Knowing and reading

Teaching reading skills isn’t enough to produce a good fourth-grade reader, writes Dan Willingham on Britannica Blog. Good readers know things, so they can understand what they’re reading.

He cites a new study on Hong Kong 10-year-olds, who’ve shot up to second in the world in reading on PIRLS. Four instructional practices were critical:

  1. the frequency with which the teacher used materials from other subjects in reading instruction.
  2. using assessment to assign grades.
  3. the frequency with which students took a quiz or test after reading.
  4. using assessment to provide data for national or local monitoring.

The first factor — teaching subject matter knowledge — was the most important.

Once students can decode, background knowledge is crucial to reading comprehension. Ensuring that students have wide-ranging knowledge of the world ideally begins at birth, through a rich home environment. Schools must do everything possible to support and expand that knowledge base, and integrating material from other subjects into the reading curriculum is an important step in the right direction.

In USA Today, Willingham talks about Why Don’t Students Like School and why well-taught students do like school.

We get a snap of satisfaction when we solve a problem. But solving a problem that is trivially easy is not fun. Neither is hammering away at a problem with no sense you are making progress.

So the challenge for a teacher is to find that sweet spot of mental difficulty, and to find it simultaneously for 25 students, each with a different level of preparation. To fight this problem, teachers must engage each student with work that is appropriate for his or her level of preparation. This must be done sensitively, so that students who are behind don’t feel like second-class citizens. But the fact is they are behind, and pretending that they are not does them no favors.

Intelligence is malleable, Willingham says.

. . .  data have shown that moving kids from low-quality to high-quality schools boosts IQ scores.

The secret to getting smarter is really not a big secret: Engage in intellectual activities. Read the newspaper, watch informative documentaries, find well-written books that make intellectual content engaging.

And watch less TV.

About Joanne


  1. As I point out here, Willingham uses cherry-picked data, while the actual trend illustrated by the report is that countries that lift their citizens out of poverty achieve the best reading results.

  2. So if I follow Mr. Downes’ logic, then our best course of action would be to close the schools, and divert the 10-15K we spend on each child to their families, thereby ending poverty and improving reading in one fell swoop. If I further follow the logic, there is no point in teaching reading to the poor since it doesn’t work.

  3. Umm…so teaching actual facts and content to poor kids (rather than expect them to pick up stuff via their non-existent parent provided paid tutoring) is a useless endeavor to improve their reading.

    Nice to know.

  4. It’s kind of circular thinking isn’t it? It you can’t read(decode) well you don’t have access to content. If you don’t understand content you won’t read well?

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    hmmm…all the more reason to redo the forced schooling factories and adjust them to meet the needs of the students…some need more background information — basics, knowledge, etc. Others are ready and can more forward quicker. Let’s do it….

  6. Stephen:
    The PIRLS data are available to other researchers to conduct secondary analyses. That’s what the authors of the report I cited did.

    They were not trying to say “What the PIRLS data show is that background knowledge are important.” They were using the PIRLS data to answer the question “What characteristics of teachers and classrooms are correlates of 4th grade reading achievement *in Hong Kong*?” Your point concerns cross-country comparisons. The study I summarized concerned across-teacher comparisons within a single country. They pointed out (and I pointed out in my summary) that they did not examine other factors (such as income) which are doubtless important to achievement.

    I hope that clarifies things.


  7. SpotCash says:

    Bit of contradictory guidance here

    watch informative documentaries

    Watch less TV

  8. I guess he meant to watch them on a computer 🙂

  9. So Dan, why Hong Kong and not Russia?

    Virtually identical scores, virtually identical increases in scores. Why select the second place finisher over the first? Did Russia also make significant changes to their reading curriculum?

  10. Nicksmama says:


    Talk to your child – use big words…

    Provide books on CD (fiction, non-fiction, above reading level)

    View Magic School Bus videos, National Geographic videos, Meet the Artist/Scientist videos, Discovery channel offerings, etc…

    Go to the library and check out age-appropriate picture books (Look-and-Find-Out) on science and history. Read aloud higher level texts.


    Leave it to other (same-age) children to teach your child proper grammar or increase their vocabulary…”ain’t nothin’ like it”

    Provide ONLY books your child can read (boring, leveled-readers)

    Plug your child into child-focused cable channels (Disney/Nick); they are a boon to advertisers and a bust to the brain cells..

