Reading & Literacy Opinion

Reading-Comprehension Skills? What Are They Really?

By E.D. Hirsch Jr. — April 25, 2006 9 min read
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—Steven Braden


The reading-test scores of 4th graders have risen. But, somehow, that improvement has not resulted in higher reading scores for grade 8 and beyond. What’s the explanation? Why don’t later advances in reading go hand in hand with earlier ones?

It used to be thought that once a student learned how to sound out words fluently and accurately, later reading gains would follow naturally through wide reading. There is merit in this idea. Wide reading will certainly enhance students’ general knowledge and vocabulary, and thus enable them to read still more widely. That’s all very true; wide reading should certainly be encouraged. But suppose you are a student who can sound out words fluently and accurately, but cannot successfully understand much of what you read on your own. It’s hard to see how wide reading will help such a student. It’s doubtful that he or she will readily engage in such an arduous and confusing activity, and equally doubtful that doing so will foster big improvements in reading proficiency.

For such uncomprehending students (and test scores suggest that there are many of them), wide reading is hard and unrewarding. For them, the theory of a natural progression—from decoding, to opportunities for wide reading, thence to high general reading ability—doesn’t currently work. The reasons for the failure of this natural progression provide, I believe, an explanation for the current pattern of improved reading scores in early grades, followed by low and stagnant reading scores in later grades.

Enhancing students’ general knowledge is the most promising approach to enhancing their ability to comprehend what they read.

Professor Joseph Torgesen and his colleagues at Florida State University have shown that reading tests in succeeding grades tend to test different aspects and dimensions of reading. In early grades, the most important factors are fluency and accuracy of decoding, but in later grades the tests place an ever-increasing emphasis on the student’s previously acquired knowledge. It would seem that to achieve higher reading scores in later grades, the missing ingredient is not primarily technical skill—not even skill in performing comprehension strategies—but knowledge. This hypothesis is supported by analyses of the gains induced when students practice comprehension strategies. The small gains quickly level off. Six lessons in comprehension strategies yield as much or as little benefit as 25 lessons. The very limited efficacy of strategy-practicing is explained by the fact that the most important factor in reading comprehension is the reader’s prior knowledge about the topic, as recent cognitive science has determined.

It follows that enhancing students’ general knowledge is the most promising approach to enhancing their ability to comprehend what they read. Let’s test out this hypothesis with a concrete example. (The passage is chosen with the expectation that most readers will not be able to understand it. As will be seen, that’s the point.) The example was chosen completely at random from one of the most influential books ever written:

A manifold, contained in an intuition which I call mine, is represented, by means of the synthesis of the understanding, as belonging to the necessary unity of self-consciousness; and this is effected by means of the category.

Some readers of Education Week may well understand that sentence, and know instantly where it came from: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. But for those readers who are not familiar with the argument of Kant’s book, their going on to read the next sentence will probably not further enhance their comprehension:

This requirement of a category therefore shows that the empirical consciousness of a given manifold in a single intuition is subject to a pure self-consciousness a priori, just as is empirical intuition to a pure sensible intuition, which likewise takes place a priori.

And so on.

Now pretend you are in the position of an elementary school student taking a reading test, and are asked a typical multiple-choice question about this passage:

The main idea of this passage is:

1. Without a manifold, one cannot call an intuition “mine.”

2. Intuition must precede understanding.

3. Intuition must occur through a category.

4. Self-consciousness is necessary to understanding.

To help you answer, what if I offered you a bit of extra time so you could summarize, classify, and find the main idea? Didn’t help? How about “questioning the author”: What is Kant trying to get at here? Still clueless?

But here’s a clue: Learn, as background, the philosophical problem Kant was trying to solve, and the structure of how he attempted to solve it. Then you will find out that the right answer is No. 3. Of course, that will take quite a bit of what psychologists call “domain-specific knowledge.” But surely that pursuit would be more worthwhile than time fruitlessly spent in practicing reading strategies such as “finding the main idea” and “clarifying” and “summarizing.” The vast amount of time that teachers and students are spending on those strategy exercises is time that they aren’t spending in learning about domains of knowledge critical for understanding books, newspapers, and newscasts.

Let’s look at an easy example from a New York state reading test for grade 4. It begins as follows:

There is a path that starts in Maine and ends in Georgia, 2,167 miles later. This path is called the Appalachian Trail. If you want, you can walk the whole way, although only some people who try to do this actually make it, because it is so far, and they get tired. The idea for the trail came from a man named Benton MacKaye. In 1921, he wrote an article about how people needed a nearby place where they could enjoy nature and take a break from work. He thought the Appalachian Mountains would be perfect for this.

