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Reading Comprehension: A Problem for Adolescent Literacy?

| 4 Comments

Those of you who have been delighted, vindicated, or intrigued by the recent uptick in conversation about adolescent literacy might find lots of food for thought in Daniel Willingham's piece on The Washington Post's website yesterday. Willingham, a psychology professor who studies the brain and how people learn, argues that most struggling readers have trouble not because they can't figure out the words they're reading, but because they lack the underlying knowledge to make sense of them.

For that reason, Willingham argues, reading comprehension is not a skill that can be directly taught. And that, he says, poses a problem for the common core standards that are under construction.

I can imagine that it would also create problems in teaching adolescents, unless everyone who teaches middle and high school students suddenly figured out how to impart all the underlying knowledge kids need to make sense of the sentences in their biology or history textbooks. Given the intense interest in a recent Carnegie report urging an overhaul in teaching adolescent literacy, Willingham's argument could provoke some interesting reflection. (See our story about the Carnegie report here, and a blog item about it here. This blog post by my colleague Mary Ann Zehr outlines some of the activity on this topic as well. And while you're at it, you can check out this archived chat and blog posts here and here. And you might want to check out Willingham's own videos about this stuff on YouTube. (Hey, it's not just for wonks. This video's been viewed more than15,000 times!)

4 Comments

Students struggling because they do not have sufficient understanding makes great sense, but does this not also address the inadequacies of the material that is written? Should it not be written with more background, explanation, redundancy, imagery, and other assistance to fill in when understanding is deficient? This does create a dilemma for a writer of static (paper-based) material, but need not be the case for material developed for the Web. Here one can provide the needed background, vocabulary cards, links to additional information, expansion of images, notation on images popping up upon mouse-over with a cursor, audio explanations, etc. BTW: the video is outstanding.

How about just reading to kids a lot? Let them draw or color or play with cars while you read all manner of worthwhile stuff. They'll love it and they'll soak up piles of knowledge that will make them good readers. It's worked for thousands of parents who have done it with their own children. The major drawback for schools? If you start boring or terrorizing kids with testing on what you've read, you'll ruin the effort. On the other hand, if you just engage them in some conversation about it, you'll enhance the effort. It's simple, effective and almost free.

What in the world? Making a statement does not make it truth. Scaffoldng has been around for decades. Where on this planet is this being circulated? Vocabulary is how you understand.

Mr. Willingham makes a critical point. While older students who have difficulty with decoding and automaticity – can benefit from strategies that strengthen the skill—in the end reading comprehension depends on prior content knowledge and language experiences. I think it makes sense that children who do not have rich exposures to print and language and general information about the world stand to come up short on reading comprehension. Despite all the buttons they learn how to push and manipulate will sell them short on their own further education if they can not become effective readers.

The valuing of general knowledge about the world, memorization of geographical and cultural facts is something that we seem to have forgotten a bit. Perhaps getting back to once again becoming card carrying participants as citizens of the world—like everyone else—is something we may need to think about.

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  • Shobhana Rishi: Mr. Willingham makes a critical point. While older students who read more
  • Carol Rice: What in the world? Making a statement does not make read more
  • Tammy Drennnan: How about just reading to kids a lot? Let them read more
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