For some reason, ever since I started blogging, I spend more time than I ever expected writing about reading. While this probably shouldn’t surprise me as it is one of my favorite activities, I am continually surprised by the many thoughtful articles I run into precisely upon this subject. Here’s one from the American Prospect (via Brainstorm) which is well worth reading in its entirety. This strikes me as the core point:
The culture of testing treats reading ability as a broad, generalized skill that is easily measured and assessed. We judge our schools and increasingly individual teachers based on their ability to improve the reading skills of our children. When you think about your ability to read — if you think about it at all — the chances are good that you perceive it as not just a skill but a readily transferable skill. Once you learn how to read you can competently read a novel, a newspaper article, or the latest memo from corporate headquarters. Reading is reading is reading. Either you can do it, or you cannot.
This view of reading is only partially correct. The ability to translate written symbols into sounds, commonly called “decoding,” is indeed a skill that can be taught and mastered. This explains why you are able to “read” nonsense words such as “rigfap” or “churbit.” Once a child masters letter-sound correspondence, or phonics, we might say she can read because she can reproduce the sounds represented by written language. But clearly there’s more to reading than making sounds. To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command — to read, write, listen, and speak with understanding. As nearly any elementary schoolteacher can attest, it is possible to decode skillfully yet struggle with comprehension. And reading comprehension, the ability to extract meaning from text, is not transferable.
The solution, the authors suggest, is to spend more time providing the cultural background needed to make sense of texts:
If our schools understood and acted upon the clear evidence that domain-specific content knowledge is foundational to literacy, reading instruction might look very different in our children’s classrooms. Rather than idle away precious hours on trivial stories or randomly chosen nonfiction, reading, writing, and listening instruction would be built into the study of ancient civilizations in first grade, for example, Greek mythology in second, or the human body in third. Recently, the Core Knowledge Foundation has been piloting precisely such a language-arts program in a small number of schools in New York City and elsewhere. Initial results are promising; however, building domain knowledge is a long-term proposition. All reading tests are cumulative. The measurable benefit of broad background knowledge can take years to reveal itself.
There’s no way you’ll ever find me objecting to that solution. At a time when history gets increasingly short shrift from secondary schools the idea of doing history in reading class sounds like an excellent idea. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if these folks are misstating the problem.
When I was growing up, I almost never used a dictionary. I learned new words by seeing them repeatedly in books and by playing Scrabble. There are many words that to this day I can’t define well because I picked them up entirely by context. Context is key. That’s why so many English teachers will make their students use the vocabulary words they’re learning in a sentence as part of class.
If you read the whole article I’ve quoted above, you’ll see the authors use a baseball analogy to indicate the importance of context for understanding blocks of text. That hits home for me right now because I happen to be deep into the process of initiating my son into the wonders of baseball. Understanding the language of the game is essential for appreciating it. [I for one say that any American who does not like baseball has or had at least one parent who laid down on the job.]
While learning more about any subject should help students comprehend texts on that subject, to me the real problem is that is that most students simply don’t do enough reading. The solution to reading comprehension problems is more reading. If practice makes perfect, then the necessary background information needed to understand any word or text should be discernible from its context.