It is easy to say that reading instruction matters, but it is much harder to actually do better instruction.
Early in the last century "the so-called reading wars" about the best ways to teach reading led researchers to identify instructional programs and practices associated with positive student outcomes.
By 1990, researchers had successfully identified a set of "evidence-based" literacy strategies that could be used as the basis for professional practice in both initial reading instruction and in literacy classrooms where children would "help students construct meaning from content texts: making inferences, monitoring/clarifying, identifying important information, generating and asking questions, summarizing, synthesizing, evaluating." (Kim 2008) & (Fernandez, 2017)
That teachers understood and were able to implement evidence-based reading instruction was at the heart of the $1 billion-per-year for 3 years Reading First initiative (2004-2007). In order to receive funding, each state, including South Carolina, had to develop its own plan for how this was to be accomplished. In the South Carolina plan, teachers in Reading First schools were supported by literacy coaches who taught teachers to use literacy strategies in their classrooms.
The results of the three-year-long project were measured and reported in the Reading First Impact study.
The research found that, as a result of the professional development, the use of literacy coaches and abundant instructional resources, Reading First teachers indeed became more skilled at using evidence-based instruction.
However, the first, second, and third grade children in Reading First schools did not get better at understanding what they read. (Gamse et al, 2008)
That Reading First resulted in improvement of instructional practice but not improvement of student outcomes is the result of misunderstanding how we understand what we read, according to Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.
Our reading brain's capacity to make meaning is "intimately intertwined with knowledge," Willingham argues based on evidence from cognitive and neuroscience research. (Willingham, 2017)
In order to understand what we read, our brain makes use of the same cognitive processes that we use to think about and understand our experiences. We process new experiences in our short-term memory by relating them to knowledge stored in our long-term memory.
To understand something means that one can create a coherent mental representation of the "something;" the plot of a story; a scientific fact; an historical description of causes and consequences.
"To construct a coherent representation, the reader must interpret the various pieces of information in the text and identify meaningful connections between there elements and between the elements and his/her background knowledge." There are various ways that readers connect the pieces of information in a text but the most important are referential (seeing similarities between elements) and causal (one element causes another). (van den Broek & Espin, 2009, p. 4)
So, reading for understanding is just like thinking but with a book supplying the new experiences. New situations are often uncomfortable because you do not yet have a complete mental representation of it, just as encountering a text about unfamiliar ideas is more difficult to read, even for strong readers. Thus books with familiar plots or commonly encountered ideas are easier to read. The reader already knows that the murder will be solved by the detective.
Willingham points to experiments in which readers who are judged to be poor readers but who are knowledgeable about, for example, baseball outperform strong readers on reading comprehension tests when compared with strong readers who are not knowledgeable about baseball.
It is also the case that tests on general information correlate strongly with reading comprehension scores. (Willingham, 2017)
If that's the what, what is the so what?
Willingham would have teachers spend less time on literacy activities in early grades and more time systemically building knowledge. Instead of devoting 56 percent of the third grade school day to literacy and teaching social studies and science only once every three weeks, more time given to science and social studies will build knowledge that will help the third graders read with understanding when they are in fourth and fifth grades.
Willingham would also recommend that we change how we assess reading on end-of-year tests.
If children have studied New Zealand during the year, they should be good at reading and thinking about reading passages on New Zealand. If we test children on random topics, the advantage goes to the wealthy children who have more out of classroom learning experiences. (Willingham, 2017)
We become more literate as we add to the "immense multimedia dictionary, encyclopedia, and how-to manual we keep in our heads..." the more we know, the more connections we can make with what we read. (Pinker, 1997, p. 87)
It may be that our instructional practice has it backwards. We grow our literacy skills out of what we know (our mental representation of the outside world) rather than growing reading capacity out of skills.
Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York, New York: The Penguin Group.
Fernandez, Susan (2017). Education 320 Syllabus. Lander University.
Gamse, Beth C., et.al. (2008). Reading First Impact Study: Final Report, November 2008). National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pdf/20094038.pdf.
IRA. (2002). Position Paper of the International Reading Association: What is Evidence-Based Reading Instruction? Retrieved from https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/evidence-based-position-statement.pdf?sfvrsn=cc4ea18e_6
Kim, J. S. (2008). Research and the Reading Wars. In Hess, F.M. (Ed.), When Research Matters: How Scholarship Influences Education Policy (pp. 89-111). Harvard Education Press.
Pinker, Stephen (1997). How the Mind Works. Penguin Publishers: New York.
van den Broek, P., & Espin, C. (2009). Improving Reading Comprehension: Connecting Cognitive Science and Education. Cognitive Critique, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.cogcrit.umn.edu/docs/vandenBroek_10.pdf
Willingham, D. (2017c). How to Get Your Mind to Read. The New York Times. November 25, 2017.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.