a problem:  ”Teachers and administrators are likely to read those 18 standards and to try to teach to them,” he notes.  “But reading comprehension is not a ‘skill’ that can be taught directly.”

His latest blog post at the Washington Post’s education page observes that teachers tend to teach comprehension as a series of “reading strategies” that can be practiced and mastered. “Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way,” he writes. “The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.”

Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information. For example, suppose you read “He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.” You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them) and landlords (they are protective of their property.)

Policymakers need to pay attention here because this is what those of us who complain about curriculum narrowing are complaining about: the natural impulse to focus on pure reading instruction in an attempt to boost reading scores is self-defeating.  When you see, as Dan does, how “bad readers” look like good readers when they have background knowledge to bring to bear on a topic, the reasonable goal of education becomes increasing the number of topics children know something about.  It may sound smart, even heroic, to focus like a laser on reading instruction, but ultimately the law of diminishing returns kicks in.  You build comprehension by building background knowledge in the reader–not by endless practice in determining the author’s purpose, finding the main idea and making inferences. 

The kids who score well on reading tests are ones who know a lot about the world—they have a lot of prior knowledge about a wide range of things–and so that whatever they are asked to read about on the test, they likely know something about it….Can’t you teach kids how to reason about texts, and thereby wring the meaning out of it even if they don’t have the right prior knowledge?  To some extent, but it doesn’t seem to help as much as you might expect. For one thing, this sort of reasoning is difficult mental work. For another, it’s slow, and so it breaks up the flow of the story you’re reading, and the fun of the story is lost.

And Dan has a line in his post that I wish could be on the wall of every classroom in the country:  “Hoping that students without relevant prior knowledge will reason their way through a story is a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.”

Ultimately the draft national standards do not serve us well by reinforcing the idea that reading a a skill.  It’s not, Willingham notes:

The mistaken idea that reading is a skill—learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies and you can read anything—may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country. Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge base problem must be solved.

A request–no a plea, really:  Forward Dan’s post to every teacher you know.  Tweet it.  Blog it. Put it on your Facebook page.  Do it now.   We’re not going to solve this problem until or unless we see this for what it is.  Here’s the link: Reading Is Not a Skill.  Pass the word.  And while you’re at it, here’s Dan’s video, Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading



  1. What I love about Willingham’s writing is how common-sense it seems without ever giving the impression that he’s “talking down” to his readers that are not cognitive scientists. This is “use now” stuff for teachers and parents.

    Unfortunately, my principal doesn’t agree with Willingham, but I feel like my personal experience, in my own life and with children, bears out what he has to say.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — September 28, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  2. What’s not to agree with, Miss Eyre? This is a problem in education. Educators are beholden to “philosophies” and “approaches” to learning. Guys like Willingham just look at research and evidence. Your principal doesn’t agree? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. They are not entitled to their own facts.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 28, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  3. Don’t get me wrong, I think these proposed standards are a potential disaster, but I can’t figure out what you would want for English Language Arts standards. Just list content and imply that you have to be able to read and use it? Does anyone do this right?

    And I’m not talking about curriculum — I’m talking about a standards document.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — September 28, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  4. Hard to say, Tom. I think the point is that the ELA standards are troublesome because they reinforce this notion that reading is a transferable skill. It makes more sense to me to have content standards in each academic discipline. Then a skills-driven set of ELA standards across might make sense as an indicator of competency. The problem is the implied guidance this gives to teachers; it creates the impression we should be teaching, for example inferencing as a skill. Your ability to draw an inference is a function of your ability to “read in between the lines,” which is a function of your domain knowledge.

    We are still wedded to the notion that reading is a discrete skill that can be applied with equal proficiency without regard to background knowledge. The draft standards do nothing to reverse this and much to reinforce it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 28, 2009 @ 11:37 am

  5. “Forward Dan’s post to every teacher you know.” Done.

    Comment by Ben F — September 28, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  6. I wish I knew, Robert. Willingham is a well-known scientist and writer whose work now appears in major national publications like WaPo. I find it hard to believe that my principal would not have heard of him or his ideas. But Principal’s insistence on the TC/Balanced Literacy approach shows, I assume, that we are choosing to ignore Willingham.

