Reading & Literacy

Standards Off-Base on Reading ‘Comprehension,’ Scholar Argues

By Sean Cavanagh — September 29, 2009 1 min read

In an online opinion piece in the Washington Post, Daniel Willingham argues that the draft common standards released last week wrongly suggest that reading comprehension is a skill, or single strategy that can be taught. In fact, reading comprehension is built on prior knowledge—"the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read,” the University of Virginia psychology professor contends.

Willingham says that schools tend to teach reading comprehension as a series of reading strategies “that can be practiced and mastered.” The writers of the “Common Core” standards reinforce the theme, he contends. The document recommends that students have a strong “content base,” because that’s part of what makes a reader ready for college, he notes. But they miss the essential point, he says: that content is a way “to ensure that they are good readers!”

Why is prior knowledge so crucial to reading comprehension? Because writers leave out information they assume is understood, Willingham says. What happens if a reader lacks that prior knowledge? Comprehension comes off the tracks:

“This is exactly what happens for millions of poor readers,” he writes. “They can ‘read’ (they can sound out the words on the page), but they can’t consistently comprehend. They read it, but they don’t ‘get it.’ ”

Remarkably, if you take kids who score poorly on a reading test and ask them to read on a topic they know something about (baseball, say, or dinosaurs), all of a sudden their comprehension is terrific—better than kids who score well on reading tests but who don’t know a lot about baseball or dinosaurs.”

How do students, he asks, pick up this prior knowledge?

“It accumulates through years of exposure to newspapers, serious magazines, books, conversations with knowledgeable people. It should also come from a content-rich curriculum in school.”

[Editorial comment: The world’s print journalists salute you, Mr. Willingham.]

I’ll invite the reading teachers and scholars out there to offer their own opinions on his essay.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.