Turning reading into a bore

Students spend too much time practicing reading strategies that won’t improve comprehension, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham on his blog. A little dab’ll do ya, he writes in a longer article. More is a waste of time — and it makes reading a bore.

The chart shows the various strategies:


Too much strategizing turns reading into drudgery, Willingham writes.

How can you get lost in a narrative world if you think you’re supposed to be posing questions to yourself all the time? How can a child get really absorbed in a book about ants or meteorology if she thinks that reading means pausing every now and then to anticipate what will happen next, or to question the author’s purpose?

My daughter’s second-grade teacher thought she read too quickly. I guess she wasn’t using reading strategies. She was just reading.

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  1. How do you figure kids ever learned to read in the millennia before there were “reading strategies” to help them out? Teaching someone to read requires no upscale skills or “strategies”. My mother taught all her kids to read and she had not graduated from college. She drilled us by making us read road signs while we drove around. As you get older, you develop your own “strategies” if you want to pass reading-intensive classes.

    • Oh, that’s easy. You just ignore impertinent and unanswerable qeustions such those that began your post and the problem of maintaining the pretense of expertise is maintained.

      See how that works? Those who prattle on endlessly about reading strategies and all the rest of that “whole language” horse manure simply ignore you, your questions, inconvenient historical references and the fact that they’ve never taught any child to read. Ever.

      Whole language advocates enjoy the benefit of having no responsibility for the outcome of the policies they espouse while reaping the benefits. It’s sort of like running a confidence game in a land without cops peopled by the endlessly credulous. If you’ve got no pride, or you’re willing to sell your pride cheaply, it’s practically heaven on earth.

      If it helps, whole language advocates have been having a rough time of it more or less lately. Having mandated whole language in California they managed to drive California’s reading scores to the second lowest among all states. After some years of mis-educating kids and offering all sorts of excuses why their sovereign remedy didn’t work they lost in the legislature and had their mandate taken away.

      That reverse has had a dampening effect on enthusiasm for whole language and advocates have had to retrench with what they call the “blended” approach in which they reluctently grant as little credence as possible to phonics against the day when they can, once again, expunge any trace of phonics instruction from reading curricula. Fortunately for kids everywhere that day will never arrive.

  2. For students who start reading early, this is so frustrating. They’re being asked to do things that they’re probably already doing to some extent without thinking about them. Something complicated enough to require all of these strategies is probably going to require multiple readings anyway.

  3. This would have driven me straight up the wall. I was an early and voracious reader who was reading 3-5 years ahead when I started school (first grade, no k or preschool). This sort of thing should be limited to kids who need it, and as lu-lu says, those kids likely need to read the material several times. I’m very grateful that my teachers let me read my own books under the desk and pretty much left me alone, other than occasional questions or read-alouds. (only one class per grade and my parents later regretted not accelerating me)

    • Lord, MANY years ago (55) I was in 1st grade, and was bored to the point of tears by the slowness of reading circles. I was constantly not ready to read the next line, due to having skipped ahead. I was NEVER in the same place as the rest of the class.

      Early readers shouldn’t be penalized for having mastered the skill.

  4. If there’s one thing that ed professors (and the teachers they’ve taught) need to have pounded into them, it’s that the conscious mind can think about exactly one thing at any one time. One. Not two, not three, not five, one.

  5. The practice of “fake reading” is a very real phenomena in which “readers” eyes pass over the text and their brains “pronounce” the words, but at the end of the reading the students shrug helplessly, saying “I read it, but I don’t get it.” And, while I generally like and agree with what Dan has to say, he is grossly underestimating the necessity of teaching kids how to read. Far, far, far too many schools teach kids how to decode text in first grade, and simply assign reading after that. Simply telling struggling readers to read it again, or read more slowly, or “get lost in the text” is negligent at best for teachers of literacy.