    Common sense requires that we do what works and abandon what doesn’t, but that doesn’t always seem to apply in education.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — September 28, 2009 @ 11:57 am

  7. The ability to drop like a hot potato what doesn’t work. Now you know one of the major reasons why those of us who home school do so.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — September 28, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  8. As a parent I’d love to know what I can be doing to add to my child’s background knowledge.

    Comment by mnm — September 28, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  9. MNM, I would say there’s an awful lot, not the least of which is encouraging your child to read WIDELY. So many parents think that reading the same Captain Underpants book over and over again is okay, “as long as they’re reading”–I don’t think that’s really the case.

    Visits to museums, libraries, community events, stories from relatives–all of these can inspire new interests in your child that would lead to greater reading and thus increase background knowledge. Tell your child about your own childhood, your job, your own interests. These things cost little or nothing but will do a lot to inspire curiosity and therefore deeper development of knowledge in children.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — September 28, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  10. Thanks Miss Eyre, that’s good to know.

    Comment by mnm — September 28, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  11. I agree with much of what Dan Willingham says, but I am in Miss Eyre’s postition with my administration. That said, I’m wondering where core knowledge people stand on the idea of having kids read books of their own choosing in school (aka reading workshop)? I teach third grade and do think that it’s important for kids to spend time reading a variety of books. I don’t enjoy many of the lessons that I’m supposed to teach (did you know that good readers laugh at the funny parts of books?), but do think kids need practice with skills such as being able to summarize what they have read. Also, kids need to log time just reading. If this is not happening at home, it needs to happen at school. I realize that kids can read content specific books, but these do not always interest kids and aren’t written at the level on which many kids are reading.

    Comment by sal — September 28, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  12. Sal comments that many books children might be interested in are not written at the level on which many kids are reading. So I am wondering whether you read to them?

    Reading to children, even those who can read, is marvelous for several effects:
    * developing their listening skills. I fear listening may be overlooked in the rush for early reading. It is a great way to present a good deal of the content they will need to know when they do read on their own.
    * presenting material more interesting than that which they are able to read themselves. My seven year old granddaughter enjoys struggling through a Dr Suess book and then sits enthralled as I read Black Beauty to her.
    * allowing you to see their unguarded expressions when they are surprised, doubtful or confused, leading to questions and interactions that take off in unexpected directions as curiosities and interests are exposed, things you would never know about if they were reading to themselves.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — September 28, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  13. Love Homeschooling Granny’s tip about reading out loud. I’m a big believer in it–it’s one aspect of the TC method that I do enjoy. If you can find the right book and get the whole class involved in it, generally through your OWN genuine enthusiasm for the book, it can be very rewarding and enriching for a class.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — September 28, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

  14. Robert, I think you’re saying that if content is the main focus, reading strategies may be a good complement. Or you may be saying that reading strategies are worthless.

    If the former, do you/Dan have either a suggested ratio, or a hard hour cap for strategies, or a hard hour per year year minimum for content?

    Comment by GGW — September 29, 2009 @ 8:32 am

  15. Dan is a lot more familiar with the literature than I am, so hopefully he’ll weigh in here. I tend to think that if there is a purpose to explicit reading strategies instruction, it’s to help create the understanding that text should make sense, and that if you are struggling there are some thought processes that might — might — help you make meaning. But the idea of distrubing the flow of reading to apply strategies doesn’t make much sense. And no strategy will help if the material is over your head, whether for vocabulary, lack of background knowledge, etc.

    Dan wrote an article on reading strategies in American Educator a few years back. The takeaway was as follows:

    1. Teaching children strategies is definitely a good idea. 2. The evidence is best for strategies that have been most thoroughly studied; the evidence for the less-studied strategies
    is inconclusive (not negative) and, therefore, there is not evidence that one strategy is superior to another. 3. Strategies are learned quickly, and continued instruction
    and practice does not yield further benefits. 4. Strategy instruction is unlikely to help students before they are in the third or fourth grade.

    Here’s a link to the article: http://aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/winter06-07/CogSci.pdf

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 29, 2009 @ 8:44 am

  16. I understand the value of reading aloud to children and do at least two read alouds each day. However, my question was about independent reading. Once my students have mastered basic phonics skills, they are reading books independently such as Henry and Mudge or Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Not all students are reading the same books during this time as many students are on different levels. Does independent reading exist in a core knowledge classroom? If so, what kinds of lessons are taught during this time?

