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Reading Comprehension


What will it take to improve test scores in reading? And when does reading improvement matter most? In this Education Week Commentary, E.D. Hirsch argues that the current emphasis on skills-oriented comprehension strategies in the lower grades is misguided.

According to Hirsch, imparting knowledge of the concepts and ideas behind language will ultimately help students to achieve reading proficiency in later grades. Rather than spending time on mechanical reading drills with irrelevant subject matter, Hirsch recommends a more systematic, knowledge-based approach. Making students familiar with a wide range of concepts will allow them to use context and general understanding to decipher words in the later grades when, Hirsch argues, reading scores matter most.

What do you think? Would a commitment to building general knowledge, rather than the current emphasis on teaching reading-comprehension strategies, lead to better reading scores in later grades?


It will require school districts supporting teachers who recommend students for retention who have not met the necessary standards for promotion to grade-levels at the primary level. Too often, for profit and bueracy in public schools permit or insist that teachers promote students who have not met the criteria for promotion. Until this is truly enforced despite the requirements of "No Child Left Behind" on paper literally speaking, education will continue to remain critical in the area of literacy.

Students need time to read a lot of books and time to talk about the books they are reading. Students need to have teachers who read aloud books and talk about what the teachers are thinking as they read. Students need teachers who demonstrate a love for reading. Once students have seen models for reading and talking about books, have talked about books with their teachers during read aloud, and are talking about the books they have read with their classmates...compreshension will improve!

It will take a cultural change. My high school students (from all socioeconomic levels) see no need for vast general knowledge, and their parents do not encourage it. Copying is the method of choice for doing assignments, and they seldom even read what they copy. It is easy to Google anything they need to report, copy it, and paste into Word. These same students are proficient text messagers who use their shorthand even in formal reports.

Retention? Let's please let this practice die a peaceful death and replace it with strategies that do not blame children and are also effective: summer programs, tutoring, year-round programs--all of which are more cost-effective as well.

If you're interested in the topic of reading comprehension as it relates to English language learners, I suggest looking at the following page: http://colorincolorado.org/webcasts/1005.php

ColorinColorado.org premieres a webcast on the topic tomorrow, and a number of links to articles and resources are already posted.

John's comments regarding children needing teachers who are readers and enthusiastic about reading are so true....especially in this age when fewer parents are reading for pleasure as role models.

Older children also need those same kind of enthusiastic reading mentors and role models as well who read current literature along with the classics. We can't relax when a child learns to read beginning chapter books. They must be led and coached by good role models until they are also reading 300 page, adult length books. We can't stop until the job is done.

Not only do I agree with Professor Hirsch but I am amazed that so many reading "experts" believe that low level skills (phonics, comprehension strategies) are going to help children become competent and avid readers. It should be obvious to everyone (not just the experts) that reading comprehension depends almost completely on the background knowledge of the reader. "Sounding out" is to reading comprehension what printing is to composition. These skills might be basic, but they will take you only as far as "Go." Learning a strategy for finding the main idea is useful, but only if you have the capacity and the knowledge to grasp that idea.

I have been encouraging my colleagues to adopt Mr. Hirsch's program for many years, but everyone has been so focused on "skills." However, now I have a principal who is well aware of the low comprehension abilities of our older children and wants to do something about it. She agrees with me that we must help our students acquire the information that they need in order to access a writer's message. Just yesterday she presented each of us with a copy of his book.

I am amazed that we hear so much about background knowledge, but in reality most of the focus is on skills. While it is important to teach skills, they will not help any student comprehend without some knowledge about the passages he reads about. How can a child categorize details into a main idea, when he cannot even visualize the concept described in a text? How can a child infer or predict if he or she has not had any experience about the topic? These same children do not have schema to make assumptions because there is nothing to compare. They cannot chunk. This concept is not hard to understand. Yet in my state students in K-3 are to be taught only Reading and Math if they are behind. Many are not behind in decoding or comprehension skills. They read fluently, but they cannot pass a comprehension test. They do not have any idea about the topics they read about. In other words; NO KNOWLEDGE, NO VOCABULARY, NO CONNECTIONS, NO COMPREHENSION! Developing background knowledge in the sciences, and arts gives the children a foundation to work upon.
When you talk about the gap between the socio-economic classes, THIS IS THE GAP! These children not only hear fewer words in the home, but they go to fewer places. That means there is a giant cultural gap. Teachers have a tremendous disadvantage with proverty children. That why a teacher once said, "I was a poor teacher, but when I began teaching in the suburbs I became a terrific teacher."