    What most critics of literacy fail to understand is that all the strategies which are being taught in school are those techniques that effective readers do more naturally. But many do not do them at all. Many children think they are just bad readers. Many students believe that the best readers “read fast.” Pace is neither relevant, nor a goal. Thus, students should be told to slow down if it is negatively impacting comprehension. I would never tell a kid to slow down if he were fully comprehending the text. But if kids are rushing to finish – skipping over words and missing details – either because they don’t like it and want to get done, or are simply excited to know “how it ends,” they should be instructed to slow down.

    Dan is somewhat correct that reading/literacy instruction should be “brief,” but only if comprehension is high. If not, literacy instruction should be more extensive. I am still teaching my AP Language students at a top high school “how to read.” Because even they fake read, even they fail to naturally employ strategies, even they “say they read it, but don’t get it.”

    To deny such realities is naive. We don’t just assign reading. We teach it.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I find my students have developed a strategy for reading. When they are asked to read a passage and answer questions, they look at the first question and pick out some key words. Then, they look for the words in the passage. Then they copy down the sentence in which those words appear.

      In other words, they don’t really read the passage at all.

      Perhaps your students are importing this strategy that has worked so well for them in previous classes.

    • Ponderosa says:


      You are completely correct that many kids practice “fake reading” (a Cris Tovani term). But you are wrong that teaching reading strategies is the cure. I admit, Tovani and company make a convincing case that reading strategies must be the cure. A whole industry of reading “cures” has grown up around their plausible-sounding suggestions. Textbook publishers have dutifully re-written their books in accordance with the reading strategy gospel.

      But it’s mostly a fraud.

      What you overlook in Willingham is that he cites studies that PROVE the approach isn’t very effective.

      So what can we do? I buy E.D. Hirsch’s argument that KNOWLEDGE is the only path to reading competence. We need to flood young minds with facts about the world –that’ll expose them to the vocab and concepts that will enable them to “get” the texts they read. A new curriculum that emphasizes rich content over empty drills is the only hope. Viva Core Knowledge!

      • I don’t disagree with building up the “strategy” of “using existing knowledge to make sense of new information.” In fact, it’s certainly a primary strategy that effective readers simply “have.” And, of course, the lack of core knowledge is a key indicator of struggling readers. And, of course, socioeconomic and cultural influences are the primary factors in the deficit. However, Hirsch and his clan of core knowledge advocates are simply pushing one strategy in the way that Cris Tovani and associates promote many strategies. And Cris has had great success promoting the teaching of “literacy.” Considering that to be “a fraud” is a rather bold assertion. The problem with your analysis is the same as Dan’s – there is not “only” one path to reading competence.

    • The practice of “fake reading” is a very real phenomena in which “readers” eyes pass over the text and their brains “pronounce” the words, but at the end of the reading the students shrug helplessly, saying “I read it, but I don’t get it.”

      Oh, let’s just move that little vignette to a slightly different situation and see how it plays out, shall we?

      Instead of the “fake reader” engaging in “fake reading” we’ll have someone else sitting right next to them engaged in, well, it doesn’t really matter whether they’re engaged in this mythical “fake reading” or not, does it? Our proxy reader will recite the passage and our previously illiterate, at least in terms of extracting meaning is what? Still puzzled? Suddenly awake to the meanings previously hidden?

      Obviously, our “fake reader” will understand just fine. An occasional word outside their vocabulary might cause them a problem but they won’t just sit there at the end of the passage with the uncomprehending look of someone who’s been listening to the passage read in a language they don’t understand.

      Here’s where we run into the essentially political nature of public education.

      Whole language advocates can pass off Mike’s unsupported and silly claim as gospel and due to the fact that their authority issues not from their success in the teaching of reading but from political power can ignore evidence that their ideas just don’t work. Ever. Further, whole language advocates can afford to approach the entire question of reading instruction as a largely philosophical exercise. There’s no penalty for being wrong and no liability for mis-educating children and rendering them reluctant readers at best and illiterate at worst. Better yet, the illiterate adults that result may never connect their disability with the fraudulant methodology in effect when they should have been learnign to read.