    Comment by sal — September 29, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  17. Though I’m not a Core Knowledge expert, Sal, I’ll share what is only my opinion on the question you asked. I think independent reading does have a place in a classroom operating on the assumption that all students should share at least some common texts. Indeed, independent reading time can be a great time to assess individual students’ needs and interests, and to coach students towards finding books they might like as well as books that will challenge them. It can be a valuable way to differentiate instruction when a class is sharing common texts–not every kid will like every book, of course, and to me, independent reading keeps the kids hooked into reading even when the class book is maybe not to their particular liking (yet–I try to help every kid find something to enjoy in every shared text). To me, it’s less of an opportunity to teach a particular lesson as it is to teach enjoyment of books, challenging oneself, and solitary, independent thought.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — September 29, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

  18. An excellent way to help their listening skills is also to use the Jim Weiss story tapes in the car as you drive. His voice and the stories are mesmerizing (Arabian nights, Greek Myths, Jungle Book, etc) and grab the childrens’ attention. Next thing you know they’ve learned to “see” worlds and actions in their head without visual prompts.

    Parents I’ve suggested this to say that the kids learn to listen better to everything.

    Comment by Student of History — September 29, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

  19. May I also chime agree with Homeschooling Granny about reading aloud to children? I have a 2.5 and a 4.5 year old. At night, we read picture books together and they look at the pictures. My husband then tucks them into bed, and reads from a chapter book like Charolette’s Web or Peter Pan. They love it. After my husband read the Wizard of Oz, my oldest daughter now tells me to draw pictures of Kansas witih “fields, flowers, and a farmhouse.”

    Comment by brooklynshoebabe — September 30, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

  20. We also do a lot of reading aloud at home. Besides picture and chapter books, we also read a lot of nonfiction. Our library has a great selection of non-fiction picture books. My daughter especially loves the biographies.
    We have found nonfiction especially important because her school (1st grade) doesn’t spend a lot of time on science or social studies.

    Comment by Genevieve — September 30, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

  21. When looking for great stories with rich vocabularies, don’t forget the 398.2 nonfiction area where the fairy tales and folk tales from all over the world reside.

    Also Bill Peet may be the best children’s story book author ever!! Check him out.

    Comment by Student of History — October 1, 2009 @ 7:50 am

  22. To answer Sal’s question…I taught 4th grade for 7 years (all in CK schools). The main thing I love about CK is the incredible content it teaches! When I was teaching my students read a lot of great fiction (classic stories like Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island) and a lot of non-fiction books as well that related to the content we were studying (The Middle Ages, China, The American Revolution). I read aloud to them and we also listened to Jim Weiss’s CDs.
    All that said, however, yes! I absolutely let my students read silently every day. After lunch we (myself included) would read for 15 minutes and the students were allowed to read a book of their choosing. I left the choice up the them, as long as it was at their reading level. I did not allow comic books or magazines. As the teacher, though, I had a WELL stocked library of books – including lots of non-fiction content books that the students would choose from and I was happy to help guide and direct students to books that I felt they would enjoy.

    Comment by ColoradoCKTeacher — October 2, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  23. Hey, Dan. What you say is true, but the devil is in what you leave out. Reading comprehension requires background knowledge that can be automatically retrieved by the cues from what you’re reading, background knowledge that you need to think of and hence retrieve intentionally and with effort, and a general attitude toward understanding what you’re reading and trying to relate it to what you already know. But reading comprehension ALSO requires a lot of “lower level” SKILLS that are practiced enough to be automatic enough to not interfere with those of the higher-level knowledge-based processes that you emphasize. If a reader spends all his or her mental energy and capacity trying to figure out words and/or syntax, there’s not going to be enough information passing forward to higher-level processes, or mental energy/capacity left over to make the connections and help build them into representations of the content of what is being read, to be able to understand and remember the material. There’s LOTS of evidence for the way I just described it — if you think I’ve got it wrong, I’d love to hear back why. But if you think I’ve got it right, I’d love to see you write a followup in your column…. Best regards, Tom Carr
    Professor of Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience
    Department of Psychology
    Michigan State University

    Comment by Tom Carr — October 2, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

  24. I agree that if a person is reading about something they already know, they will comprehend and remember more of the details they read. My daughter who is 7yrs old and in 3rd grade can read well only because we talk about what she is about to read, first. Then, she reads about it. If she is not understanding, she stops, we discuss it and then she continues to reads. It sure helps to know something about the topic, person or place you are reading about. It helps with information retention, not just short term comprehension.