I agree that what Mr. Hirsch has pointed out is true of some students; however, there are some students in middle school who do not have adequate fluency and decoding skills. There is also a small, but present, group for whom test taking strategies are an issue and others who do not test well due to test anxiety. Reading remediation with an emphasis on things that the student has already mastered doesn't work. When will we accept that their is no quick, one size fits all cure.

I agree with Hirsch that knowledge-based reading comprehension programs are the way create college- or career-ready readers.

But most schools have no intention of instituting a K-8 curriculum reform like Core Know; SO THE QUESTION IS: What can one teacher, over the course of a only one or two years--do to help students to close the knowledge gap that leads to poor reading skills?

When the gap is HUGE (e.g. a knowledge gap of (using vocab to quantify it) 3000-4000 words; and a reading gap of 4-5 grade levels) I've found the only way to make a diference in one year is to use a 50/50 method (50% computers/50% hands-on coaching). True for math, true for reading. How?

Computer-aided learning to boost vocab and give guided reading practice at correct level of difficulty; Hands-on Coaching to do... all the things good reading teachers do already.

I am too old to become a true believer, but when I read Hirsch in the AFT journal I came close to a road the Damascus moment. Hirsch has always been hard on left-wing establishment academics and I was one when I first read him. Now I'm a liberal establishment inner city high school teacher, and I enthusiastically agree with him. If he says that process oriented theorists created our reading problem, I disagree. But he explains why we haven't made more progress in solutions.

Part of the misunderstanding, though, may be Hirst's fault. He disparages "learning how to learn," while promoting "the Matthew Effect." I don't see a big difference.

But, as long as we ignore the "opportunity costs" of wasting time on test prep, "process" skills, reading comprehension will continue to decline.

I learned to read in the early 1960's, as a three year old I begged my mother to teach me to read. She said wait till you get to school, when I was finally given the Dick and Jane series in first grade I was in heaven. Imagine the joy of reading See Dick, See Jane. Well, I read that book to anyone and anything. My initial skills were based on the fact that I read and read and read. Each book gave me more insight into the skill of decoding. In fact, I never, never learned phonics!! Remember it was the 60's, and in fact, my teacher had 2 grade levels in the room. What instruction I received was with the colored SRA reading packs that were individually done. The better I did with the comprehension of the variety of reading selections, the sooner I advanced to a new color of selections and colored pencil. I was motivating myself, and not forced to sit in a reading group waiting for someone else to answer or read. Good readers, and comprehenders read, read, and read. It takes practice, and can be done without phonics instruction. The best thing to happen to me was a very wise 10th grade teacher who had the class work with speed reading. Not only did my speed increase, but so did my comprehension. Excellent readers do not see words on a page, or sound out unfamiliar words. They reread to make sense. Also, the 1960's were a time period when we as students were given plenty of time to practice reading. We did not suffle from one activity to another. The teacher provided 30 minutes to an hour each day to read in class. That is motivating. How can we develop excellent readers when we do not encourage the actual act of reading. Hunting and peeking for answers does not work. Does ask the best readers in my 10th grade classes. It is the sheer act of engaging yourself in the material, and creating the circumstances that allow one to see the reading rather than reading the words.

Hirsch doesn’t usually get much right about education or reading. my kids loved reading until they got to school and continued to read outside school until school swallowed their time and forced reading as curriculum. they may have to wait until after college to enjoy reading books again. school has made books seem like punishment or medicine

i saw that they still did lots of reading online, most of it interpresonal and without much depth beyond “wassup, homegirl?” but the internet, luckily, hasn’t been incorporated into schools in any substantive way so they still like reading things online. they also still read almost every movie they watch on dvd. that’s left over from their childhood. i taught them to read using closd captions on TV and subtitkles on dvvd’s. hirsch thinks they need background, but maybe what they need is context. and it isn’t always the same thing. anyway, they still watch and read the movies they get on dvd and are disappointed when there isn’t an enlgish subtitle option on the disk. so, they are still reading a lot.

i know it might be a richer literary experience to read novels, but well-written movies are still screenplays, right? and no one thinks that shakespeare wrote his plays to be read—he wrote them to be watched. and there was a fair amount of depth and breadth in the guy’s writing and style. now, how much background do you need to watch the movie “i, robot?” i did try working backwards and tried to get students to read asimov’s version after they saw the film. it has worked before.

Putting skill-appropriate books into youngsters' hands has got to be the way to improve reading skills. Please, please, please with every fiber of your being, encourage young people to read. I do accept Hirsch's approach in creating a body of knowledge that pulls our peoples together into "We, the People." Our nation needs readers with a body of literature that draws us together.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. There's a great deal of evidence that great readers are also great decoders -- even science has demonstrated that with many scientific studies. We crawl before we walk; we walk before we run. Kids need the skills of decoding before they become competent readers. Yeah, the 120+ IQ kids in the class don't need any of the direct instruction, but most kids are 110 and less, and the ones with the lower IQs require more direct instruction in skills to be competent/accomplished readers. While more reading strengthens the ability of all readers, smarter kids need to read less to demonstrate higher skills. All kids do not have the same ability and no amount of instruction can create equal outcomes unless we continue to do as we do today and lower the standards of accomplishment.

