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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 12/21/2009

Willingham: Why doesn’t reading more make us better readers?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don't Students Like School?"

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? does not crack the top ten, but does. And how rich is the content there?

I’ll leave that to you to explore.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 21, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Reading  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, reading  
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Next: A different view on the value of tracking students


I'm sorry, I can't take your comments about reading comprehension not being a skill seriously. If all we needed was decoding, reading instruction would end in grade 2. Clearly, there are other components of reading that are essential to learn. I'm not sure of your pedagogical training, but you will not find a single K-12 reading teacher or reading specialist who agrees with your view.

Posted by: heatherdc1980 | December 21, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

<<< you will not find a single K-12 reading teacher or reading specialist who agrees with your view.

Aye, there's the rub..

Posted by: rpondiscio | December 21, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Actually to poster one, you will. There are quite a few that know and lament that the children they are teaching will struggle with reading because their content background is so weak. This is why it matters how much more reading a child has done before they start school, it is not the print it is the content. Think about it, if a child has not encountered a concept in their life either through reading and usually explanation of an adult or experiencing it, their ability to comprehend what they are reading declines. This is part of the cost of economic deprivation. The case for this issue is well developed in a book by E.D. Hirshe called the Knowledge Deficit. But if you want to see how it plays out read about the Harlem Project and Geoffrey Canada in Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough. This issue may also be the reason we can't get our 8th grade scores up, kids have to read more complex material than they are to reach those skill levels. That is why a previous poster on reading skills emphasised the good readers are good readers because they read more, but they just read more facebook postings they read more complex material like newspapers, books, even more substantive magazines.

Posted by: Brooklander | December 22, 2009 6:35 AM | Report abuse

heatherdc1980: you might want to have a look at an article I wrote on reading strategies. . .

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | December 22, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

First, context doesn't only have to come from reading--years ago a teacher in the hills of West Virginia commented that television made her job so much easier, since even the children in isolated areas had seen television shows about the ocean and so on. Also, all studies show that the youngsters who enter school with the biggest vocabularies read better. Disadvantaged kids simply aren't being exposed in any manner to enough of the world and talked to enough to learn to read. (If we could get rid of standardized tests in the early years, maybe the kindergarten teachers could go back to reading stories to the kids for part of the day and increase their vocabularies and world knowledge.)

Second, a major problem with reading comprehension is the writing. I have a year of graduate school, have been reading since I was four years old, am a published author--and I regularly read articles in the Post and other sources that make no sense to me at all. Either it is a subject, such as economics that I know less about then the reporter assumes or the reporter is simply unable to use words correctly. And the current style of making even reports on a Congressional vote start out with a scene-setting paragraph so you have to read halfway down the column to find out what happened doesn't help.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 22, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Willingham's remarks vastly oversimplify this issue. There has been quite a lot of research on the role of volume in reading and it does appear to have a positive impact, in a variety of ways. Read Cunningham and Stanovich, "What Reading Does for the Mind," Journal of Direct Instruction, 2001. Or see Reading More, Reading Better, Elfrieda Hiebert editor, 2009. Willingham has a bad habit of presenting his preferred answer to a question as if it's the only possible or reasonable answer.

Posted by: August1 | December 22, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Stanovich was talking about reading the sources--newspapers, magazine, books--that I'm talking about. He argues that reading volume helps because reading provides rich vocabulary (and likely, a richer source of ideas) than t.v. or spoken speech. Far from contradicting Stanovich, I'm agreeing with him.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | December 22, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Controlled studies consistently show that more reading leads to better reading, and there are a lot of them (see Krashen, S 2004, The Power of Reading, second edition, published by Libraries Unlimited and Heinemann Press). These scientific studies are more telling than crude correlations with large populations.
1. Quantity of reported voluntary reading has correlated with NAEP scores over and over. See the many reports for individual NAEP tests in past years.
2. Overall, there is more reading going on. But there is also more child poverty, now at 25% (the largest of all industrialized countries, compare to Denmark at 2%). Children of poverty have very little access to books at home, school or in their communities, and thus have lower NAEP scores. The low scoring high poverty group lowers the overall score to a greater extent every time the NAEP is given. This is more likely the reason more reading has not resulted in higher NAEP scores over the years, not the suggestion that we are doing more "lighter" reading.
But Willington raises a good question: Are children and adults reading more "lightweight" reading than before? This is an empirical question that should be investigated scientifically.