      The damage occurs at a nice, safe remove which is how it ought to be, right?

      • Saying “obviously are fake reader will understand just fine” indicate you have been nowhere near a classroom or child in the process of learning in … decades?

        Many students are passive or fake listeners as well. And, if you read Dan’s article you could not begin to argue that if the challenging passage he gave were read out loud to struggling high school students they would instantly understand it.

        And I cannot fathom how you can align my comments with whole language advocates, as I have noted the importance of teaching phonics first above all.

        What is wrong with you?

  6. Daniel Willingham has no clue what he’s talking about here. I swear, some people don’t seem to understand that all the “reading strategies” are just a desperate measure to help kids reading at a 4th grade level pretend to themselves and others that they can read and partially understand the usual high school curriculum.

    Dan’s advice is for kids who read at high school level but just don’t like to read. If only they were the biggest problem, rather than a group who is largely ignored.

    • momof4 says:

      Perhaps if kids were placed into classes according to their preparation/educational needs (by subject) from the start, fewer kids would get to HS reading at 4th-grade level. The idea that any significant percentage of teachers can effectively differentiate instruction for a heterogeneous class, such that each kid’s educational needs are met is a fantasy – even before mainstreaming/full inclusion is added to the mess. The higher the grade level, the bigger the mess. If teachers are important – and we are assured that they are the most significant in-school factor in student success (what about good curriculum?) – then why is 10 minutes of the teacher’s time in a heterogeneous class as good as 50 minutes of her time in a homogeneous one?

      Yes, Cal, I am aware of the differences in student ability and motivation, which are happily papered over in discussions of HS requirements, college-for-all and suchlike topics. Of course, the question of why non-toilet-trained, non-verbal kids with mental ages in the low single digits are sitting in MS-HS classrooms is also ignored.

  7. Will all reading strategies lead students to be bored? I don’t think so. Will some reading strategies lead students to be bored? Probably.

    I student taught in a 3rd grade classroom a couple months ago. All the students love to spend time to make their own questions. Of course, they needed to have either myself or my master teacher proofread their questions and then, have them make the corrections accordingly.

    Also, students like to talk about themselves. So, for example, they love to bring their own experiences into the classroom. That’s the benefit of prior knowledge. It is a ground of interest for students.

    You know what else students like to do? Talk with their friends. They are given a productive opportunity to do that in class (i.e. cooperative learning).

    So, I reject the claim that every reading strategy makes reading boring for students. However, I’m open to the claim that some reading strategies could make reading boring for students.

    • Ponderosa says:

      AK: The strategies may not be boring, but they’re pretty much a waste of time.

      • They may be a waste of time for students who are already “subconsciously” employing all these strategies, but they aren’t for struggling readers who have simply not achieved competence in the traditional manner. And, of course, schooling and literacy is not simply about content – it’s about skills and technique. So, arguing such instruction and practice of particular skills of literacy is “a waste of time” is a bit overstated and unreasonably pessimistic.

        • Ponderosa says:

          Yes, Tovani does acknowledge the importance of background knowledge. She says kids must consciously “activate” their background knowledge. This part does not make sense to me. Either you have the relevant background knowledge and the neural connections fire up, or they don’t. Telling your brain, “OK brain, bring forth the relevant background knowledge” –that’s not how brains work. She’s just making this stuff up.

          The other strategies are, as far as I can tell, stuff she made up and asserts to be effective without any proof –like some New Age guru. For example, the strategy of making inferences. When kids understand Idea A and Idea B, they will infer C; they don’t need to consciously tell themselves, “OK, now I will try to make an inference.” What we need to do is teach A and B, not “teach” the generic “skill” of inference making in lieu of teaching A and B (which is what is happening). The “skill” of making inferences is part of the hard-wiring of our brains; teachers fool themselves when they say they’re imparting it.

