Why more reading isn't helping

Young people are reading more — but not improving their reading skills — writes Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet.

More than ever, we are surrounded by printed words. We read text messages. We read web pages. We read instructions and information on computer games.

But if we’re reading more, why is literacy dropping?

Reading comprehension is not a skill, Willingham writes. Once a reader has practiced decoding the letters and become a fluent reader, comprehension requires background knowledge. “If you know a bit about the topic, it’s much easier to understand,” he writes.

. . . A likely solution to the conundrum is that all that extra reading we’re doing is pretty lightweight.

On Core Knowledge Blog, teacher Carol Jago comments on what teachers should make of the research.

32 years in the classroom with teenagers convinced me that more is more when it comes to reading. Relentless readers develop the ease of fluency but learn to intuit how different books need to be read differently, sometimes a tortoise, sometimes a hare. As they gobble up book after book – good, bad, and indifferent – they develop a sense of how stories work. Seemingly without effort these avid readers have wide, rich vocabularies and a broad base of background knowledge. They know stuff. Harry Potter, Count of Monte Cristo, and Twilight readers also know that long doesn’t mean boring.

If online reading is “so short, simple, and solipsistic that it isn’t having the same effect,” then teachers will have to try harder to put challenging books in students’ hands.

“If you liked … , I really think you’ll love …” It’s harder to create this bridge from the online world to the print world. Tweet, tweet.

I was one of the relentless readers she describes. I learned from the books I read — especially biographies, histories and fiction set in different places and eras —  which I used to understand more complex books.

About Joanne


  1. I’d be the last to say that lightweight reading shouldn’t be done, but it should be only a part of the menu and done outside of assigned materials. The meat, potatoes and vegetables should be high-quality fiction and all kinds of non-fiction – histories, historical fiction (Rosemary Sutcliff is great, hard to find but used books can be ordered online), National Geographic books and magazines, Scientific American, daily papers and news magazines, anything by Thomas Sowell, poetry, good mysteries and on, and on, ad ifinitum. I was also one of those voracious readers and I learned vocabulary and composition the easy way; just by reading. After a certain number of years of exposure to good writing, I was confident that if the spelling/grammar looked right to me, it probably was. BTW, if you can find it, lots of kids (boys, even) like Eleven Blue Men, a book of true stories about epidemiology. It would be high school level.

  2. To me this points at a deeper problem in education “doing” versus “learning.” All to often I hear about the great classroom where the kids talk a lot, or read a lot, or share a lot or discuss a lot, but there is never an indication of the quality of this work nor an indication about whether the students are actually learning. Reading a lot does not equal learning a lot.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Mom of 4– that’s a GREAT Book! The title essay (and some others by the same author) are in print here:


  4. I think that there is something different going on with reading comprehension that is related to the mind’s need to visualize the information in order to comprehend it- especially new or heretofore unknown information. The issue is that most publishers are unaware that this link between visualization and comprehension needs to be cultivated. As a result many texts actively subvert accurate visualization and comprehension.

    For example, while homeschooling my daughter I was teaching her how to take apart a paragraph and apply it to the diagrams of the cellular functions that were also described verbally. It turned out that not only did the text did not describe the illustration accurately – but the text also incompletely described the process it was trying to depict (which was distinctly different from the illustration).

    Worse, once we tuned into this, we found that the entire book was riddled with these incomplete and inaccurate depictions. Worse still, nearly every science book she ever looked at had similar issues. Once you tune into this, you that many publishers have been completely clueless about the human brain’s need to visualize accurately to comprehend meaning. More frequently than not, the pictures in any given text are so disconnected as to confound the process.

    The good news is that recently I have seen more images being used in science texts, but I’ve never had the occasion to delve into one of these books to see if text and image congruence was high, medum, low or absent.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Why, it’s almost as if someone said you should read, like, 1000 books by the time you finish high school or something…

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    “Why, it’s almost as if someone said you should read, like, 1000 books by the time you finish high school or something…”

    Actually, I think the point is that the books need to have more difficult content than, say, a Danielle Steele novel. And also more variety. Reading 1,000 Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew/Bobsey Twins/Tom Swift books isn’t going to do the trick.

    -Mark Roulo

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    “we’re” reading more, but literacy is rising or something.
    Some of us are reading more. The implication is that those of us who read a lot, or more, contain a non-trivial number of people who are only slightly literate.
    Call me crazy, but I think he’s talking about two separate groups.
    I can double my reading but that’s not likely to have an effect on a non-reader.