Posted by: skrashen | December 23, 2009 1:41 AM | Report abuse

@Skrashen: I'm sure that controlled studies show that more reading leads to better reading, and that NAEP scores correlate with voluntary reading. I'm all for more reading. . . of high quality content. What I'm suggesting is that reading low quality content doesn't help much. I *suspect* that when you ask for self-report of reading (in the NAEP studies you mention) kids seldom think of the the type of reading I'm talking about (reading text messages, etc.) I think they would interpret the question to mean books and other traditional print material.
Question about increased poverty being the reason that national reading scores have been flat: shouldn't this account predict that scores have gone *up* for wealthier kids (and hence the addition of a greater number of low-scoring poorer kids results in a flat average)? NAEP scores for the long term test are not available: for the regular NAEP, disaggregating by school lunch availability shows eligible and not-eligible groups both show flat scores since 1998.
I agree that it would be great to have an empirical analysis of the content of the various sources listed in the report mentioned in my blog entry--we already have an empirical report of what people are reading. . .although more data is always good :)

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | December 23, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I'm a (fairly new) Nursing instructor. What you say makes so much sense to me. If, for example, I read a S. King novel, it probably won't help me understand (and teach) how the heart works. If I read a seemingly unrelated article in Scientific American, it may give me a piece of information that furthers my understanding of the heart(and helps me secure the learning in long-term memory).

Most of my Nursing students don't read Scientific American (or other "serious" literature). I use stories (of actual clinical practice), worksheets (How the heart works), outlines & case studies to try to help students retain material - but the task is daunting. There is so much they need to know. Out of all my teaching "tools", students tell me they remember the stories years after graduation. Why is this? And, of course, how can I do better?

Posted by: instructor1 | December 23, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I checked the NAEP long-term scores as you suggested and you are right, there is little change in the scores of higher income children for grades four and eight.

You suggested that children do not report "lighter" reading in self-reports of free reading. There is evidence that you are right in this case as well:

Mellon (1989) gave a questionnaire to ninth graders in two rural high schools in North Carolina and concluded that respondents “didn’t trust” that the questionnaire was really dealing with self-selected pleasure reading, and considered the kind of reading they liked as “not quite legitimate” (p. 30).

Here are three illuminating comments by her subjects: “I don’t like reading except for comic books or magazines,” “ ... I hate reading unless it’s a magazine about something I like,” and “I don’t like to read much except for romance, mystery, and scary books” (p. 30).

Of the 66 respondents in Mellon’s study who claimed they never read in their spare time, 49 checked several categories of leisure reading when asked what they liked to read.

Mellon, C. 1987. Teenagers do read: What rural youth say about leisure reading. School Library Journal 38(8): 27-30.

Posted by: skrashen | December 24, 2009 2:27 AM | Report abuse

Another problem with surveys is that all people, teenagers and college students especially, only report "pleasure reading." For anyone in college or working long hours at a job that involves reading, this is "lighter" reading simply because we do so much heavy reading as work or class assignments. I went through an entire year of graduate school without reading anything besides the morning paper--except for the dozen or so history books we read and discussed in class in the course of the year and the books--by Populist politicians, etc.--that I had to read and write a one-page summary of each weekend. I simply had no time or energy to sit down and read anything that wasn't an assignment. Like most students, I didn't consider that the sort of reading the surveys ask about. (Now unemployed, I am reading a volume of Kipling, a history of WWI, and a mystery, and I recently re-read MacBeth. When I find a job, depending on the time and energy it takes, I will probably stick to the newspaper and maybe a magazine or two.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 24, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

@Instructor1: you might be interested in an article I wrote for American Educator a few years ago about stories in education:
@skrashen: thanks for the reference and for adding your very knowledgeable voice to this discussion
@opinionated reader: skrashen cites an interesting study on this topic in the comment before yours. . . this problem could be alleviated at least to some degree by questions on the survey.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | December 24, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse


Thank you - the "story" article was very helpful.

I have always wondered if part of the story's power is because of its emotional content - especially in life & death situations. I guess this would tie in with "conflict"? I put a lot of drama, voices, etc. into each story. Classes are long, most of our students work full time, have families, etc. I hate having even one student sleep through class!

Most of my students are not great readers. I've thought about writing down stories, but I'm afraid they'd lose a lot of their emotional appeal/interest.

You talk a lot about student engagement. Have you written anything about PowerPoint presentations? (One of my sons is a freshman - and says he wants to hang himself every time there's a PPt presentation.) I'm sure PPt is one of the reasons many students hate college.

Posted by: instructor1 | December 24, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

instructor1: I will be writing something about powerpoint shortly. . . .

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | December 25, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

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