    Wait until your child can read before you take them to the library..

  11. deirdremundy says:

    I wonder if part of the solution is to make the early grades LESS reading intensive…

    IIRC, in first grade, all classes were basically reading. You sat and read aloud from (or listened to someone else, also a new reader, read from) a dull textbook written at your level. Social Studies, Science, etc… they were just extensions of reading class.

    Maybe the answer is to have Social Studies and Science be MORE teacher directed? The classes could be based on read-alouds by the teacher, followed by discussion and demonstrations? In Social studies, kids could listen to biographies opf historical figures rather than reading “The People on my block.”

    In the early grades a lot of the science/History curricula focus on discussing what the kids already KNOW. “You live in a family. You have food and a place to live… blah, blah blah….” Maybe the answer is to make a real attempt to expand horizons at these ages, so that the kids have a basis for later comprehension…..

  12. Allen
    I didn’t conduct this analysis. I was reporting on an analysis that other researchers did that was recently published in another journal. Someone might have done a similar analysis for Russia. If so, I don’t know about it. And as I mentioned in my blog entry, the analysis doesn’t tell you anything about why scores increased–they just looked at 2006 scores, and made no attempt to figure out why scores have gone up

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    The theory behind writing which uses symbols to indicate sounds is that, once you “sound it out”, you’ll recognize it as something you have heard–emphasis “heard” with your ears and possibly used–and make the connection that way. Struck me long ago that this works better the older the kids are, since they will have heard–emphasis on ears–many more words, learned their meanings, used them correctly, or incorrectly and gotten feedback.
    By extension, it would work best with illiterate adults, as long as the illiteracy was not the result of an underlying deficit, but of opportunity.
    However, if you want to use this technique at any age, familiarity with the word and concept the word denotes, it helps to have been exposed to more words.
    Which gets back to parenting.
    I once talked to a community educator about reading. I had always thought that, once you learned the basics, reading itself improved your reading.
    “Yeah,” he said, “but I visit homes without a single book and the only newspaper is the National Enquirer.”
    Then there’s Ogbu and the Shaker Heights study.

  14. Hmm, involving other subjects in reading. That sound familiar. I read about that strategy in the book “Our School”. That school also stressed reading (and writing) in other subjects.

  15. Richard, what connection are you making with Shaker Heights? I’m not following.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Shaker Heights is an affluent, integrated suburb of Cleveland.
    Black students fall behind, despite what John McWhorter referred to (he went to school there as a kid) early assessment and aggressive intervention.
    The presumption is that the social and economic class is roughly the same for all racial groups in Shaker Heights.
    So we need a different reason for the difference.
    An educator named Ogbu–now deceased–did a survey in which he found that black kids watched about twice the television that the other kids did.
    Worse, it was, in effect, part of their homework because their social standing was built partly by their currency with various shows. Don’t know what was on at the time, but if you’ve heard conversations in the break room about “lost” “survivor” “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars”, you’ll get the picture.
    Parenting and frivolous issues in the kid culture.

    See McWhorter, “Losing the Race” and “Winning the Race”.

  17. I’ve read the book — just wasn’t seeing the connection you were making.

  18. One of my daughter’s closest friends is a former Shaker Heights student, now in her mid-20s, but she attended Catholic schools because her family didn’t think much of the public school culture. She is black and non-Catholic. Also, one of my sons had a black, non-Catholic teammate who was sent to a Catholic high school for the same reason. Removed from daily exposure to the urban culture, even though only a small minority of students fit the category, both his academics and his behavior improved dramatically.

  19. mom0f4: right. I’m not surprised. I teach in a community similar to Shaker Heights, and we struggle with the same issues. We’ve seen a bit of improvement lately, but not enough. Actually, very, very few of our students don’t read on grade level — those who don’t almost all have significant learning disabilities — but the AA students don’t achieve because they choose not to. It’s also not home life as far as I can tell. The parents are all well educated, there are books in the house, the families are stable. Heck, most of these kids have a more middle class background than I do.

    If the key is breaking the “urban culture” grippe, which I think it is, then I don’t know how to do that. We’re experimenting with some new programs, and they’re showing some promise, but we won’t know if they’re successful for a few years yet.