    Comment by Over Achiever Mommy — October 2, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

  25. Hey Tom
    You’re absolutely right. I’m assuming that these low level skills will be practiced enough that they are fluent for most readers by 4th or 5th grade. I think US performance on international tests (pretty good in the early grades for reading) indicate that most US kids are getting this. It’s not until 8th grade and h.s. that US kids really take a nosedive in reading performance. That’s when reading tests no longer tap decoding and decoding fluency (because most kids are competent by then) and instead tap comprehension.

    Now as to writing a follow up that emphasizes the need to practice low-level skills. . . I try to write only one column each month that yield a cascade of angry emails ;)

    Comment by Dan Willingham — October 2, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

  26. In my opinion, tt is important that students have enough “stuff” to connect. Teachers often talk about “making connections”, when discussin reading comprehension, but if your world is small and your experiences rather thin, it is difficult to relate to profound ideas as you move into more complex subject matter.
    Therefore, sometimes what seems to be disparate content allows us to grasp the notion of a “subtext” within more advanced literature. Additionally, nonfiction reading presuposes a vocabulary or else the flow can be too irratic to understand the subject.

    Comment by Reader Mom — October 2, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

  27. Well it sounds great not to have to teach the reading skills for comprehension to apply. However, I teach 5th grade. I have students that come to me with very little prior knowledge of anything. They have never been exposed to much, and they are very low in reading skills. How do you place that lack of prior knowledge in vocabulary in these type kids? I teach them to make any type of connection, but as was said earlier, if there is nothing to connect to what do you do to help them comprehend various reading information?

    Comment by Gina — October 2, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  28. In the distant days when I was in primary school, no one had ever heard of teaching ‘reading comprehension skills’. Rather, we had short tests virtually every day, and these concentrated our minds rather wonderfully. They certainly taught us all of the ‘skills’ which now take so much time in school.

    As Dan has pointed out, the only useful function of teaching formal skills is to get kids to pay attention to text. I would propose that there is a far better way: give children reading material that is genuinely interesting. A few years back I read ‘Rabble in Arms’, Kenneth Roberts’s fascinating account of how Benedict Arnold thwarted the British drive to divide the Colonies. I couldn’t help but think how much kids could learn about the American Revolution if they were given books like this to read, instead of dry textbooks edited so as not to give offense to anyone.

    Of course, what we are up against here is two of the holiest canons of progressive education: No Competition, and Political Correctness. The logic of textbook selection committees ensures that kids’ reading material is so anodyne that no one could possibly care what it ‘means’.

    Comment by Tom Burkard — October 3, 2009 @ 3:47 am

  29. I have taught for 30 years in Virginia’s elementary schools, have been in classrooms throughout the country, and I can give this blunt assessment of the state of reading in the USA: There is little reading going on in the schools.

    Oral language development throughout the grades lacks coherence and continuity in content, early systematic decoding instruction is chaotic where it exists, and deliberate reading practice (independent reading) is absent or deficient in nearly every school.

    In Virginia and many other states, panic caused by NCLB legislation and preoccupation with state standards of learning (SOL’s) have pushed reading instruction from bad to worse. Stratagies to beat the tests in the intermediate grades are so dominating schools that literacy is given little attention and the focus has shifted to the upper elementary grades where students are tested more rigorously.

    Teachers should be reading orally to students across domains throughout elementary school, students should be reading independently in school at least an hour a day, and reading instruction in kindergarten and first grade should systematically and quickly teach students decoding skills to get them reading independently.

    Reading (through reading to students and independent reading) should be a main vehicle for expansion of students’ general background knowledge and domain specific knowledge. Most elementary schools don’t come close to doing this.

    Comment by Jonathan Lind — October 3, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

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