The passage goes on for a while, and then come the questions. The first one concerns, of course, the main idea:

This article is mostly about:

1. How the Appalachian Trail came to exist.

2. When people can visit the Appalachian Trail.

3. Who hikes the most on the Appalachian Trail.

4. Why people work together on the Appalachian Trail.

Try to put yourself in the position of a disadvantaged 4th grader who knows nothing of hiking, does not know the difference between an Appalachian-type mountain and a Himalayan-type mountain, does not know just where exactly Maine and Georgia are, and does not grasp what it means to “enjoy nature.” The Appalachian Trail might become as hard for her as Immanuel Kant is to most adult readers. Such a child, though much trained in comprehension strategies, might nonetheless answer the question incorrectly. Her advantaged counterpart, equally well trained in comprehension strategies, is not innately smarter, but happens to be familiar with hiking in the Appalachians, has been to Maine and Georgia, and has had a lot of experience of “enjoying nature”; this child easily answers the question correctly. But was it because she had practiced comprehension strategies, or was it because she had the background knowledge readily to comprehend what the passage is saying? Remember Kant!

Consider how schools are reacting to the pressure of the No Child Left Behind Act in order to score higher on reading tests. You can gain an insight into their activities from an excellent front-page story that Linda Perlstein wrote some months ago in The Washington Post about things children are doing in the many hours being spent on “reading” (May 31, 2004):

Here is 9-year-old Zulma Berrios’ take on the school day: “In the morning we read. Then we go to Mrs. Witthaus and read. Then after lunch we read. Then we read some more.”

These reading and writing periods, Perlstein points out, come at the expense of classes in history, science, and art. The reading materials themselves are quite vapid. In this particular class, the children were reading a book about a grasshopper storm. But the point of the class was not to learn anything in depth about grasshoppers; the point was to learn how to ferret meaning out of a text by using formal “strategies.”

For 50 minutes, Tracey Witthaus pulls out a small group of 3rd graders—including Zulma—for Soar to Success, an intensive reading-comprehension program used at many county schools. Instead of studying school desegregation and the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Zulma’s group finishes a book about a grasshopper storm and practices reading strategies: Predict, summarize, question, clarify.

“Clarify,” said Zulma, who began the year reading at the late 1st grade level. “When I come to a word I don’t know, I look for chunks I do. Reminded. Re-mine-ded.”

“Clarify,” said Zulma’s classmate Erick Diaz, 9, who began the year reading at a 2nd grade level. “When I come to a word I don’t know, I look for chunks I do. Hailstones. Hail-ston-es.”

The teachers tell Perlstein that all this activity doesn’t seem to be working.

The blame for all this drill-and-kill activity is being laid on the federal No Child Left Behind law and the standardized tests that are being used to fulfill its provisions.

The blame for all this drill-and-kill activity is being laid on the federal No Child Left Behind law and the standardized tests that are being used to fulfill its provisions. But I have a different take. I would lay the blame for these deadly activities on inadequate theories of reading. Schools have been assuming that skills-oriented, test-prep activity in comprehension strategies will improve test scores in reading. Yet they haven’t done so significantly. On the other hand, there is evidence, not just from cognitive science, but also from the successes of Core Knowledge schools, that cumulatively building up students’ general knowledge leads to much higher reading scores in later grades, where the reading scores really count. It’s in later grades, 6-12, that the reading scores really count because, after all, gains in the early grades are not very useful if, subsequently, those same students, when they get to middle school and then high school, and are about to become workers and citizens, are not able to read and learn proficiently.

What shall teachers do, then, instead of continuing to teach trivial stories in basal readers in the service of practicing deadening comprehension strategies? Well, that is a subject I pursue in my new book, The Knowledge Deficit. Outlining the solution here would take me far beyond the space allotted. Suffice it to say that achieving a more adequate approach to reading will require us to qualify the ideas and assumptions that now underlie comprehension exercises in the basals as well as much expertise in the field of reading. And it will cause us instead to focus laser-like on imparting knowledge to children, starting no later than kindergarten—the substantial knowledge of words and the world that will be essential to their later proficiency in reading.

This systematic, knowledge-based approach will be radically different from the approach advocated by many reading experts, and currently embodied in reading programs that cost publishers tens of millions to make and schools hundreds of millions to buy.

With all that expertise and money ranged against a radical change of ideas, one can only worry and tremble. As Dr. Johnson once observed, after he had commonsensically challenged a long-received idea:

“I am almost frighted at my own temerity; and when I estimate the fame and the strength of those that maintain the contrary opinion, am ready to sink down in reverential silence.”

But on the other hand, Dr. Johnson turned out to be right.


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