Dan Willingham sorts through NAEP data and points out that Chad Alderman is right that 4th grade reading scores look much better when the data are disaggregated by race. But the bigger story is the lack of progress among all groups in 8th and 12th grade reading. If 4th grade scores are improving, he asks, why are the gains evaporating just four years later?
“Fourth grade scores have been improving because we’ve gotten better at teaching kids how to decode–that is, how to translate letters into sounds. In the fourth grade some kids are good decoders and some are not, so differences in reading scores are largely differences in decoding.”
In the later grades, reading comprehension is largely a function of background knowledge, not as one NAEP board member said, that we’re not asking kids to read enough. “In fact, Americans are reading more text than they ever have before,” Willingham writes at the Wash Post’s Answer Sheet blog. ”And kids in lower elementary already spend half their time on language arts, and less than ten percent of their time on social studies and science, combined.” There’s the rub.
The belief that kids will be better readers if we simply get them to read more is rooted in the belief that reading comprehension is a transferable skill that, once mastered, applies to any text. That’s true of decoding, but not of comprehension. What’s needed is a substantial knowledge base. Knowledge of the content they are likely to encounter when reading the sorts of materials we expect them to read confidently: newspapers, magazines, and serious books.
“Until we start paying more attention to content, expect flat reading scores,” Willingham concludes.
This is as good a time as any to remind those who haven’t seen it to check out Willingham’s YouTube video, Teaching Content is Teaching Reading, which has been viewed over 32,000 times. I recommended it recently to a friend in California who is a first-year teacher. She said she’d already seen it in her ed school classes.