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.