Knowledge Compensates for Five Years of Reading Ability

by Robert Pondiscio
March 2nd, 2011

One of the principal arguments for a coherent, content-rich curriculum is that background knowledge — knowing something about the topic you’re reading about – compensates for weak reading ability.  But how great is the effect?  A tantalizing article by reading researcher Tom Sticht on suggests that in adult readers background knowledge can close a gap of five grade levels of general reading ability. 

If you want to test what someone knows about a subject, Sticht writes, “you might give them a simple multiple choice test in a written format, and then ask questions about the subject matter of interest.”  However this “confounds the assessment of the person’s knowledge about the subject with their ability to read.”  In other words, it’s difficult to tell whether a person taking a reading test doesn’t know the meaning of a word, for example, can’t decode a word, or lacks the background knowledge of the subject needed for adequate comprehension.   As Sticht puts it, we risk confusing ignorance with illiteracy.  “Generally there is no attempt to separately determine a student’s knowledge in the content area separately from the person’s ability to read in the content area in an unskilled or skilled manner,” Sticht observes.  

Sticht uncoupled reading ability from subject knowledge in work that he and colleagues performed for the U.S. Navy several years ago.  They developed “a 45 hour reading development program to help sailors improve their reading ability while increasing their knowledge needed for upward mobility in their career progression…In assessing learning outcomes in this course we considered both improvements in Navy career progression knowledge and increases in reading skill,” he writes.

They designed two separate assessments–one on the Navy-specific learning taught in the course; the other a more general reading assessment.   By comparing the two “we could determine separately the extent to which personnel had increased their Navy knowledge as well as their reading skill for incrementing their long term knowledge store using an external knowledge store,” Sticht says.

In additional work for the U.S. Navy we developed separate readability formula for determining how much general reading ability as measured by a standardized, normed reading test a person needed to be able to comprehend Navy material with 70 percent accuracy. We developed formulas for those with high and low prior knowledge about the Navy. We found that with low background Navy knowledge, a person needed a general reading ability of about the eleventh grade to comprehend with 70 percent accuracy. But highly knowledgeable personnel needed only a sixth grade level of general reading to comprehend Navy-related material with 70 percent accuracy. In this case, then, high levels of background knowledge substituted for some five grade levels of general reading ability.

The Armed Services, Sticht says ”have long understood the difference between general reading ability and specialized bodies of knowledge.”  When selecting people for service,” he points out, “lower general reading ability scores may be offset by higher scores in specialized bodies of knowledge.”  Confusing ignorance with illiteracy “contributes to a serious underestimation of the intellectual abilities of America’s children, youth, and adults,” he concludes.

Sticht’s eye-opening work validates a content-rich approach to K-12 education and once again demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of treating reading as an all-purpose, transferable skill, which it clearly is not.   Sticht’s point that we confuse ignorance with illiteracy has two big takeaways for educators:  the achievement gap is mostly a knowledge gap; if a “poor reader” and a “good reader” take a reading test where both share the same background knowledge, the perceived differences in their reading ability will likely narrow or disappear (this is also an argument for reading tests that are based on curriculum taught, not randomly chosen subjects). Secondly, if we know that knowledge correlates with general reading ability, then the best strategy for raising achievement across the board is with a rich and rigorous curriculum from the first days of school.  Teaching content IS teaching reading

“By not talking about the knowledge needed by the workforce people think they can teach any content and thereby improve the skill needed for workingi n a broad set of occupations,” Sticht wrote to me in an email. ”Failure to focus on knowledge leads to inefficient and too often ineffective career education or job training or retraining that many out of work people need,” he concludes.


  1. I think the same is true –to a large extent –for writing ability. Knowledge of a domain is the prerequisite for writing well about that domain. If this is the case, then maybe we should ditch Writing Workshop and the ubiquitous state writing tests and replace them with writing-intensive liberal arts classes with writing-intensive end-of-course exams.

    Comment by Ben F — March 2, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  2. “If we know that knowledge correlates with general reading ability, then the best strategy for raising achievement across the board is with a rich and rigorous curriculum from the first days of school.”

    Case closed, end of discussion, good night nurse.

    And while we’re at it, bring on the “rich and rigorous curriculum from the first days of school,” in every district, school and classroom across the land.

    What’s the hold up, already?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 2, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  3. I can believe those results because they are consistent with my experience. I can’t teach my high school students how to read, so IIteach them reading compensation skills. When as a result of the totality of what we’ve learned in class the kids have more knowledge, skills, and motivatio, they comprehend much much better.

