Why Students Struggle With Reading Comprehension

I just read an interesting article in The Atlantic, it addresses why schools are failing to teach kids how to read. It brings up an excellent point in regards to a student’s ability to comprehend what they are reading will depend on whether or not they have the background vocabulary and knowledge related to the text.

For instance, if you’re crowding out history in elementary school, that will hinder a student’s ability to read material addressing history down the road.

Here’s an excerpt:

One of those cognitive scientists spoke on the Tuesday panel: Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who writes about the science behind reading comprehension. Willingham explained that whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills. That’s because writers leave out a lot of information that they assume readers will know. If they put all the information in, their writing would be tedious.

But if readers can’t supply the missing information, they have a hard time making sense of the text. If students arrive at high school without knowing who won the Civil War they’ll have a hard time understanding a textbook passage about Reconstruction.

Students from less educated families are usually the ones who are most handicapped by gaps in knowledge. Another panelist—Ian Rowe, who heads a network of charter schools serving low-income students in New York—provided a real-life example during his remarks. A sixth-grader at one of his schools was frustrated that a passage on a reading test she’d taken kept repeating a word she didn’t understand: roog-bye. The unfamiliar word made it hard for her to understand the passage. When Rowe asked her to spell the word, it turned out to be rugby.

The implication is clear. The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next: for example, Native Americans and Columbus in kindergarten; the colonial era and the American Revolution in first grade; the War of 1812 and the Civil War in second grade, and so on. That approach enables children to make sense of what they’re learning, and the repetition of concepts and vocabulary in different contexts makes it more likely they’ll retain information. Not to mention that learning content like this can be a lot more engaging for both students and teachers than the endless practice of illusory skills.

Read the whole thing.

This is the result of top-down reforms that have crowded out classical education that does not delay teaching history, science, and the arts until middle school or high school.

3 thoughts on “Why Students Struggle With Reading Comprehension

  1. It’s not fair that the math nerds get whatever they want: more math, everyone required to take higher levels of math whether they want to or not in order to graduate from college. But those of us who feel history deserves more credit get dismissed–oh they’ll find it too boring you don’t want to make them learn, let that be an elective (oh and advanced calculus is not boring to some people?). I don’t use higher level math, but I need to reference history a lot when voting and understanding and debating.

  2. I agree with the observation but I also have evidence that there has been an all out agenda to create illiterate citizens. People who cannot read and cannot comprehend what they read are more controllable. Common Core ELA is just the latest scheme toward the goal of illiteracy. Many schools and Pre-K still teach whole word reading and CC pushes a combo of whole word and phonics. This has been proven to cause dyslexia and illiteracy.

  3. The Death Of Knowlwdge, that is what Common Core is designed to bring about.

    We will have an ignorant population who must Google basic information, which should have been stored in their long-term memory. It’s impossible to do genuine Critical Thinking without any internal reference base.

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