Knowledge: The Next Frontier in Reading Comprehension
Reading scores of the nation's 9-year-olds have been rising for the past 15 years—particularly among the lowest-scoring children and, more recently, among black and Hispanic children. This good news is almost certainly due largely to the consensus that finally emerged about what constitutes the best early instruction in how to read, followed by new textbooks and professional development that reflected the consensus. Unfortunately, there's not the same good news for older readers who are struggling to comprehend secondary-level materials. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, these students are not succeeding in great numbers, and over the past 15 years, reading achievement among the nation's 13- and 17-year-olds has changed very little, even though early reading achievement has been rising.
Public impatience with stagnant reading achievement can be felt in enthusiasm for charter schools and vouchers and in the increasingly harsh comments suggesting that reading—in fact school—failure is due to inadequate teacher quality.
But best-selling author and scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr., says the fault is not with teachers—but with faulty ideas. We're thinking about reading comprehension in the wrong way, he says. And until all of us in education—publishers, colleges of education, researchers, teachers, administrators, and policymakers—begin to think about it differently and, therefore, go about improving it differently, reading comprehension won't improve—and teachers will continue to be "pilloried."
Cognitive science research is making it increasingly clear that reading comprehension requires a student to possess a lot of vocabulary and a lot of background knowledge. Writers of materials aimed at general, educated audiences (i.e., newspapers, novels, entry-level college textbooks) assume background knowledge and vocabulary on the part of their readers. No amount of reading comprehension "skills" instruction can compensate for that lack of knowledge.
Our lead writer, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., makes this case and argues that the knowledge should be conveyed from the earliest grades, both in language arts class (which by mandate is taking more time each day in elementary schools than in the past) and throughout the day through a core (not comprehensive) curriculum that gives all kids, regardless of neighborhood, race, or religion, access to the best knowledge there is. As James Comer, child psychiatrist and school improvement expert, wrote approvingly in reviewing an E.D. Hirsch book, "In order for a truly democratic and economically sound society to be maintained, young people must have access to the best knowledge available so that they can understand the issues, express their viewpoints, and act accordingly."
Susan Neuman, one of the country's top researchers on early childhood issues and reading, argues that it's time for the reading world to take the role of knowledge more seriously, from the earliest grades on. Dan Willingham, author of American Educator's popular "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" column, explains the many, many ways in which knowledge aids reading—and also thinking, reasoning, and problem solving, as well as other critical thinking skills that make for good readers and good citizens.
But all that content, all that knowledge—won't it be a bore for kids? Are we talking about going back to rote memorization, drill and kill, all that stuff we hoped to leave behind? Not at all. Willingham addresses that, but more importantly, so do two teachers—from schools in Texas and New York who are actually putting a content-rich curriculum into practice in their schools.