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Posted at 7:30 AM ET, 09/28/2009

Willingham: Reading Is Not a Skill--And Why This Is a Problem for the Draft National Standards

By Valerie Strauss

Today's guest is Psychology Professor Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia, who researches learning and the brain.

By Daniel Willingham
A draft of the voluntary national standards for reading was just released, and at first glance the 18 standards sound quite sensible: students should be able to determine what a text says, make inferences from it, discern the most important ideas, and so forth.

Many of the standards boil down to this notion: "The student will be able to comprehend the text.” For the others, comprehension is a prerequisite.

The problem is that teachers and administrators are likely to read those 18 standards and to try to teach to them. But reading comprehension is not a “skill” that can be taught directly.

We tend to teach comprehension as a series of “reading strategies” that can be practiced and mastered. Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way. The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.

Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information. For example, suppose you read “He just got a new puppy. His landlord is angry.” You easily understand the logical connection between those sentences because you know things about puppies (they aren’t housebroken), carpets (urine stains them) and landlords (they are protective of their property.)

The writer could have included all that information. The writer gambled that the reader would know about puppies, carpets and landlords. A writer who doesn’t assume some prior knowledge on the part of her readers will write very boring prose.

What happens if the reader doesn’t have the prior knowledge the writer assumed she had? The reader will be confused and comprehension breaks down.

This is exactly what happens for millions of poor readers. They can “read” (they can sound out the words on the page) but they can’t consistently comprehend. They read it, but they don’t “get it.”

Remarkably, if you take kids who score poorly on a reading test and ask them to read on a topic they know something about (baseball, say, or dinosaurs) all of a sudden their comprehension is terrific—better than kids who score well on reading tests but who don’t know a lot about baseball or dinosaurs.

In other words, kids who score well on reading tests are not really kids with good “reading skills.”

The kids who score well on reading tests are ones who know a lot about the world—they have a lot of prior knowledge about a wide range of things--and so that whatever they are asked to read about on the test, they likely know something about it.

(This is only true once kids have cracked the code of letters and sounds and can apply that translation fluently-- say, 5th grade and after.)

Can’t you teach kids how to reason about texts, and thereby wring the meaning out of it even if they don’t have the right prior knowledge?

To some extent, but it doesn’t seem to help as much as you might expect. For one thing, this sort of reasoning is difficult mental work. For another, it’s slow, and so it breaks up the flow of the story you’re reading, and the fun of the story is lost. Hoping that students without relevant prior knowledge will reason their way through a story is a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.

Oftentimes, knowledge gaps can’t be filled by a strategy.

For example, suppose you read this: “The Obama administration will announce a new policy Wednesday making it much more difficult for the government to claim that it is protecting state secrets when it hides details of sensitive national security strategies such as rendition and warrantless eavesdropping, according to two senior Justice Department officials.”

In this instance, the writer assumed that the reader knew the definitions of “rendition,” “warrantless wiretaps,” what a state secret might be, and the significance of the announcement coming from the executive branch of the government, at the least.

If you know those things, comprehension is effortless. What strategy is going to lead you to correct guesses?

I didn’t pick that sentence randomly. It was the first sentence of the lead story of The Washington Post on the day I’m writing this post. If we want students to be able to read a serious newspaper, they need prior knowledge.

How do students get prior knowledge? It accumulates through years of exposure to newspapers, serious magazines, books, conversations with knowledgeable people. It should also come from a content-rich curriculum in school.

Oddly enough, the new national standards actually say that. The standards documents lists “have a strong content base” as one of the things that college-ready readers tend to have.

But the standards themselves don’t recommend that we ensure that students “have a strong content base” as a way to ensure that they are good readers!

(A few months ago, I created a video called “Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading” that explains this. You can see it here on YouTube .

Instead, the standards document lists things that students ought to be able to do (summarize, find the main idea, etc.) that invite states, districts, and teachers to design curricula emphasizing practice in those skills.

The mistaken idea that reading is a skill—learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies and you can read anything—may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country.

Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge base problem must be solved.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 28, 2009; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Learning, National Standards, Reading  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, National Standards, Reading  
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Next: CHECKING IT OUT, Part I: Reading on Paper or Screen--Which Is Better?


Citations to articles supporting the assertions made here:

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | September 28, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Semantics aside, reading comprehension needs to improve. The broad idea is that students should be well-rounded Renaissance women and men, exposed to classics in philosophy, literature, history, ecnonmics and the sciences. This canon provides the foundation / context to comprehend arguments- stipulated. A prerequisite to reading these texts, of course, is the ability to read. While the issues are tightly intercoupled, I think people comprehend the broader point: our students, in aggregate, do not reason as critically as they should. Part of it is reading, part comprehension- the root cause is likely lack of exposure to key works, overexposure to tv and Internet. We will to reallocate students time to focus more on learning.

Posted by: mm14 | September 28, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

There's no question content knowledge is critical. But Willingham ignores another reality--that the way you read a science textbook differs dramatically from the way you read a history textbook. Don Deshler has done some very interesting research on this issue. So, as always, it's not either/or. It's both/and.

Posted by: kjamundson | September 28, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Don’t get me wrong, I think these proposed standards are a disaster, but I can’t figure out what you would want for English Language Arts standards. Just list content (in all subjects?) and imply that you have to be able to read and use it? Perhaps just a list of hyperlinks to standards in other subjects? Does anyone in the world do this right?

And I’m not talking about curriculum — I’m talking about a standards document.

Posted by: TomHoffman | September 28, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

This is why it is so important to read to kids early and often and on a variety of topics. This is why so many kids are starved in inner-cities, they don't have access to experiences and interesting print resources that can build content experience. Try to go to a book store in the district east of the 12th street or outside of downtown, you can't. This is why public libraries are so essential, this is why effective afterschool programs are valuable, but only if we focus on content instead of just rote learning. When you look at programs like the Harlem Children's Project ths is part of what they are focusing on building knowledge so that kids can actully use the mechanics of reading. If we don't get the content side it will be like teaching someone to drive only in a simulator but never putting them on the road.

Posted by: Brooklander | September 28, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

If we could get every teacher and parent in the U.S. to understand what Dan expresses so clearly – that reading comprehension is not a skill that can be taught in the abstract – it could do more to boost reading achievement than all the policy prescriptions emanating from the Washington.

People misunderstand what it means when they hear a child “cannot read.” I taught 5th grade in the South Bronx for several years in a school where more than 80% of the children read below grade level. I never had a single student that could not “decode” (turn the letters on the printed page into sounds and words). They could all read, but they did not read with comprehension. As Dan puts it, they read it, but they didn’t get it. Like every other teacher, I was trained that metacognitive “reading strategies” was the way to boost comprehension. But it became clear that it was it not enough. My students lacked the background knowledge that let them fill in the gaps Dan describes. Add to this the curriculum narrowing that took place as an unintended consequence of the accountability movement and it’s a recipe for disaster.

It is essential that we understand this if we are ever to boost reading achievement among our most disadvantaged students.

Posted by: rpondiscio | September 28, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

It makes no sense to keep reteaching "reading strategies" to middle and high schoolers as is stressed now

I think of it with this parallel from math:
if a child can't figure out algebra, just keep teaching them how to add and subtract.

Posted by: someguy100 | September 28, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Reading - the decoding of letters and sounds - is a skill. The next step, comprehending what you read, setting it into context goes beyond skill into what I consider an art.

To be fair in testing the materials shouldn't assume prior knowledge. If you test on comprehension the sources materials need to be provided.

Assuming prior knowledge is how we've discriminated against minorities and those of other cultures for years.

I spent a lot of time sending my children to religious school because I wanted them to have prior knowledge of the Bible. To administer them a test that refers to the Koran without providing the text isn't a measure of their reading comprehension, it's a measure of their cultural awareness.

So I'd like to know just what comes in the test packages. If you can read quickly enough and remember the salient points you should be able to pass a comprehension test given all the supporting materials. If the supporting materials aren't provided then it's not a measure of your reading ability.

