UVA cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham is at it again, with a new YouTube video about the connection between content knowledge and reading comprehension. You never knew cognitive science could be so much fun!
Willingham's core message: While decoding skills and vocabulary are essential for students to read proficiently, reading comprehension requires something more. To truly comprehend what they read, students need a strong base of content knowledge that allows them to connect concepts on the page with existing knowledge to understand what the text is telling them. The implication for policy and practice? If we really want children to read proficiently, we need to not only teach them to read, but also equip them with content knowledge in a wide range of subjects.
This point is particularly relevant to the ongoing debate over NCLB and curricular narrowing: Elementary schools currently spend the lion's share of their limited class time on "teaching reading"--particularly decoding and reading strategies--but relatively little time on content areas such as social studies and science. And some schools have responded to increased accountability pressures by spending more time on reading and language arts, at the expense of time spent on other subjects. But the research Willingham cites suggests that this approach may be counterproductive, because in order to become good readers children need to acquire content knowledge in a wide range of fields.
It's also directly relevant to the ongoing debate about the Reading First program. As we've noted previously, the Reading First evaluation used a test of reading comprehension to measure the program's impact on students' reading skills. Yet a test of reading comprehension is hardly the best measure of Reading First's impacts, since Reading First is intended to build children's decoding, vocabulary, and other reading skills--not their content knowledge. What the Reading First evaluation shows is not necessarily a failure of Reading First--it also reflects a failure of our schools to equip children with the content knowledge they need to comprehend new texts.
One solution to this problem: Integrate literacy into other subjects, such as science and arts, rather than teaching it in isolation. Also, ensure that the text children read during time devoted to language arts are content-rich texts that expand their knowledge, including both nonfiction works and high-quality children's literature. As Congress approaches NCLB reauthorization, and also considers the fate of Reading First funding, they should keep the importance of content knowledge in mind and look for ways to improve both the law's accountability provisions and Reading First to increase the emphasis on content knowledge in the early grades.