Reading Requires Outside Knowledge

kid-reading-manual_thumb.jpgDaniel Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and he wrote a piece at Real Clear Education entitled “Common Core and ‘Close Reading’: Effectiveness Questionable without Outside Knowledge” that is worth a read.

He points out that close reading entails rereading the text kids are working with and then dealing mainly with the author’s words in the text.  Both of these he says are good practices (and I agree).

It is the third component of close reading that he has an issue with.  Willingham writes:

…we will view a text as being self-contained. We will only draw conclusions that are defensible via the author’s words. In fact, we will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.

It’s that last bit that seems crazy to me.

Rereading? Sure. Paying close attention to the author’s words? Great idea. But pretending that one’s knowledge is not relevant to interpreting a text conflicts with how writers write and with how readers read.

Writers count on their audience to bring knowledge to bear on the text.


So the nature of writing and the nature of reading seem contrary to one aspect of close reading, namely, the idea that we can put a fence around a text, and read it only with reference to the contents of the text.


Except in very restricted academic settings — that is, among people who like close reading — it’s not obvious to me how this sort of reading will serve students well.

Careful study of language, focus on the author’s words, assumption that rereading pays off: yes. Excluding knowledge outside of the text: no.

Read the rest.

HT: Education in Iowa – Karen W looks at video of a close reading exercise with 4th graders. It’s worth taking a look.