It's difficult to disagree with Hirsch's thesis. The more knowledge you bring to your reading the better your comprehension will be, but it's not just knowledge that permits higher comprehension. It's also intelligence, and that cannot be learned. This idea that educators should and can make all students demonstrate the skills of 140+ IQ students hurts the lower-middle and weaker students. Let's be satisfied and embrace instruction that helps children reach their unique potentially. This is where education is failing so many kids today.

We live in a bipolar society. Knowledge and comprehension skills are not mutually exclusive things.We need to understand that what produces good readers are people who read. Comprehension strategies provide students with significant skills in how to approach what they read, but without prior knowledge, they are doomed to a perpetual state of confusion. Children who read will be good readers and quite knowledgable. Unfortunately, Hirsch is correct when he states that disadvantaged children spend an enormous time with drill and kill activities. Instead we should spend some of our money to help the parents in these communities develop skills and knowledge of their own to work with their children. Our problems begin "a priori" of the classroom.

Reading proficiency comes from a variety of factors such as rich language experiences early in life, balanced instruction, aptitude, motivation, and cultural support. As a nation we have had success at developing readers, but it is certainly true that too many youth have slipped through the cracks.

Hirsch is again pushing his core knowledge curriculm--this time by creating an exaggerated dichotomy between teaching reading skills vs acquiring knowledge. Both are important. A sole focus on knowlege, as he suggests, however, will only accomplish forcing upon schools a dry, inert curriculum. The reading problem will only grow larger. The solution to the reading challenge lies in the national will, committing resources to our communities and neighborhoods, and cultural support. An entertainment culture, likes ours, is less likely to make reading a priority. Maybe Hirsch should tackle that problem.

How dare someone suggest that schools place an emphasis on students' building a knowledge base! Schools were developed to enshrine mindless drilling so that just about ANYONE could be a teacher. And now somebody's concerned that by avoiding knowledge-building, an opportunity to prepare children for lifelong reading/learning could be missed. The nerve!

Prior knowledge and continuous language acquisition through reading, writing, speaking, and exploring are the keys to clearly understanding what one reads, i.e., the language of others. I shun at the thought that so many school districts nation-wide have mandated 90 minutes of "reading instruction" every day - instruction that exchanges the pursuit of substantial knowledge for the joyless activity of practicing reading comprehension skills. Thank you, Professor Hirsch, for your excellent commentary.

All my teaching days - 37 years worth - I reminded myself of the blue collar mother who had me read to her since I was 5 - sure it was slow going and difficult, but we read the newspaper cover to cover, yes, even the obits.
Later with an old encyclopedia set from 1947, we began again. My knowledge grew, as did my skills in school. Of course, by fourth grade we were reading some subjects for knowledge, and spending one class on phonics and reading strategies.
By my adult years, I remained a voracious reader, and am till this day.
I tend to agree that comprehending a passage when it may as well be in Swahili remains impossible, even when armed with all the tricks and strategies pounded into minds unknowing of Swahili.
Decision makers are seldom teachers, and the publishers have clout with politicians, and statesmen. Do any of them read for knowledge? Did they ever?

I pretty much agree with Hirsh in this article. Knowledge is so key! It really helps to explain why so many disadvantaged youngsters start to tank after grade 3 & 4. However wide reading can help. My young son loved to be read to and when he started reading he never stopped. He has gained his immense knowledge through books. When Hirsh describes students not understanding text when they can read the words, he misses the mark. Those students aren't "reading" they are calling words--there is a difference. Students from knowledge depived homes can soar if they are 'true readers'.
Reading aloud to students is key as well as pairing them into the 'right' book so they can develop and increase knowledge. It should be no surprise that most of our overachievers accredit their smarts to reading.
The Hirsh article should certainly be shared with every k-3 teacher who says there is no time anymore for science, social studies, or projects... I know my staff will be reading it!!!

Try as you might, reading a million books will not make a child intelligent. You're born with that. It's like telling the child who is destined to reach a height of 5' that if he plays enough basketball, he'll become a pro basketball player some day. Worse yet, you tell him he doesn't need to practice any of the skills, just play basketball and enough of it, and you'll be great. As much as you may wish this to be so, it just isn't.

