How to Make Kids Hate Reading

by Robert Pondiscio
May 1st, 2012

Building reading instruction around comprehension strategies is not only ineffective, it also takes the joy out of reading, writes Dan Willingham in his latest blog post.

The UVA cognitive scientist has long argued that while reading strategies have some value–principally in helping students understand that what they read should have some communicative value–it’s a huge mistake to think of reading comprehension as a transferable skill that can be learned, practiced, and applied to any text.  Practicing reading strategies ad nauseam doesn’t confer any particular advantage.  Data are hard to find on just how much time is spent in practice on “finding the main idea,” “determining the author’s purpose”  and other such strategies in the average classroom. “But whatever the proportion of time, much of it is wasted, at least if educators think it’s improving comprehension,” Willingham writes, “because the one-time boost to comprehension can be had for perhaps five or ten sessions of 20 or 30 minutes each.”

Moreover, Willingham notes that the wasted time “represents a significant opportunity cost.”   Why? Because building reading instruction around strategies “makes reading really boring”:

“How can you get lost in a narrative world if you think you’re supposed to be posing questions to yourself all the time? How can a child get really absorbed in a book about ants or meteorology if she thinks that reading means pausing every now and then to anticipate what will happen next, or to question the author’s purpose?

If one of the goals in reading instruction is to develop a love of reading, strategies instruction is not merely unhelpful, but counterproductive, he argues.  “Reading comprehension strategies seem to take a process that could bring joy, and turn it into work,” Willingham concludes.


  1. The idea behind instruction in reading strategies is to make explicit much of what makes reading successful and enjoyable and useful for readers. I was never taught to question the author, but I do sometimes. I was never taught to predict, but I do. I was never taught to make “text-to-self, text-to-world, or text-to-text” connections, but it seemed to come naturally. For the sake of discussion, if we take the curriculum as given and just focus on the teacher, do you think these kinds of discrete reading skills (or behaviors) should inform or guide instruction in any way? If not during reading, after reading? If not explicitly, more as a matter of use? What I mean is, we might not have a lesson called “prediction” – but if we have a conversation about a novel or play before we finish it, what would you suggest? Should we “predict”? Should we call attention to prediction if it comes up more organically and try to bring it to some metacognitive level?

    Comment by David B. Cohen — May 1, 2012 @ 11:12 am

  2. To my mind, where things really leave the rails is in treating these strategies as all-purpose skills, and having kids apply them to whatever they happen to be reading at the moment. It makes far more sense to me to use the strategies in the context of reading a particular text. To do otherwise spreads the misimpression that reading is a “skill” when it’s clearly not.

    Done well, the strategies can them be an organic part of a classroom discussion about a novel or text. Or to put it another way, practicing making text-to-text connections does nothing to ensure success (and probably undermines success) when a child encounters a text that he or she is ill-equipped to connect to something else.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 1, 2012 @ 11:28 am

  3. I read non-fiction, almost exclusively (there is not enough time in the day for anything else).

    Playing the devil’s advocate here: Some will contend (students) reading non-fiction, which they thought would bring joy, turned into work because there was so much to be remembered. How can you get lost in the narrative if there are so many facts to keep straight?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 1, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

  4. I read fiction almost exclusively (there’s just not enough time in the day for anything else). I love all the things fiction teaches me. It enlightens and enlarges me, improving my imagination, internal discipline and scope of understanding. I turn to non-fiction only when I have to ascertain facts or want to compare my experiential and fiction-driven beliefs to the ideas of others.

    The cure for all of this sorting through of the value of comprehension strategies? Stop relying on test data to tell us when students have comprehended text satisfactorily. Stop setting up ridiculous percentages of how much fiction secondary students can be permitted before their test scores will go down. Start relying on teachers like David Cohen, who skillfully diagnose what comprehension strategies might make reading more productive for students. Remember–Willingham didn’t say that comprehension strategies were useless. Only that pounding kids with them didn’t yield an uptick in test scores.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — May 1, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

  5. I hear you, Robert. The strategies aren’t the goals. I certainly try to focus on whatever comes up more organically. When Odysseus’s dog (forgot his name – sorry!) dies upon seeing his master again, it’s certainly not a moment to whip up a multiple choice question, like “We can infer that the dog died due to a. poisoned dog biscuits, b. lightning strike, c. an intense surge of emotion….” But it is a moment where I might ask students about their experience with dogs, their loyalty, and how this scene’s details might say something about Odysseus. I won’t say, “it’s time for our text-to-self strategy!” I don’t use “Merchant of Venice” in order to teach prediction, but I do ask students to recognize and trust their instincts when the challenge of the three caskets is introduced: will the first suitor succeed? or the second? Will either gold or silver be the correct choice? Will Portia end up married to some character we don’t know and don’t care about? So, I do think it’s worthwhile to make explicit some of the ways we engage with text, but as step into more important discussion or writing, and when the text has been chosen for other merits – not as a vehicle to practice reading strategies.

