Reading Strategies Are Great. Not.

Well, well, well. That is so unnerving. What? The reading strategies that are so faithfully and dutifully used across the U.S. are to be blamed for the low reading scores in the past decades? (tenth grade U.S. students scoring 15th in reading among 27 developed countries)

The reasons are explored in a challenging read (challenging in that it clashes with the “progressive” views), The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch. I won’t go into detail about the book (read it, even if you disagree with his views) but I will focus on a few clarifications Hirsch makes in regards to reading that I find very useful for any teacher.

Consider the following paragraph:

“In eukaryotes, RNA polymerase, and therefore the initiation of transcription, requires the presence of a core promoter sequence in the DNA. Promoters are regions of DNA that promote transcription and, in eukaryotes, are found at -30, -75, and -90 base pairs upstream from the start site of transcription. Core promoters are sequences within the promoter that are essential for transcription initiation. RNA polymerase is able to bind to core promoters in the presence of various specific transcription factors.”

How much did you understand of it? 50%? 40%? Less? Wait. You are an intellectual. How could you not? After all, you can decode (phonologically) all the words. You know the punctuation marks. You know grammar, too.

The problem? You lack the knowledge (background knowledge) that is critical to comprehend such a text (I selected it from An Introduction to Molecular Biology ).

This is exactly what E.D. Hirsch argues for (and I must say, having a lot of research to link to and nearly 20 pages of notes): comprehension is not a strategy problem but a knowledge problem.

“Researchers have discovered that what the text implies but it doesn’t say is a necessary part of it understood meaning. In fact, what the text doesn’t say often exceeds what it says. The reader has to fill in the blanks and make implicit connections with prior knowledge relevant to the text.”

He gives several examples of how this prior knowledge affects comprehension and one is notable (Donna R. Recht & Laurie Leslie, Journal of Educational Psychology, 1988). Two groups of students, one group made of students with high technical decoding skills, the other made of students with generally low reading skills, were given the same text about baseball. As predicted, the second group, who had low reading skills but important background knowledge about baseball, proved to be superior in follow-up tests on comprehension.

Important idea 1: Domain-specific knowledge is vital for comprehensionIn other words, you can practice comprehension strategies ten times a day, you will not get better at comprehending if you do not read a variety of texts from various subjects. Strategies alone not only do no aid comprehension, but they can actually MINIMIZE it since the student has to devote partial attention to the strategy itself. 

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What to do then? Should we stop teaching reading strategies? Hirsch does not deny that there is a “small INITIAL benefit” to making some strategies explicit with very young readers but only briefly because they already know how to infer, for instance, or how to get the main idea of a text. Children already come equipped with inferencing skills – “that is why 1st graders can understand highly inferential speech conventions such as irony and sarcasm (“Man, that’s bad“) which require subtle comprehension strategies of a high order and are staples of both the suburb an the inner city. ”

If we teach explicitly how to “find the main idea” over and over again we do two things: we create a “path to boredom” (children do not need to relearn the principle time after time – they got it!), and, worse, we get in the way of comprehension itself (because, as showed in the above paragraph, students would have to waste time and attentional space on applying the strategy instead of focusing on the content/text at hand that actually helps them build the necessary knowledge).

Important idea 2: Teach reading strategies briefly. Period.

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In D.T. Willingham ‘s words, in order to comprehend “you need knowledge of the world. Teaching content IS teaching reading.”

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3 Responses to “Reading Strategies Are Great. Not.”

  1. I definitely agree about pupils reading a wide range of texts in terms of the comprehension of the types of text they find in GCSE English and Literature. However, as was demonstrated by the extract on molecular biology, prior reading of a range of texts doesn’t help with a highly technical text. For that we need a type of prior knowledge that is probably only going to be found in the lesson or in other specialised texts.

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