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Posted at 3:00 PM ET, 01/11/2010

Willingham: The zeitgeist of reading instruction

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
I have written (on this blog and elsewhere) about the importance of background knowledge and about the limited value of instructing students in reading comprehension strategies.

To be clear, I don’t think that such instruction is worthless. It has a significant impact, but it seems to be a one-time effect and the strategies are quickly learned. More practice of these strategies pays little or no return. You can read more about that here.

Knowledge of the topic you’re reading about, in contrast, has an enormous impact and more important, there is no ceiling—the more knowledge you gain, the more your reading improves.

In a recent email conversation an experienced educator asked me why, if that’s true, there has been such emphasis on reading strategies and skills in teacher’s professional development.

There’s a temptation to say “Oh, Americans don’t value knowledge; they don’t think that people need to know stuff.” But I rarely run into a teacher or administrator who believes that, and I actually have (as yet unpublished) survey data to support that impression. So I don’t think that’s behind it.

Doubtless there is more than one reason, but as a researcher, I have a hypothesis: People think strategies are important because most of the reading research is on strategies. But that’s an accident of the way research is done.

Behavioral research (and educational research in particular) is a more conservative enterprise than you might think. When a researcher decides to conduct a study in classrooms, he or she typically commits at minimum two years of his or her life to the project. What if nothing much happens?

A researcher is therefore motivated not to conduct studies that break utterly new ground, but rather to conduct studies in which one is fairly confident that something will happen.

One takes an intervention that has worked in the past, and adds an interesting tweak.

If you need further evidence, have a look at the vaunted “Innovation in Education” grants announced by the Department of Education in October of 2009.

There are three categories of grants, and the least stringent set of criteria include consideration of (1) “research-based finding or reasonable hypotheses that support the proposed project, including related research in education and other sectors” and (2) “the extent to which the proposed project has been attempted previously, albeit on a limited scale or in a limited setting, with promising results. . .”

In other words, to be competitive for funding the proposal has to be something for which there is already evidence that it will work.

Now consider what it takes to do research on strategy instruction versus knowledge instruction. Teaching children reading strategies is quick. A research project might call for 10 or 20 lessons in total, each lasting 30 minutes or less. One can imagine getting a school administrator’s permission to do such a study in his or her district.

But the hypothesis for knowledge instruction is that it takes years to make a broad impact on students’ knowledge.

Sure, you could do a relatively quick study showing that if you teach students some new knowledge about a specific topic they will better comprehend new information on that topic, but you would predict that this improvement won’t transfer to other materials. That is, if you teach them about the tides, they will better comprehend an article about beachside erosion, but will show no advantage on a passage about acid rain in the Adirondacks.

If you really want an experimental test of whether improved background knowledge boosts reading comprehension, then you have to advocate for a whole new curriculum, across grades.

A researcher will not (and should not) persuade a school administrator to change curricula just for the sake of a research project. And a project that takes years to execute will not appeal much to a researcher, particularly one sweating out tenure or seeking funding.

The comparative ease of doing reading strategies research combined with the inherent conservatism of the research process means that most reading research is strategy research, and that there is a dearth of research on the impact of a knowledge-rich curriculum on reading. Researchers usually find that strategy instruction leads to big effects. . . . but they are not looking at it long-term.

That’s how you create a zeitgeist. Little wonder that educators think that “teaching strategies is teaching reading” rather than, as I have argued, “teaching content is teaching reading.”


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 11, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Reading  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, reading instruction  
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As a reading specialist and primary teacher for over 40 years, it was obvious to me that background knowledge is crucial to reading comprehension. Of course, this is also the case with readers of every age. It's difficult for me to believe that there are teachers who don't know this. They might not know what to do about it, but surely they see the connection.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 11, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Akin to knowledge of background for reading is this jewel of an anecdote:

A local kindergarten class had invited a poet to speak to their class, and parents were invited to attend as well. The audience was spellbound by the poet's use of language, and afterwords, parents questioned the poet about what he thought their children could learn to improve their writing.

"Give your children experiences" was the advice; "why else will they want to write unless they have something of interest to write about?"

Hear! hear! If all the focus is on skills and strategies (and the tests thereof), students are sure to be bored and uninspired readers and writers.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 11, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree more with you Dan about the importance of context as it relates to reading comprehension. This is not directly related to your research point but is from something I wrote for an op-ed a few years ago.
"Many adults would be surprised to learn that high school students often cannot read a paragraph and then explain it in a sentence or two without looking back at the material. Students may remember a few words, but frequently they cannot grasp main points. They can read and decode words but they don’t comprehend what they read because they lack a context upon which to build. It is like listening to a foreign language in which you are not fluent but know a number of words. You may pick up bits and pieces but it’s difficult to really grasp what is being said."

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | January 11, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

great post, dan --

it greatly reminds me of the blog post i wrote to dana goldstein's story about the innovation administration which makes some of the same points about what is really innovative and what's not

/ alexander

Posted by: alexanderrusso | January 12, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

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