          We all want to believe Tovani (and Kinsella and Calkins) because as professionals we want to look like we’re doing something professional-looking to help bad readers. I have no doubt that these “authorities” believe their own gospel, but it seems like pseudo-knowledge to me, and I think we undermine the credibility of our profession when we follow their advice uncritically.

          • Yes, Tovani does acknowledge the importance of background knowledge. She says kids must consciously “activate” their background knowledge. This part does not make sense to me. Either you have the relevant background knowledge and the neural connections fire up, or they don’t. Telling your brain, “OK brain, bring forth the relevant background knowledge” –that’s not how brains work. She’s just making this stuff up.

            Ponderosa, this is right on the money. The conscious mind can only make connections between pieces of information in working memory. Telling students to consciously activate their background knowledge is essentially telling them to pull their attention away from the text to consciously search through piles and piles of information for something relevant. It completely ignores the way the conscious mind works.

            We all know what it’s like to consciously wrest a piece of information out of memories when it’s not recalled easily. It takes effort. It takes focus. It monopolizes our attention. And that’s when we know what we’re looking for. Broaden that out to be something–anything–relevant, and this strategy is bound to be an endless source of frustration for someone attempting it.

          • You’re missing the point that far too many kids – especially when Cris gets them at high school – do not see reading as an active conscious process. You’re assuming that being metacognitive is a natural condition for kids as they read – but struggling readers at the high school level have to consciously tell their brains to wake up.

            I fear your criticism of Cris is simply a result of always being able to read effectively, and never working to improve truly struggling readers.

  8. I wonder if processing information while reading is really any different from processing information obtained any other way. When these same kids are watching TV crime show, they’re processing information about the crime, who did it, who the suspects are, the relationships between the characters and so on. How is that any different from reading a novel?

    The only difference, I suspect, is that they have a pretty good understanding (due to many hours of rapt attention) of the TV show, its setting and back story. This is very different from the understanding they bring to an historical passage or a chapter in a biology book.

    This probably explains why so many Young Adult books are about teen angst: it’s one field in which teens are absolute experts. It’s interesting that earlier generations grew up with a different sort of YA novel; books about adventure, excitement and exploration: Hardy Boys, Danny Dunn, Nancy Drew, Tom Corbett, Tom Swift, the You Were There series and so on. I have no idea what this means.

    • Rob, I would challenge that assumption. For, I know far too many kids – struggling readers – who come out of the Harry Potter movies and really don’t understand much of what happened. They saw the fights and identified good and bad guys. But much of the plot/dialogue is lost on them. If they hadn’t read the books, it was worse, with them not truly knowing who many of the minor characters are. It was just a “cool movie.” Viewing TV is considerably different than processing written information.

  9. I’ve been pondering these strategies a bit because I realized that some of these are things that I use when I’m learning new information in a technical field, and I encourage my students to use similar techniques as they study. The biggest difference is that I don’t really try to do this as I read something the first time. If its truly new and complicated, I go through paragraph by paragraph and take notes on each, using the ‘summarize’ and ‘main idea’ techniques. I may make a flowchart or some sort of diagram if its appropriate. Then I go back and try to reproduce the ideas independently, checking the paper for any details that I might have missed (this is probably less critical for fiction than a biological pathway).

    This is very effective and fairly time-consuming, but over time there are fewer and fewer areas where I need to be this laborious because over time I have developed ‘context’ for a lot of topics in my field. I can’t remember the last time I had to do this with a novel, although I could certainly see a flowchart with some Tom Clancy-style book that had 10 storylines with different characters and foreign names that have to be kept straight until they converge at the end. It’s hard for most fluent readers to wrap their heads around students having to read even simple stories using these techniques because they are so time-intensive that it would seem impossible to actually read a fiction book in this manner.