    Time magazine said some years ago that, fifty years ago, a high school senior’s passive vocabulary was about three to four times what the current seniors carry with them for use. My wife, teaching high school since the early seventies, agreed with the premise.
    You get passive vocabulary when you encounter and understand a word which does not suit you to use, but which can be understood later when encountered. Those might be technical, academic, slightly archaic, or whose concepts are only rarely relevant to a teen’s life.
    The question then becomes what is the source for such words.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    If someone read 1,000 trashy novels, I’d be willing to bet they’d be a pretty damn fluent reader.

    Hardy Boys books can give you all sorts of important content: boats, radios, architecture, spelunking, eavesdropping, motorcycles, chemistry, finance….

  9. I have to say that my experience with college students tracks Richard Aubrey’s theory. They complain bitterly about the vocabulary required for the GRE, particularly “1930’s slang” (as one student said) that struck me as pretty normal language you would expect to come across in an early 20th century novel. To them, it was all very unfamiliar and mysterious.

  10. I tackled my Aunt Ann’s copy of “Count of Monte Cristo” the summer after fourth grade. (It had been too hard the previous summer.) Much of the plot went completely over my head, but vocabulary accretes effortlessly regardless. And by the time I had to take tests like the SAT, and later the GRE, I only once met a word I didn’t know. It was “sublime,” in the chemistry sense, so I guessed (wrong), but I should have realized that such an improbable answer had to be right, because it was too implausible to have been used as a distractor.

    That’s the kind of thing these tests are testing for, don’t you think?

  11. Although a tongue-in-cheek comment, Michael Lopez is correct about the fluency of reading 1000 trashy novels.

    I use these as my light weight reading and my husband is surprised with the vocabulary I am able to produce when he needs assistance with crossword puzzles.

    I’m not going to advocate them to youth for obvious reasons, but authors often do quite a lot of reasearch to understand occupations, fields of study, or historical times when they write these novels which exposes a reader to other than just the steamy aspects of this genre and provides greater context and literacy for further heavier reading.

  12. Michael, not all reading is equally nutritious. Kids who read Dickens and Twain along with their Twilight are going to gain larger vocabularies and general knowledge than those who do not. Jogging a lot on flatlands will make you a somewhat stronger runner, but not as much as if you jog in the mountains.

  13. Bill Leonard says:

    I’m not sure it matters whether it’s trashy novels or serious stuff, but I think there’s no question that the more you read, the more you know and the larger your vocabulary.

  14. Twain’s not one for $100 words. You can read George Orwell and not increase your SAT vocabulary all that much, but that’s not why anyone reads George Orwell. Read William F. Buckley if you’re all hot for Latinate combinations.

  15. Time magazine said some years ago that, fifty years ago, a high school senior’s passive vocabulary was about three to four times what the current seniors carry with them for use.

    This is so true.  I have recently run into people who did not know “glutton” or “fare”—and these people worked in food service!

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mark Twain takes some ‘splainin. Aunt Polly could see through her glasses about as well as a pair of stove lids. Stove lids? {explains wood-burning stove] Fortunately, the idea that she can’t see well is clear ehough.
    Tried to explain vacuum tubes to our tech guy. Did not go well.
    I can see brooming archaic concepts from the minimum desired vocabulary list, but insisting that archaicisms is the only problem is bogus. Like the time a history teacher told me that kids know less history now than fifty years ago because so much time has passed and there’s so much more to learn. [Can you throw up from laughing?]
    More complete desired vocab lists would contain concepts and words not currently in use in case one encountered them, and to provide a window into history. [If you have a wood burning stove, where does the wood come from? How much does it cost? How long until there are no trees handy? If you’re old or otherwise unable, who cuts it for you? How much does that cost? Does it start house fires? Is it possible to learn how to make the heat consistent so you can, say, bake?]

  17. As a teacher, I was told ad nauseum that “if children read 30 minutes a day at their ‘just right’ level their reading ability will improve.” I suspect there are a lot of teachers who probably “know” this. Given that one’s “reading level” might vary from subject to subject, I have no idea what the basis is for this claim. Another ed shibboleth laid to rest?

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    It seems intuitively valid.
    Nobody taught me reading beyond the fifth grade, iirc, and I am a good and voracious reader.
    So something happened.

  19. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I think the key to voracious reading is finding something that you like.

    If you like science fiction… you can go to the library (!) or the bookstore and load up.

    Romance? Same thing.

    Biography? Sure.

    Political thrillers and spies? Check.

    Comedies of manners? Sure.

    Mystery? Check.

    Poetry? Sure.

    History? Check.

