Federal rules require reading and math tests in third through eighth grade. That’s way too late to start, writes Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News. It would make more sense to stop reading tests in third grade.
Schools should be held accountable for teaching decoding skills in the early grades, he writes. “A struggling reader in first grade has a 90 percent chance of still struggling in fourth grade; a struggling third grade reader has only a one-in-four chance to catch up by high school.”
By third grade, what matters is comprehension. A reading comprehension test is a “de facto test of background knowledge and vocabulary acquired in school and out,” Pondiscio writes.
People think of reading as a transferable skill, like riding a bike, he writes. “Once you learn how to read, you can read anything – a novel, the sports page, or a memo from your boss – with relative ease and understanding” — they believe. But that’s not how reading works.
Broadly stated, there are two distinct parts to learning to read. The first is “decoding.” We teach small children that letters make sounds, and how to blend those sounds together so c-a-t becomes “cat.” Decoding is definitely a skill and a transferable one.
But the second part, reading comprehension, is much trickier. You certainly need to be able to decode to read, but reading with understanding and subtlety is intimately intertwined with background knowledge and vocabulary. In order to understand a story about a basketball game, for example, you need to know something about basketball.
Good readers almost certainly know “at least a little about a lot of different things.”
Instead of wasting time “trying to teach the ersatz ‘skill’ of reading comprehension,” teachers should build strong readers by teaching history, science, art, music, etc. (I’d throw in literature.) The more students understand the world, the more they’ll be able to make sense of what they read.