It seems to me that beyond decoding the words, something schools have not always done a very good job of teaching, that reading quickly and focusing on linking the salient points is what schools would focus on.

In truth reading is something a lot of kids "get" despite schooling and we should be thankful for that!

Posted by: RedBird27 | September 29, 2009 7:23 AM | Report abuse

In this case, semantics are very important. To say that reading is "NOT" a skill, or that the need for skills is a "MISTAKEN IDEA," is an over simplification that leads to quick-fix solutions that are no more effective than previous initiatives. Reading is a highly complex process that is easy for many, but difficult for some. Background knowledge is extrememly important, just as is cultural relevancy and neighborhood expectations. However, without explicit instruction in skills, the poor reader may never understand the nuances that good readers bring to the process intuitively.

Posted by: tomlin-brenner | October 2, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

This column and the YouTube video are excellent! The Dept. of Ed. has spent millions funding the Striving Readers grant. They only funded programs that explicitly taught reading comprehension "strategies," without the understanding that the two major influences on one's ability to comprehend are, first, decoding fluency and, second, vocabulary and prior knowledge. When the evaluation came in, there was, predictably, "no significant difference." I was so glad to see this column today! How can we use it to inform public policy?

Posted by: balesley | October 2, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

The author and his commentators have provided much to think about, and I'd like to add another piece to the reading puzzle. As a tutor in a community college sub-credit English class embracing both ESL students and returning under-educated native speakers, I worked with young men who could not turn a 10 page reading of adult-level fiction into a 5 paragraph summary. They certainly lacked background knowledge, and their writing skills were undeveloped, but what limited them was not so much a lack of critical thinking, but an inability to recognize or to understand long-chain reasoning.

They could decode quite well, but so much of their attention was devoted to deciphering that they had little intellectual energy left to see what the passage meant in its context. They gave themselves full credit, had "done their job," reading the words correctly and didn't see the need for anything further. They had no clue and no rhetorical tools to make connections within or between sentences or paragraphs.

Grammatical knowledge is a precondition to critical thinking. You can't analyze the text in any meaningful way if you can't see that the coordinating conjunction, or the demonstrative pronoun, for example, is giving you information about how two ideas go together.

Of course the ability to retain or suspend closure on any given idea until the author signals a change of direction is essential for following long-chain reasoning or complex text, whether the text is literary or scientific. Even simple clues, like "On the one hand..." or "Firstly.." would pass these students by without notice. Complex text requires a slower reading rate precisely because the reader has to locate the connectors out of a welter of information.

For the students I served, the connectors I found in the text to answer some non-obvious analytical question I posed were news, some magic trick I had up my sleeve. They were intrigued by the notion that they could find the answers too, and stuck with me through the grammatical explanations, Sorcerer's Apprentices finally learning to control the broom.

Posted by: helene6 | October 2, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I hate this kind of article title because it is SO misleading. Decoding IS a skill, reading comprehension may or may NOT be another matter depending on the cause. These kinds of semantics are HARMFUL for children with learning disbilities who never learn to decode because few teachers in public schools have been trained properly to teach decoding. Look at to see the collateral damage done by graduating children who cannot decode properly.
Comprehension problems may simply be about kids who cannot visualize in their minds eye to hold onto facts and integrate details. It is not always about socio economic issues. That is such a stereotype.

Posted by: robinhansen | October 2, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Lack of knowledge is indeed an impediment to reading comprehension. The problem for all English-speaking countries is that many children have trouble acquiring a comprehensive knowledge base because they take too long to become fluent readers, with 1 in 5 never doing so at all.

There is only one, not immediately obvious, nor immediately appealing solution to this problem: make at least learning to read English easier by making English spelling a little more regular.

Spelling difficulties bring no educational advantages either, but the roughly 2000 common words with changing letter sounds, such as ‘great, treat, threat’, which can be seen on the Sight Words page at are our biggest educational impediment and cost us most of all. Nobody can learn much without learning to read first. The Finns and Koreans prove constantly what advantages a good spelling system brings.

Posted by: mashabell | October 3, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

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