Posts tagged ‘Reading comprehension’

March 26, 2015

‘Background information’ is a key reading skill

by Grace

In an interview with Deseret News, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham elaborates on the importance of background information in the development of reading comprehension skills.

DN: You talk a lot about “background information” as a key reading skill. This seems to be an enormously important concept that is not often discussed?

Willingham: I strongly agree. Once you spell it out it is sort of obvious to people that in all communication — speaking as well as writing — that we don’t make explicit every detail needed to comprehend. If you did, communication would take forever. You assume that your reader has certain knowledge.

We have to connect ideas, sometimes within a sentence or across sentences, and very frequently information is omitted. If you don’t have the right information in a voice conversation, it’s not that big a problem. You can ask them to clarify, or dumb it down. But when you’re reading you don’t have that option. And what will happen is you will just stop reading because you don’t comprehend.

Nonfiction reading is important in building background information.

DN: You write that we are shortchanging our reading by focusing so heavily on language arts. What do you mean by that?

Willingham: That’s absolutely true in the early grades. There is very little time devoted to science or civics or history or drama or art. English language arts focuses very narrowly on narrative fiction, and a lot of the time they’re not even reading. They are doing writing and spelling. It’s not that these things are not important, but we have to recognize that later on, in middle school and high school, the lack of background knowledge is going to come back and bite our kids.

Schools have an even greater obligation to teach background information to low-income and minority students.

DN: This seems to have important implications for closing the achievement gap suffered by low-income and minority kids?

Willingham: Absolutely. The kids coming from wealthier homes have much richer resources to acquire that broad background knowledge. They’re much more likely to be immersed in it at home, and their parents have more money, which they can use to provide experiences that are rich in information.

Willingham’s latest book is “Raising Kids Who Read”.  Among other recommendations, he advises that parents avoid using baby talk with their children.


Eric Schulzke, “What parents can do at home to prepare their children to read”, Deseret News, March 22, 2015.

October 4, 2012

Literacy instruction in public schools is ‘Dismal’

by Grace

Arising out my frustration with the spotty quality of English instruction in our public schools, I have created an index that I choose to call the “Excellence in Literacy Instruction” (ELI).  It’s my whimsical measure of the quality of public high school literacy instruction, admittedly with no basis in science.  Here is how I calculate the index.

  1. Select the five best-selling English Language Arts resources for tenth-grade students from the Teachers pay Teachers website, an “online marketplace where teachers buy and sell … educational materials”.
  2. Assign each resource a upward-facing arrow ( ↑ ) or a downward-facing arrow ( ↓ ) based on my view on how well the lessons help in preparing a student for college-level work.
  3. Add up the total arrows to calculate the “ELI Index” score, which can range from “Excellent”  (↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑) to “Dismal”   (↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓) based on the number of arrows in each direction.

Here’s the current edition of the “ELI Index”

Best-selling ELA resources, with my comments and arrow scores:

  “Hunger Games” Unit: Lessons Q&A Tests Activities Quiz Vocab Maps Key  – A 5th-grade reading level book

   Creative Activities for ANY Novel or Short Story with Handouts – Activities include making recipes, writing a rap song, drawing a comic strip, etc.

   Hunger Games Teaching Unit CD Lessons, Quizzes, Tests, Activities  – A 5th-grade reading level book

   Reading Comprehension Strategy Resource Binder – After 7th grade “increased practice with reading comprehension strategies doesn’t bring any improved benefit“.

↓  Facebook Character Page — Versatile Activity for any Character – Facebook?  Do teens need more Facebook practice?

Final Score for the “ELI Index”:

Dismal – ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓

Falling down on college preparation

Educators sometimes argue that above all else schools must develop the love of reading among their students.  This attitude supports the indiscriminate use of “fun” classroom projects instead of rigorous lessons, and a focus on letting students read and write whatever they want.  This comment is from a Joanne Jacobs post on the popularity of assigning The Hunger Games for high school reading.

If everyone is fine with kids graduating high school with a love of reading, but an inability to read college level texts, I think there is no problem. The problem comes when these kids graduate high school thinking that they are ready for college level texts and they aren’t. And if the kids are still working on 5th grade grammar/vocabulary in 10th and 11th grade time is running short.


Related:  High school students are assigned too many FIFTH-GRADE books (Cost of College)

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