Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School?  and Raising Kids Who Read, says that Americans are not good readers. One data point among many to support this claim is that in 30 years, high school seniors’ scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test have not improved.

Willingham goes on to explain that sounding words from print is different from comprehending text, which requires a broad spectrum of general knowledge allowing us to bridge the gaps inherent in what we read. Further, to understand what we read, we need a sense of context. When we take things literally rather than contextually, we miss important meanings.

What this amounts to, he says, is that schools and teachers are mistaking reading for a general skill rather than an accumulated awareness. He recommends decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades to allow for more time to give children general knowledge across disciplines. He deplores end of year exams that require students to read and understand texts randomly chosen rather than specifically related to the year’s learning. “If topics are random, the test weights knowledge learned outside the classroom — knowledge that wealthy children have great opportunity to pick up.” Finally, he says that following the Common Core Standards for reading is not enough. Educators need to build content-rich curriculum that will enhance broad knowledge in young readers.

“Don’t blame the internet, or smartphones, or fake news for Americans’ poor reading,” Willingham insists. Without an expanding and expansive understanding of the world and its many topics and sub-topics, along with the many words available to describe it, readers take far less from what they read than is necessary. Willingham’s view is a good reminder that enjoyment in reading comes not from getting answers about it right, but from from knowing what it is – or could be – about.



Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.


  • Karen Derby says:

    I wonder what this means for AP English Language and Literature, as well as the IB
    English A? Much of these exams test on “unseen” literature, though the skills of close
    reading assessed on the exam would hopefully have been taught already. I sometimes
    explain to my students that, though I am an excellent reader, if you give me a college or
    graduate level textbook on Physics, my comprehension would drop dramatically in
    comparison to a piece of literature. So, where do we spend our valuable and precious time
    with kids? I’m intrigued!

    • JFlax says:

      I know — I had the same thought. I think it’s different, possibly, for high school juniors and seniors who have in fact read some things & formed a foundation of knowledge. Still, I think it’s true that the unseen passage plays to the strengths of certain kids from privileged/ educated backgrounds, regardless of their age. If reading comprehension is based in part at least on preexisting knowledge, then anyone with more education, be it formal or informal, is at an advantage.