The Yin and Yang of Reading and Knowledge Acquisition

A November 25 New York Times article by Daniel Willingham, “How to Get Your Mind to Read,” raises important questions for educators, parents, and learners. Because reading does not happen in a vacuum, true comprehension requires more than accurate decoding. Willingham writes:

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge. That suggests three significant changes in schooling.

Full understanding of the text requires background knowledge and context. If you know nothing about the game of soccer, for instance, an article about soccer will inevitably be more opaque.

Willingham prescribes three changes:

  1. Reverse the trend of spending more time on literacy instruction and less on knowledge acquisition; at least use high-information texts.
  2. For accountability, use assessments that match the kind of background knowledge for the particular student population.
  3. Finally, “the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design.”

As a retired reading consultant whose career veered off into constructivist learning, I find myself struggling with Willingham’s vision even as it makes sense to me. I have come to believe that content and information can be acquired when there’s a purpose for knowing them, but that skills trump content. The whole thrust of problem-based learning requires a tactical approach to locating and using knowledge based on critical thinking skills.

Yet I agree that, even though I’m a proficient and prolific reader, I struggle with materials for which I have very limited background information. Reading about them requires delving beyond the immediate text. If I struggle, what must it be like for inexperienced readers?

Perhaps the best answer is a recognition that we needn’t make an either-or choice. I choose to believe that knowledge acquisition can occur when learners have a genuine need for that knowledge and the skills to locate and use it. But educators should support emerging readers by helping them build a broader knowledge base to improve their deep comprehension. Can’t we come at these issues from both directions for a win-win?