Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years

Cognitive scientists have known for decades that simply mastering comprehension skills doesn’t ensure that a young student will be able to apply them to whatever texts they’re confronted with on standardized tests and in their studies later in life.

One of those cognitive scientists spoke on the Tuesday panel: Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who writes about the science behind reading comprehension. Willingham explained that whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills. That’s because writers leave out a lot of information that they assume readers will know. If they put all the information in, their writing would be tedious.

But if readers can’t supply the missing information, they have a hard time making sense of the text. If students arrive at high school without knowing who won the Civil War, they’ll have a hard time understanding a textbook passage about Reconstruction.

Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years by Natalie Wexler. The Atlantic.

We were low-income growing up. But, we were rich in other things.

Photo by Luriko Yamaguchi on Pexels.com
  • The air conditioner wasn’t run in the middle of the day when I was young. We couldn’t afford it. The library was close by, so we spent most summer days there. Supposedly I was reading when I was three.
  • Later, when we were better off financially, my mother got us encyclopedias so my brother had easy access to information from a young age without having to leave the house.

So, we had easy access to background knowledge and vocabulary.

To help students practice their “skills,” teachers give them texts at their supposed individual reading levels, rather than the level of the grade they’re in.

According to Shanahan, no evidence backs up that practice. In fact, Shanahan said, recent research indicates that students actually learn more from reading texts that are considered too difficult for them—in other words, those with more than a handful of words and concepts a student doesn’t understand. What struggling students need is guidance from a teacher on how to make sense of texts designed for kids at their respective grade levels—the kinds of texts those kids may otherwise see only on standardized tests, when they have to grapple with them on their own.

We were always pushed to read well above our reading level. Growth requires tackling harder challenges. Of course, standardized tests claimed I was reading at a college level by middle school, so I image that was always a challenge.

For Fleur, we have a good library of board books. I have been enjoying the professorial approach of explaining how things work. (The wife long ago detached her retina rolling her eyes at my doing such to her and Galahad.) Now, I have an appreciative audience. Developing her background knowledge and vocabulary is my life’s calling. Hopefully, I can excite her learning about various things.


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