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 EdNews.org 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.