With your logic, anyone can become Einstein if they just read and study hard enough. It's a nice thought but entirely silly. Do any of you believe you could have achieved what Einstein achieved if you had only studied hard enough and read more? Do you believe the only reason you do not understand his most complicated theories is because you don't have enough knowledge? Most people will never be able to comprehend and follow the proofs of his theories no matter how much they may work at it.

I have a great deal of trouble with this idea that you don't need to teach the kids the skills required to become competent readers to be successfull readers. My experience with my own children and my own life tells me this is entirely false. For the kids that aren't making the grade, you are blaming the parents for not caring enough (even though they might care a hell of a lot), you are blaming the kids for not reading enough, and you are blaming the skills proponents for being too stupid.

People are born smart. They are not made smart. People through education become educated. Being educated and smart are entirely 2 different things, and only one of them can be taught. This idea that through enough reading we can make all kids equally smart is ludicrous, and it is hurting the average and below average children.

When the educators that are controlling the agenda finally -- if ever -- acknowledge that all kids are not capable of reaching the same academic heights, we may finally be able to help kids reach their fullest potential, which is the most esteemed goal of any education.

E.D.'s championing domain knowledge is a no brainer.A reader needs contextual knowledge to comprehend ,pickup a legal brief the "old Philadelphia lawyer"quote comes to mind. (you need a lawyer to make sense of it)the other tool is to be well versed in that domain.Which again in the legal business they have lots of background knowledge .They know how to break the code.

A reader needs to read a wide variety of genre.They need to develop a data pool.then they will have prior knowledge to access to tap into for comprehension.Thanks E.D.for the advocacy.

I still don't get this idea that you're either for domain knowledge and against phonics skills or for phonics skills and against domain knowledge. Why do many educators argue against strategies that work when they are advocating new methods?

I learned to read in the first grade via a phonics method. At the time it was the new fad -- ITA. By the end of the first grade, there was no book that was beyond my ability to read, and read I did. Could I comprehend college, high school, or junior high level material? No way could I, but who could at that age regardless of the teaching methodology? No way is a first grader going to comprehend legal briefs or a sixth grader for that matter. It takes 4 years of law school to comprehend legal briefs.

However, learning to read that way made reading effortless for me and my contemparies. As a result, there were no barriers or frustrations to approaching books that were within our comprehension range or beyond.

Contrast that with today's methodologies where kids not only have difficulty comprehending, they have difficulty even decoding the words on the page. They are frustrated with reading because they didn't not acquire the skills to decode the written word. You can't comprehend what you can't read. Why do educators insist on this either or approach? Domain knowledge without the decoding skills is like putting the cart before the horse.

I remember as a child watching the rocky and bullwinkel cartoons. The material was way beyond my years at the time as I only learned that I was clueless about the dialogue and the themes until I watched a few episodes as an adult. The point here is that a great deal of knowledge and understanding and finally reading comprehension can only be acquired through time and maturity. We can't force it through will or superior teaching techniques.

A human does not begin to acquire knowledge and comprehension through the auditory senses until their brains can master the decoding skills of the spoken word. Why should this be any different for written language?

In spite of the inferior reading methodology (by today's standards) I was taught to read by, I was able to attain great academic success and finally professional success. I'm sure if I was instructed with todays whole language curriculum approach or contextual approach, I would never have achieved the academic success that I have achieved and learning would have been a constant struggle in the primary grades.

Phil Gurbada, I wish there were more principals like yourself. You are unique in your philosophy and profession, which tells me you are highly intelligent. Our district could benefit from someone of your view, and I hope your community realizes how special you are.

I am always amazed at the ability of so many people in education to remain completely unaware of the research when it comes to reading. Hirsch is wrong. The evidence for the effectiveness of phonics in reading instruction is overwhelming. Think. There are thousands of core knowledge schools in the United States. If Hirsch was correct, the effectveness of these schools would be front page news.

Last summer in a seminar with Anita Archer about struggling adolescent readers, she stressed again and again that vocabulary and background knowledge will help our struggling readers, but that means they have to have the basics, like decoding skills. How are children to acquire that background knowledge and vocabulary? We can say read more, but that won't cover all that's needed. I am trying to inspire children and teachers to read about what they are interested in and share with others, even me. Why? The reasoning is easy, we will all grow and be inspired by each other. I cannot give up, even when I cannot do all.

I am unable to make up the gap all by myself in one year, for all the gaps that are there. Each person must choose for themselves what they can do, and then do it. It all makes a difference, even if it isn't a perfect difference.

I am reminded of the man walking on a beach and picking up starfish on the shore and throwing them into the ocean as he continued to walk on the shore. Someone told him it won't make a difference. He bent down and picked one up and threw it in the ocean commenting, "It made a difference to that one."

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