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Standards Off-Base on Reading 'Comprehension,' Scholar Argues


In an online opinion piece in the Washington Post, Daniel Willingham argues that the draft common standards released last week wrongly suggest that reading comprehension is a skill, or single strategy that can be taught. In fact, reading comprehension is built on prior knowledge—"the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read," the University of Virginia psychology professor contends.Old Book.jpg

Willingham says that schools tend to teach reading comprehension as a series of reading strategies "that can be practiced and mastered." The writers of the "Common Core" standards reinforce the theme, he contends. The document recommends that students have a strong "content base," because that's part of what makes a reader ready for college, he notes. But they miss the essential point, he says: that content is a way "to ensure that they are good readers!"

Why is prior knowledge so crucial to reading comprehension? Because writers leave out information they assume is understood, Willingham says. What happens if a reader lacks that prior knowledge? Comprehension comes off the tracks:

"This is exactly what happens for millions of poor readers," he writes. "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."

How do students, he asks, pick up this 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."

[Editorial comment: The world's print journalists salute you, Mr. Willingham.]

I'll invite the reading teachers and scholars out there to offer their own opinions on his essay.


Basketball is a game made up of specific skills: dribbling, shooting, etc. In practices, coaches have their players practice the specific skills and then apply them to winning the game. When my next door neighbor's son was playing basketball, He spent hours just trying to shoot for a basket. Hours!

You could apply this analogy to numerous other sports as well.

Reading is not a sport but it is like basketball as it is make up of many specific skills. Failing to introduce, practice and review each step will cause the student to fail in complete understanding (as we can evaluate on a test). Failing to coach a student and have him/her practice each "skill" needed for the game will cause the team to lose. We need to return to teaching specific skills as well as focus on holistic reading skills. To do one without the other causes the team to lose and the student to be confused and not able to understand what s/he is reading. We need to blend the old with the new.

I'm sure swimming coaches teach specific skills and do not just throw their students into the pool and yell, "Kick!" That, however, is what we do if we ignore basic skill instruction in teaching reading.

We have to review what worked and then bring it back into vogue. Education has suffered from whole language, new math, etc - or I should say our kids have suffered - and it is scandalous. Blend!

Good writing has good orgnaization. Good readers recognize that such organization exists. I laugh at suggestions to have the kids look at the pictures to clarify what is being said. There are no pictures when they get out of elementary grades and lack the needed skills to be successful because we are telling them to look at the pictures and neglected other strategies.

I beg to differ about the ability to decode a word. Too often, I found kids were unable to do so because they had never been taught the secret of sounds of letters. This is why ESL texts are so valuable because they realize that students bring no knowledge of words with them and need to learn basics.

We have things to do to fix these problems. Texting has brought us a whole new way to communicate and compound the problem. LOL! We will have our hands full.

I am an English and Humanities teacher and I wish Willingham had differentiated in his analysis between readers who are at grade level and readers who are far below. I teach reading comprehension strategies to students who are below grade level in an attempt to help them read grade level texts eventually. However, many of these strategies are all about accessing prior knowledge. Students practice becoming aware of connections between their own lives and what they are reading, and they record these connections.

I place the teaching of these strategies squarely in the interventionist compartment of my literacy toolbox. Were my kids on grade level or above I wouldn't need to teach them such explicit (and frankly dry) strategies for accessing content. How do you teach pure "content" (as Willingham promotes) if 7th graders can't read 7th grade content? Explicit strategies seem to help.

I was lucky enough to be at a high school reading level by the time I was a 7th grader, thanks to privilege, book-loving parents and excellent schools and teachers. So I never learned "how to read" until I started teaching kids who were 2,3,6 grade levels behind where they should be.

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