The common standards movement has sparked a useful discussion of teaching reading. Many critics like the newest draft of the standards, reports Curriculum Matters.
Carol Jago, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, tells me she thinks the draft has improved in two ways. First, it emphasizes “quantity in reading.” Jago, an author and former high school teacher, served as one of several outside reviewers of the English-language arts version of the document.
“More is more when it comes to students and reading,” Jago told me in an e-mail. “I was delighted to see this important point addressed so directly…The dramatic difference between the number of books students read in high school and the number they are assigned in college I believe contributes enormously to student failure in the first semester at university.”
Jago also likes the focus on reading challenging books independently, a skill needed for college and the workplace.
Will Fitzhugh, the founder of The Concord Review, wants more stress on nonfiction documents and research papers.
In a Washington Post op-ed, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham critiques the standards for assuming students can understand what they read without background knowledge. Teaching “strategies” doesn’t lead to comprehension, he writes.
Remarkably, if you take kids who score poorly on a reading test and ask them to read on a topic they know something about (baseball, say, or dinosaurs) all of a sudden their comprehension is terrific—better than kids who score well on reading tests but who don’t know a lot about baseball or dinosaurs.
In other words, kids who score well on reading tests are not really kids with good “reading skills.”
Once students have “cracked the code of letters and sounds” and read fluently, the good readers are the ones with the prior knowledge to enable them to understand what they read, Willingham argues. Students who lack background knowledge can reason their way through a text, but it’s slow and difficult, “a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.”