Hearts and Minds

by Robert Pondiscio
December 31st, 2009

Teachers hear it all the time: the more students read, the stronger readers they become.  A recent Dan Willingham blog piece pointed out  that we actually spend far more time with our eyeballs on text than we used to, with no improvement in reading scores to show for it.   The reason, Willingham noted, is that while decoding text is a skill, reading comprehension is not.  “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,” he wrote.

Prediction time:  How would you expect the National Council of Teachers of English to respond to the idea that reading comprehension is not a skill, and that more reading won’t improve matters?  Guess again.  Here’s what NCTE President Carol Jago has to say:

While my first reaction was to recoil at this idea, as I read Willingham’s argument I found much to consider. He asserts that reading a quantity of simple texts (Facebook postings, Tweets, etc.) does not in and of itself improve students’ comprehension skills. Only experience with complex texts builds the kind of reading stamina that is most often equated with able readers.

Willingham’s point was about depth and richness, not stamina per se, but kudos to Jago and NCTE for considering the evidence instead of circling the wagons.


  1. Sometimes I dream about screaming to my principal, “READING COMPREHENSION IS NOT A SKILL!!!” a la “SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!”

    Comment by Miss Eyre — December 31, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

  2. There’s no need to scream. Just keep repeating it, calmly and persistently. Over and over and over and over and over.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 31, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

  3. It’s really NCTE’s ethical obligation to help reorient the discipline of English/language arts away from the current failed orthodoxy.

    Comment by Ben F — January 1, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

  4. I’m always amazed when the old is new again. Why do we want students to expand their reading repertoire from “picture books” to “chapter books”? It’s a shared bit of knowledge among those who effectively teach.

    Comment by Sheryl A. McCoy — January 1, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

  5. It’s not just the move from picture books to chapter books, but the recognition that not all chapter books are equally valuable from an academic standpoint. Some have better vocabulary, sentence structure, style, content (including non-fiction) than others and will therefore add more to the students’ understanding of language and their knowledge base. Judy Blume is not equivalent to Rosemary Sutcliff. There is also likely to be a big difference between the original, unabridged version of classic fiction and the commonly-used abridged ones. I’ve seen comparisons between the original Mark Twain novels and the abridged ones and the latter are likely to be seriously lacking.

    Comment by momof4 — January 1, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

  6. Wow! Carol Jago meets Core Knowledge. Way to go, Mr. Pondisco. I have found much useful information in Ms. Jago’s books and am not surprised that she has made a reasonable response to these ideas. Sometimes the NCTE’s positions seem surreal to me–our national professional organization for English teachers officially discourages the systematic teaching of grammar?–, but I think things will improve with her as president.

    Comment by Robert Fauceau — January 3, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

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