Willingham: Reading Is Not a Skill--And Why This Is a Problem for the Draft National Standards
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.
| September 28, 2009; 7:30 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Learning, National Standards, Reading | Tags: Daniel Willingham, National Standards, Reading
Save & Share: Previous: Trachtenberg: New Year’s Greetings 5770
Next: CHECKING IT OUT, Part I: Reading on Paper or Screen--Which Is Better?
Posted by: DanielTWillingham | September 28, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: mm14 | September 28, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: kjamundson | September 28, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: TomHoffman | September 28, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Brooklander | September 28, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: rpondiscio | September 28, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: someguy100 | September 28, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: RedBird27 | September 29, 2009 7:23 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: tomlin-brenner | October 2, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: balesley | October 2, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: helene6 | October 2, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: robinhansen | October 2, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mashabell | October 3, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.