More From Carol Jago on Willingham

by Robert Pondiscio
January 1st, 2010

I was intrigued yesterday by Carol Jago’s response to Dan Willingham’s blog post about reading.   I emailed her to ask for her what she thought the takeaway for teachers should be from the post and the research.  Here’s what she graciously wrote back:

32 years in the classroom with teenagers convinced me that more is more when it comes to reading. Relentless readers develop the ease of fluency but learn to intuit how different books need to be read differently, sometimes a tortoise, sometimes a hare. As they gobble up book after book – good, bad, and indifferent – they develop a sense of how stories work. Seemingly without effort these avid readers have wide, rich vocabularies and a broad base of background knowledge. They know stuff. Harry Potter, Count of Monte Cristo, and Twilight readers also know that long doesn’t mean boring.

The take away for me from the Willingham article (I’ve been reading his columns for years in the American Educator) is that the kind of reading many young people today are doing online may be for the most part so short, simple, and solipsistic that it isn’t having the same effect relentless reading of books had upon their ability to comprehend.

I always saw it as my job to keep putting increasingly challenging books in students’ hands, I did so less under threat of  punishment than through a kind of sweet seduction. “If you liked … , really think you’ll love …”  It’s harder to create this bridge from the online world to the print world. Tweet, tweet.


  1. Wonderful point from Jago about how teachers can introduce you to “If you liked _____, you’ll love____” in that way. I read so many wonderful books in that way by writers I still cherish today, like Alice Walker, Tony Kushner, and David Sedaris. I try to do it for my students too.

    Comment by Miss Eyre — January 1, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  2. Having followed Carol’s work for years and being in many PD opportunities with her, I’m not surprised by her response. It sounds like great, common sense Carol Jago.

    I must say that the blog by Willingham and these subsequent blogs about the original are hard to get too worked up over as they are a very superficial look at a complex topic. As a reading specialist and English teacher for almost 20 years, my first reaction is ‘DUH! Reading comprehension is something we actually have to teach kids. Hello, what I’ve spent my career doing!!! Tell me something we don’t already know.”

    I guess my question is, why did Mr. Willingham feel the need to bring this up? What is the point? Is he trying to argue against free reading in schools? Does he feel we need to focus more on skill based instruction in the classroom? I’m more confused by what precipitated this argument than the lightweight argument I’ve seen presented.

    Comment by Teresa Bunner — January 4, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

  3. Dan frequents this blog enough that I’ll let him speak for himself, but I think his point was just the opposite. Reading comprehension is NOT a transferable skill, but is largely a function of the reader’s background knowledge. Here’s the salient graph in his Wash Post piece:

    “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.”

    I had the pleasure of seeing Dan give a presentation a few years ago called “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading.” He’s produced a YouTube video by the same name that you can see here:

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 4, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  4. what difference does it make if it is a skill or not a skill.?Students need to comprehend and they don’t if they don’t read suitable materials.

    Comment by harold rosenberg — January 5, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

  5. Whether “reading comprehension” is viewed as a skill that can and must be taught or as background information impacts on both instruction and measurement.

    Viewed as a skill,”reading” is a life-long instructional endeavor.

    The opposing view was set forth succinctly by D. B. Elkonin: “Understanding, which is often considered as the basic consideration in the process of reading, arises as a result of the correct recreation of the sound form of words. He who, independently of the level of understanding of words, can correctly recreate their sound forms is able to read.”

    With his view, which has been elaborated by E. D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham, reading instruction can be completed for the aggregate child by Grade 2 or 3, and instruction can focus on expanding the child’s repertoire of “background information.” The child’s reading expertise can make a valuable contribution to this expansion.

    With respect to measurement: Confounding background information and vocabulary with reading and terming it “Reading Comprehension” makes the tests indistinguishable with tests of general ability or scholastic aptitude; irrespective of the label, the tests use the same item forms.

    It should be no surprise that Reading Comprehension Tests are insensitive to instructional differences and that results from the “best tests”, such as NAEP have remained essentially flat over the years.

    Comment by Dick Schutz — January 5, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  6. Is not the issue a consequence of the process v. content direction that has overwhelmed education for the past decades–the idea that if students learn the “how” they will then know how to access the “what?” Undoubtedly skills are involved but they do not replace content in the education of children. And that is what has happened too much of the time: the teaching of skills has replaced the teaching of content. My experience has been that when I suggested to high school students that they reread their lesson the response was, “NO!” And also that supervisors and principals expected teachers to teach skills over content.

    Comment by Susan Toth — January 6, 2010 @ 10:28 am

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