Round 2 of the reading wars pits content knowledge against reading strategies, writes Dan Willingham on Britannica Blog. (Round 1 was phonics vs. whole language.) Both sides have some merit, but he gives the nod to content.
Most of us think about reading in a way that is fundamentally incorrect. We think of it as transferable, meaning that once you acquire the ability to read, you can read anything. That is true for only part of what it takes to read. It’s true for decoding—the ability to translate written symbols into sounds. Once gained, that ability can be applied to any string of characters, including unfamiliar words like operculum, pronounceable non-words like slint, and letter strings like ctpaqw, which you readily identify as non- pronounceable.
But being able to decode letter strings fluently is only half of reading. In order to understand what you’re reading, you need to know something about the subject matter. And that doesn’t just mean that you need to know the vocabulary — you need to have the right knowledge of the world.
. . . Research findings consistently show that students who are identified as “poor readers” suddenly look quite good when they read passages on familiar subjects.
Schools that try to boost test scores by spending tons of time on reading skills are doomed to failure, he writes. Students need to learn about the world — including history, geography and science — to understand what they read.