Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School? and Raising Kids Who Read, says that Americans are not good readers. One data point among many to support this claim is that in 30 years, high school seniors’ scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test have not improved.
Willingham goes on to explain that sounding words from print is different from comprehending text, which requires a broad spectrum of general knowledge allowing us to bridge the gaps inherent in what we read. Further, to understand what we read, we need a sense of context. When we take things literally rather than contextually, we miss important meanings.
What this amounts to, he says, is that schools and teachers are mistaking reading for a general skill rather than an accumulated awareness. He recommends decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades to allow for more time to give children general knowledge across disciplines. He deplores end of year exams that require students to read and understand texts randomly chosen rather than specifically related to the year’s learning. “If topics are random, the test weights knowledge learned outside the classroom — knowledge that wealthy children have great opportunity to pick up.” Finally, he says that following the Common Core Standards for reading is not enough. Educators need to build content-rich curriculum that will enhance broad knowledge in young readers.
“Don’t blame the internet, or smartphones, or fake news for Americans’ poor reading,” Willingham insists. Without an expanding and expansive understanding of the world and its many topics and sub-topics, along with the many words available to describe it, readers take far less from what they read than is necessary. Willingham’s view is a good reminder that enjoyment in reading comes not from getting answers about it right, but from from knowing what it is – or could be – about.