    But I think the key is that you have to be interested in some genre in which there are sufficient books. You can be interested in more than one, obviously, but if your interests don’t include ANYTHING that people write books about, there’s going to be little motivation.

    And that might be the problem; if your primary area of intellectual interest is seeing who is The Biggest Loser or seeing who wins Dancing with the Stars, then there’s not a lot of motivation to read.

  20. Ponderosa says:

    Motivation can be acquired. Until my 30’s I had liitle interest in China. I forced myself to read about it and now I’m extremely interested in it. An important role of schools is to compel students to study things that do NOT interest them so that they might BECOME interested. I know, this is heresy.

  21. Time magazine said some years ago that, fifty years ago, a high school senior’s passive vocabulary was about three to four times what the current seniors carry with them for use. My wife, teaching high school since the early seventies, agreed with the premise.

    Fifty years ago, the drop out rate was considerably higher and we had far fewer immigrants to boot. I remember reading somewhere that only 70% of 17 year olds were enrolled in high school in the 1950s.

    As for this debate, clearly, reading alone does not make you a better reader. Here’s a simple hypothetical:

    Group A reads 10-12 hours/week with a tested vocabulary of 8th graders.

    Group B reads 1-2 hours/month with the tested vocabulary of a college graduate.

    Give both groups a reading test. Who wins? It’s not even a close call.

    Vocabulary is the key to reading comprehension, and while certainly most high volume readers have good vocabularies, there are enough Group A and Group B people around to demonstrate that the causation goes from vocab to reading frequency, not the other way around.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    The dropout rate was higher fifty years ago?
    That would be about the time I was a freshman.
    Never heard about dropouts at the time–but my world was restricted to my school district–and we had a number of kids the teachers no doubt hoped would drop out. But they stayed.
    Since dropout rates are alarming and getting more so, either that’s a fib, or the drop out rates fifty years ago were not all that high.
    I’ve mentioned before seeing a Civil War recruiting poster which told its target audience, energetic young men with a sixth grade education max, that “The Goths and Vandals are at the gates of the Federal City!” That got the boys’ attention then, and they volunteered to fight. Today–where can I get tickets, man?

  23. Point of clarification: reading has increased, but not “lightweight novels;” reading has overall increased because Americans encounter more text while on the computer, via text messages, and other technologies. But reading from traditional print sources has drastically declined. So we’re not talking about reading 1,000 trashy novels.

    We know that traditional print sources have, on average, a wider vocabulary and range of ideas than t.v., radio, or adult conversation. Text messages are probably comparable to human speech on those measures. I’m *guessing* that the text that most people encounter on the internet is also pretty light, *on average*. The most popular websites are google, yahoo, youtube, live, and facebook.

  24. Cranberry says:

    I saw this article in Education Week yesterday: “Reading Aloud to Teens Gains Favor with Teachers.” Looking back on my high school career, and considering the children I know, I regard this as a sign of a significant deficit in average reading ability among middle school and high school students.

    Some texts should be read aloud–poetry, for example. Some texts were designed to be read aloud. However, beyond a certain level of reading ability, reading a text should be easier and more efficient than listening to someone else read. That’s rather the point of the revolution of the printing press.

    Some may praise the internet for increasing the use of print in everyday life. I think, rather, that Neil Postman was right.

  25. MN Mom – I grant your point regarding adult light fiction, but I don’t see the same for juvenile fiction. It seems to be mostly weak vocabulary, structure and content; not much that stretches either the intellect or the imagination.

    Whatever happened to the idea of books as magic carpets that transport kids to new worlds?

  26. I thought I’d liven up these posts of Joanne’s that encourage everyone to believe that people, especially teachers, are stupider than ever,by re-posting some commentaries by San Francisco public school parents about their kids’ schools. Here’s one sample.

    This one is by blogger Amy Graff, about her daughter’s school, Jose Ortega Elementary in the Oceanview-Merced-Ingleside district, on a hill just east of San Francisco State University, where Amy’s child is in the Mandarin language immersion program. And by the way, Jose Ortega was considered scary and failing by many middle-class parents honestly as recently as three or four years ago. It goes to show.

    Why I Love Jose Ortega

    I love Jose Ortega because it sits on a hill that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. On a clear day you can see the Farallon Islands, and when the sun sets in the evening the sky turns soft pinks and purples, and my daughter says, “Oh mom, I wish I could have a dress in those colors.”

