Willingham: Why doesn’t reading more make us better readers?
By Daniel Willingham
We have supposedly been in the midst of an educational back-to-basics movement since the 1983 release of "A Nation at Risk," a report by a national commission that said American society was in danger of deteriorating because of an eroding public education system.
Why, then, have reading scores (as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test often called the nation's report card), been flat since 1971?
One obvious answer is that even if we’re getting back to basics in school, kids read less and less outside of school. Think of all of the new technologies that compete for their time: they have ipods, video games, text messaging, instant messaging, cell phones.
Who has time to read?
Surprise! Americans read more now than they did in 1980. A lot more, according to an exhaustive study done at the University of California, San Diego.
Why? More than ever, we are surrounded by printed words. We read text messages. We read web pages. We read instructions and information on computer games.
But if we’re reading more, why is literacy dropping?
If you think that reading is a skill, then practice should improve the skill. We’re reading more than ever, so why aren’t we better than ever at reading? The problem is that, as I’ve noted before, reading comprehension is not a skill.
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.
A likely solution to the conundrum is that all that extra reading we’re doing is pretty lightweight.
The number of words read from conventional print sources (books, newspapers, magazines) has plummeted. In 1980 these sources accounted for 26 percent of the words read. In 2008 that figure was 9%. People today spend just 36 minutes each day reading traditional print materials.
Practice in reading lightweight material won’t improve your reading much. Reading content-rich material will. Thus, it’s not surprising that we’re reading more yet reading scores are stagnant.
There’s nothing inherently lightweight about any medium. A text message or video game screen might contain anything, and obviously, you can find just about anything on the internet, from Kafka to Mill to puerile nonsense.
It’s a matter of probability—how rich is the print in most video games vs. most books—and of choice—what websites are kids choosing to read? www.nationalgeographic.com does not crack the top ten, but www.facebook.com does. And how rich is the content there?
I’ll leave that to you to explore.
| December 21, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Reading | Tags: Daniel Willingham, reading
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