Education Letter to the Editor

Reading Comprehension: Focus on Content Areas

June 20, 2006 1 min read

To the Editor:

E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Commentary “Reading-Comprehension Skills? What Are They Really?” (April 26, 2006) identifies lack of background knowledge as the main reason for the stagnant reading-test scores of high school students. Without a doubt, the amount of background knowledge a reader brings to the page determines the level of understanding that results. If a reader cannot connect new information to an existing knowledge base of content ideas and conceptual terms, accurate word recognition and strategic-reading skills are of little benefit for extracting meaningful understanding.

Enhancing general background knowledge is indeed the way to address this demonstrated need in comprehension, but reading-skills and reading-strategy instruction should also be vehicles for accomplishing this goal. The critical question for reading-comprehension skills should not be that of the Commentary’s title, “What are they really?”; it should be, “Where are they really taught?”

Reading-comprehension skills and strategy instruction should be taught in every academic subject, every day, at every level. If students are to learn adequately, consistently building an optimum level of personal background knowledge, they must be taught how to read and think effectively about content knowledge. The most qualified person to teach critical, content-area reading strategies is the content-area teacher—the expert in the discipline.

Moving the focus of reading-comprehension skills to the content-area classroom creates a win-win-win situation for students:

• They will be instructed in ways that enhance meaningful learning and long-term retention of information from content material, increasing their potential for academic success.

• They will be instructed in ways that are consistently reinforced from one class to another, increasing their ability to master the skills necessary to become independent, lifelong learners.

• They will bring their increased level of background knowledge and reinforced comprehension skills to standardized-testing situations, increasing their potential for greater gains in their reading scores.

Joan Kanavy

High School Reading Coach

Cumberland Valley School District

Fran Carothers

Language Arts Department Supervisor

Cumberland Valley School District

Mechanicsburg, Pa.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Reading Comprehension: Focus on Content Areas