School & District Management

Reading Comprehension: A Problem for Adolescent Literacy?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 29, 2009 1 min read

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!)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.