    I love the Friday morning sing-alongs when all the children and teachers and many parents gather in the auditorium. It’s loud and noisy and chaotic and the children are distracted as they sing through a medley of songs. and then Ms. Young starts pounding the school song on the piano and the children sit up straight. They sing loud and proud: “It’s Jose Ortega on the hill we love…”

    I love that my daughter learned to read at Jose Ortega. She also learned to love books.

    I love that the principal knows every child and parent by name and that she always puts children first. I love that I can walk into her office any time and she’ll listen. I love that she stands her ground.

    I love Jose Ortega because one day when my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher said to me, “I’m really concerned because your daughter hasn’t been smiling as much as she usually does and I’m just wondering if something is going on at home. I’d like to be able to help her.”

    I love that there’s often a hawk sitting atop the fence overlooking the outdoor playground.

    I love that my daughter is learning to speak Mandarin. It’s her magical power and it gives her confidence. I love that we were in Big Lots the other day and my daughter pointed out that one of the store clerks was speaking Mandarin to another customer.

    I love that we planted an herb garden at the school entrance this year.

    I love the parents at Jose Ortega because they support one another. They’re the sort who invite you over for dinner when your spouse is out of town, who wait with your child when you’re late for pick-up, and who put hot casseroles on your doorstep after you have a baby.

    I love our PTA because it’s bursting with passion to make our school better. It’s small but doing the work of a big crew.

    I love our greening committee that comes out on weekends to pull weeds. Its members have big dreams of converting our expansive blacktop area into a lush sea of green where children can climb trees and get their hands dirty pulling carrots from the earth. I love that ideas such as “We should get goats and chickens” are tossed out at our meetings.

    I love that I visited my daughter’s classroom one day and they were digging their hands into big tubs full of dirt and worms.

    I love Ms. Ginny who works in the office. I love that I walked into her office once and she was blaring music and dancing. I love that she puts band-aids on boo-boos that children are certain exist–but really aren’t there. I love that she notices when my son has gotten a haircut. It’s all about the little things.

    I love Jose Ortega because it’s small. The school has only 260 students so after awhile you really do recognize every face.

    I love that when you’re in a conversation with the principal at Jose Ortega and a child interrupts, “I didn’t get any breakfast and I’m really hungry….” the principal immediately turns her attention to the child. The kids always, always come first.

    I love that my daughter brought home a Nancy Drew book that she checked out from the school library.

    I love Jose Ortega because it has an amazing art teacher, Aiko, who taught the kids to fold origami cranes. They made nearly 1,000 cranes and the flock serves as the backdrop for the school stage. I love that this year Aiko is teaching the kids to paint and the school hallways are full of vibrant artwork.

    I love that when you walk into the teacher lounge at lunchtime, the teachers are gathered around the table talking and laughing. They all get along–setting a tone and a good example for the rest of the school.

    I love the small courtyard areas outside each classroom. Right now, the garden plots are filled with tangles of weeds but we have plans to transform these. We started a community garden program so individual families are adopting the plots. Come visit the school in a year and you’ll be amazed.

    I love that my daughter came home the other day and said, “Mommy, I need to tell you all about Rosa Parks.” She proceeded to tell me about how everyone is equal no matter their skin color. She talked about race candidly, comfortably, and openly. If only Jose Ortega could teach everyone could do this.

    I love that our PTA raised money to pay for tutoring kids who were falling behind.

    I love the gorgeous Chinese characters that my daughter draws on everything–restaurant place mats, birthday cards, notepads, old envelopes. To her, writing in Chinese is like making art.

    I love that a group of schoolchildren lead their fellow classmates in the “Pledge of Allegiance” every day. And I’ll never forget the morning when our principal announced that the child leading the “Pledge” had just become a citizen.

    I love that my daughter always points out her school every time we drive by it on the freeway. I love that she misses school over summer break.

    I love Jose Ortega.

    –Amy Graff, mother of a first-grader

  27. Cranberry says:

    Caroline, your posts are determinedly off-topic. By the way, did you secure Amy Graff’s permission, before citing an entire post? A link to her blog would have been more polite–both to Ms. Graff, and to Joanne Jacobs, the author of this blog.

    You may not agree with the items Ms. Jacobs chooses to highlight, but you are behaving very badly. If you are a teacher, your actions do not reflect well on your professionalism.

  28. Yes, I did get Amy’s permission — I reposted it on my own blog with permission too.

    In my view, what’s bad behavior is the ongoing “everyone is stupider than they used to be except for me and my followers” theme. I don’t see that it’s such bad behavior to post a parent’s view that makes the opposite point. I’m not a teacher — I’m a journalist, blogger, and San Francisco public school parent, volunteer and advocate.


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