More is Less

by Robert Pondiscio
December 22nd, 2009

If we’re reading more than ever (and we are) then why aren’t we getting better at it?  At the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Dan Willingham looks at a recent study that shows we are virtually surrounded by text, and spending a lot more time than 30 years ago processing the written word–when you factor time spent with all text, whether it’s in traditional print, online or other media. 

If you think that reading is a skill, then practice should improve the skill. The problem is that, as I’ve noted before, reading comprehension is not a skill.  Decoding (that is, translating the letters on the page into sounds) is a skill. Practice is necessary for decoding to become fluent ( that is, fast and effortless). Once you’re fluent, the most important factor contributing to comprehension is background knowledge. If you know a bit about the topic, it’s much easier to understand.

“A likely solution to the conundrum is that all that extra reading we’re doing is pretty lightweight,” Willingham concludes.

Reading Dan’s piece reminded me of an education shibboleth that I’ve often heard repeated: if children spend 30 minutes a day reading at their “just right” or instructional reading level (a curious concept, given that my “reading level” may vary depending on the subject matter) their comprehension will improve.   I can’t determine the source of that idea, but it seems unlikely to be true.