    Comment by john thompson — March 2, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

  4. Great stuff — extremely compelling. I like Anthony’s comment under Sticht’s original post, about how we have to “stop trading content for ‘skills’…and rigor for fun.”

    Fun, in particular, comes when we revel in how wonderful the world is, and everything about it interests us because new facts easily take root in our loamy, nutrient-rich minds. Sadly, when we pander short-term by limiting ourselves to appealing to kids’ limited sense of fun as it exists now, we keep them from moving forward into a deeper appreciation of everything around them.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — March 2, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

  5. What’s also interesting to note is that Tom Sticht did much of this work 40 years ago — in the early-mid 1970s, so this is not exactly new “news” to adult reading researchers. For whatever reasons, Tom never published much of this work in the professional journals, but rather in various books, technical documents, and reports for the Navy so these findings never got much traction in the mainstream education literature.

    Comment by M C Smith — March 2, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

  6. This reminded me of going to “knife & fork” school upon earning a commission as a Chief Warrant Officer in the Navy back in 1990. The Navy’s Warrant Officer program was the only way to earn a commission without a college degree, therefore, they wanted to make sure we were literate. None of us would have been there if we hadn’t been extremely knowledgeable in our career fields, but they administered the reading comprehension/speed test for one reason or another. As an Admin/HR type I wasn’t too worried, I sat next to a crusty former Boatswain’s Mate Master Chief. I wasn’t yet “crusty”. To my surprise, I scored the highest in the class on reading comprehension and grade level, and lowest in reading speed. The Boats scored much lower on comprehension and grade level, but was one of the fastest readers. The instructor attributed my slow speed to the fact that the I spent much of my career reading and interpreting rules, regulations, and exceptions to same, slowing down to look for words like “always, never, except, should, must, etc.”, while the Boats was just looking for basic information that would help him to get his charges through their daily evolutions safely.

    I’ve always meant to take a speed reading course, but I’m afraid I’d lose the joy in reading.

    Comment by Cindy — March 2, 2011 @ 10:45 pm

  7. The deaf student who has never heard spoken English seldom reads above a fourth grade level and is constantly being tested on reading and not on their knowledge. Deaf students with a language rich environment (deaf parents) acquire a large domain knowledge that allows them to read on level with their hearing peers. We are trying to ameliorate this problem by having hands on activities on weekends directed by deaf adults. The idea is to build background knowledge with English vocabulary thrown in to lead the students to improve their performance in the curriculum. Unfortunately, there are systemic roadblocks and the program has been suspended.

    Comment by Michael Burton — March 3, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

  8. Michael,

    That is very interesting to me. I do not know many deaf people, but the information you’ve provided will help me to be more aware once I am teaching.

    Comment by Cindy — March 7, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

  9. As a teacher in a remote indigenous school in Australia where children have limited knowledge or experiences of the wider world, this emphasises what many of us have said
    is the problem. Understanding of content is so important.
    I was sent the article by a friend who is always looking for ways to engage students . I will pass it on to other colleagues. Ann P.S. I heard a man who organizes excursions to our National Capital say that if you can’t teach kids to read , give them experiences and then they see a purpose for reading. I think this is true. !!!

    Comment by Ann Watson-Brown — March 11, 2011 @ 6:15 pm

  10. If we move away from a content rich curriculum how and what will we teach students. When we teach students content are they not required to read?

    Comment by Steven Peeler — March 14, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

  11. This article raises many questions in my mind.
    1. What is the value of standardized tests? Should teacher merit pay be based on these test results?
    2. How do language differences affect learning in both content, vocabulary development, and reading?
    3. Isn’t effective reading thinking and understanding? Hopefully, students will be able to learn new content by reading well through questioning, connecting, and application to their real lives. (skills + background knowledge).
    4. Isn’t true learning a combination between background knowledge AND content? What does brain research studies say about learning?

    Just some questions to think about. In this era of budget cuts – we must be careful not to limit children’s access to real-life experiences i.e. fieldtrips, projects, inquiry, etc.

    Comment by Cindy D. — March 18, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  12. The elephant in the room – The premise is knowledge bridges the gap RE: test scores between good and poor readers however; good reading skills can produce a good knowledge base. Therefore good readers will also have a better knowledge base.
    Just teach the kids to read, please.

    Comment by Fred Smith — May 13, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

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