    Comment by David B. Cohen — May 1, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

  6. As a third grade teacher in the great state of Texas, where state testing is as big as the state itself, we are asked to teach reading skills in isolation. So as the panic of the state test sets in, we are asked to place students into groups accordingly to the reading skill(s) in which they are “weak”. We then provide “Targeted TEKS” tutoring for six weeks. It’s called an “intervention.” So here is my point. After my student groups were formed, I was left with a number of students that according to benchmark data did not require this type of intervention. So I was left in a quandary. What could I do for these students that would get them to understand that reading can be a pleasurable activity? I formed a book club! I selected a fiction book (written by a first time author) that my students and I are reading purely for enjoyment. No sticky notes, no graphic organizers, no having to figure out the main idea, etc. We are towards the end of the book and I literally have to pry the book out of my student’s hands so that they don’t finish the book prior to our next meeting!! Have I instilled the love of reading? I hope so. Have I taught my students to fall in love with the written word? I hope so. Do I believe that this book club experience will remain with my students for a long time to come? As we say in Texas, “You betcha!”

    Comment by Lana — May 1, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

  7. “I read fiction almost exclusively (there’s just not enough time in the day for anything else).” This certainly explains some of your views of education reform. Just kidding, Nancy.

    Lana, Truly a heart warming story regarding the kids in your reading intervention. Way to go.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 2, 2012 @ 5:58 am

  8. To me, David Cohen’s approach is spot on. Strategy instruction goes wrong when it props the strategy above the literature. Put the literatur first, and the strategies (if you even need to call them thtat) come up in discussion. As a teacher leading the discussion, youi pose questions that get students to think about the text in intereesting ways and to draw attention to things they might not have noticed. They start doing the same.

    There’s no need, in this sort of discussion, to make “prediction charts” or have students recite paeans to the strategy of the day. You read and discuss literature.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 2, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

  9. From time immemorial schoolmasters have elevated the teaching of mechanistic skills above content — whether these skills are grammar, phonetics, and now cookbook-type formulas for reading strategies. It is not that these skills are unnecessary, but that the end is lost sight of in focussing soley on the means.

    Comment by Harold — May 3, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

  10. Joanne Jacob also weighs in with a ltgnehy recap of the ongoing debate;a0a0Finally, a hat tip to Jay Greene, who provides comic relief with a 21CS spoof from The Onion:a0a0An impossibly deadpan Fox News-stylea0panel discussiona0on Are Violent Video Games Adequately Preparing Kids fora0the Post-Apocalyptic Future?a0 The games make it all seem deceptively simple, one panelist opines.a0 A kid’s not going to be able to kill a six-foot long irradiated beetle just by pushing a few buttons.a0 He’s going to have to get down there with an axe and hack and hack and hack

    Comment by Pawankumar — May 20, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

  11. My school is having a civil war over this very issue. A decade ago we adopted a reading curriculum that was strategy driven, so much so, that reading teachers could no longer “waste” any class time on self-selected reading or going to the library. Then explicitly teaching reading strategies spread from the remedial reading classes nto Langauage Arts to support the very same struggling readers there.

    Before mandated testing, the same students are targeted for after school or Saturday programs that teach the same skill set for a third time in one year. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Year after year.

    At this point, Language Arts teachers are required to teach reading strategies whenever we ask the students to read anything. You should hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Students plead to just be allowed to finish reading the chapter uninterrupted. It’s death to reading for enjoyment and doesn’t allow anyone to get lost in the narrative, even the strong readers.

    The points that were discussed here earlier have all been made by our district Language Arts coordinator. She’s armed with research that shows self-selected independent reading is responsible for improved reading skills at a rate of three times that of the very best reading instruction, but it is all for naught. If an administrator walks in on a lesson, there better be a reading skill written on the board and an activity listed to go with it.

    Comment by anonymous — July 29, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

  12. [...] impressive to hear arcane facts and fancy words come out of the mouths of small children, but is there any educational value?   Perhaps the better question is what’s the better use of instructional time:  teaching [...]

    Pingback by A Questionable Schema « The Core Knowledge Blog — November 12, 2012 @ 11:03 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.