When is Reading Hard?
Reading, Comprehension, and Knowledge
Do you enjoy reading? I do. I grew up reading voraciously — new books, old books, books set in the city, the country, in foreign lands, and many books that featured characters that lived lives very different from mine. My grandparents read to me every day in the years before I could read. They read Bible stories, fairy tales, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, and countless Little Golden Books. When I had questions they couldn’t answer, there were reference books or a set of encyclopedias that we could dip into, if not at home then at the library.
Before I was anywhere near school age, I knew that books were a source of delight. The fascinating stories told in clear, vivid prose or poetry and the fanciful illustrations enticed me to request “just one more story” many, many times. As each story was read, the scenes unfolded in my mind, vivid as a 3D movie. When I began to read for myself I spent a lot of time with books I knew, puzzling out the stories word by word. Since I knew the stories and loved them already, “reading” them was a mashup of remembrance and decoding. As I practiced decoding on familiar books, sounds, words, and language patterns became clearer. Soon it was possible to read books I’d never read, and life opened up for me. As I had suspected, reading was a joy.
What makes reading hard?
For many children, learning to read is not fun. It’s just plain hard. No matter how hard they try, how many worksheets they fill out, or how long they practice short and long vowel sounds, reading seems laborious and hard. This is not how it should be.
Why? What makes reading harder for some kids than others? I came across an article in The Atlantic that offered some answers to that question, and in the answer to the question lies the solution to a great many reading difficulties. After analyzing reasons why only one-third of American students test as “proficient” in reading in the bi-annual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a panel of experts concluded that “the root of the problem is the way schools teach reading.”
The current methods of instruction have been influenced by a combination of high-stakes testing (get enough kids to pass standardized tests or your school will be decertified) and assumptions and methods that have been debunked by extensive research. Since 2001 when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing was introduced, “the curriculum in many elementary schools has narrowed to little more than a steady diet of reading and math.”
As a result, meaningful, sequential, content-rich study of history, science, and the arts has been pushed aside, with the direst consequences falling most heavily on the poorest students in the most disadvantaged school districts. It turns out that knowledge is essential to understanding, a fact that would come as no surprise to any classical or Charlotte Mason educator. Reading is hard when it separated from the knowledge that gives it meaning and purpose.
Comprehension requires context
Reading is not a single skill. In order to read with comprehension, students must be fluent — able to read quickly and easily enough that their “mental concentration is on the wit and wisdom” of the text, rather than on the effort of decoding sentences. They need a broad vocabulary with an understanding of prefixes, suffixes, and roots. And underpinning it all, they need context.
Not only do they need a foundation in early reading and listening to many, many books; they also need history, science, the arts, and “direct, everyday experiences of fields, forests, streams, lakes, oceans, grass and ground” (Senior, p. 131). Without the ease and broad vocabulary that results from much exposure to good books, and without an equally broad range of real-life experiences, the deceptively simple act of reading seems hard.
E.D. Hirsch, the author of Cultural Literacy, writes that “language comprehension requires a mountain of unseen shared knowledge that is not spoken.” To put it bluntly, the less a reader knows about the world — history, art, music, literature, geography, nature — the harder it will be to understand anything that is read. It seems as if this would be blindingly obvious to anyone who has ever tried to learn something as an adult. Suppose I pick up the sports page of the newspaper and turn to an article on cricket (highly unlikely, as I don’t live in the UK or read the sports section), and I encounter the following three sentences.
Vince has been criticised for innings that are more style than substance, while before Sunday, Stoneman had reached fifty four times but failed to push on.
The two offered up chances. Stoneman was dropped twice on 48 and 57 and reprieved on review after being given out caught behind, while Vince was lucky to not be caught twice off leg-spinner Ish Sodhi.
Vince’s cover drives proved as aesthetically pleasing as ever, while Stoneman was strong square of the wicket as he registered his Test best score (from BBC Sport).
Suppose further that I am required to answer a few comprehension questions about this article excerpt. The reading level is modest, but I am certain that most of my answers would be wrong. Why? I lack an essential foundation of knowledge. Not only do I not know who the people are, I don’t understand the sports jargon. However, thanks to a vivid scene in The Fortunate Wayfarer by E. Phillips Oppenheim, I do know that the game involves batting, bowling, and wickets, and I have a general idea of how points are scored. If I were to read the entire BBC article rather than a short excerpt, I may be able to gain an idea of the flow of the game in question.
An example of how background knowledge affects comprehension
You might be fluent in sports vocabulary, people, and places, but what if the excerpt were about an unfamiliar subject? For example, consider the following excerpts chosen from books on my shelves (links that open to Amazon are affiliate links, of course).
Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. The paradox of neuroplasticity . . . is that, for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into “rigid behaviors.” The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed . . . Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away. (From The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, p. 34)
If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy. (The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis, p. 29)
Plots needed reliable right-angled sides particularly for vegetables grown in rows, and although the average peasant might have a rough go, the sophisticated garden architect who was laying out regular square beds would have to measure more accurately. Indeed geometry, literally “measurement of the earth”, sprang from the necessity continually to re-lay the agricultural plots of the ancient Egyptian Nile flood plain. Out of this came Euclid’s three:four:five ratio for constructing a right-angle which was carried out in practice by cords knotted in those proportions, and the Egyptian for surveyor meant “knotted rope bearer.” (The Practice of Medieval Gardening by Sylvia Landsberg, p. 90)
In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue — by reason and by banging the table — for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be. Not that I want joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least an evaluation of too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think all critics and artists should be thoroughly familiar with it . . . The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. (On Moral Fiction by John Gardner, p. 5)
One or two final comments on the distinction between the ferial and the festal cuisine . . . The distinction must never be thought of as depeinding on the “richness” or fattening qualites of the foods involved — as if the festal ones were full of calories and the ferial ones dietetic. The calorie approach is the work of the devil [as is all fragmentation — JC]. He has persuaded otherwise sane men that festal eathing should not alternate with ferial eating at all, but with dieting — an activity which, while it usess food, hopes that it can keep food from having anything significant to do with us. (The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon, p. 25-26)
A fluent reader with an excellent vocabulary and a solid general education is likely to get through all of these with a reasonable level of comprehension and interest.* However, a reader who lacks reading experience, a broad vocabulary, or a fundamental knowledge of science, history, theology, nature, or the arts is likely to struggle with one or more of the passages, and may not find them interesting or informative. Can you imagine what it would be like to try to understand them if you couldn’t decipher half the words, had never heard of neurons, synapses, ratio, calories, the Nile, and had no idea who Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and Euclid were?
That is the situation many children find themselves in, though the passages they are trying to understand are passages chosen or designed to be read at their grade level. If a child has not been saturated in words, ideas, and wholesome experience in the things of nature, the act of reading poses an almost insurmountable obstacle. The answer to reading difficulties is not more worksheets, more skills practice, more fragmentation, but more reading of whole, living books, more conversation about ideas, more history, geography, nature, art, and music — more of life and the things that make life worth living.
I was able to step easily into the world of books because stories, poems, and songs, along with a great deal of imaginative play and outdoor time were part of my life. Every day I watched as my grandparents performed the magical act of transforming letters on a page into living stories. I wanted to be able to do it too! The formal act of learning to read had an informal beginning long before school started, and it was that foundation that made learning to read a simple, natural process.
The institutional classroom
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.
– Ray Bradbury
It is almost possible to feel sorry for institutional educators who are caught between the Charybdis of the fact that knowledge is a prerequisite for understanding and the Scylla of the bureaucratic state that demands that teachers produce students who read without giving them the freedom to teach. The thankless task of producing bricks without straw now takes most of the time that should be devoted to spreading an enticing feast of great ideas for students. The pendulum may one day swing back toward teaching actual knowledge in interesting ways, but in the meantime, how many generations will have lost the opportunity to know reading as the doorway to delight?
Outside of traditional educational structures, parents have the opportunity to provide a nourishing atmosphere filled with good books, plenty of reading and listening time, and abundant amounts of outdoor experience. It is never too late to start feasting on great ideas. Learning to see, hear, feel, and think is a journey, but for those who learn, life is a feast and nothing is boring. Won’t you set out today?
*Two points: 1— I include interest as a measure of comprehension because “boring” is often used to describe something that requires an effort or is incomprehensible. Because we are born with healthy curiosity, unfamiliar things should spark interest unless the material is completely incomprehensible. It is possible to have curiosity squashed to a point to which even the most tantalizing morsel does not arouse interest, but in that case, the task of education must be expanded to include the cultivation of restored curiosity.
2— If you want to test how well you understand each of the sample passages, read it once, then look away and try to concisely but thoroughly summarize the excerpt orally or in writing. How well did you do?
Did you notice that as you work to retell a passage in your own words, the meaning of it becomes more clear and you understand it better? This is the art of narration — that deceptively simple way of assimilating and retaining knowledge. In practice, narration should be done in the context of a whole work that you are reading, but perhaps this tiny sample will give you a taste of its power. If you thought it was too easy to be effective, now you know differently!
The best learning methods are timeless and simple and can be used at any age. Best of all, you or your student can be learning about things that are real or imaginative, interesting, amazing, exotic, creative, inspiring, and necessary while you practice the essential art of communicating.
For further reading
Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years — Natalie Wexler in The Atlantic. Favorite quote: “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 . . . 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.”
Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge — of Words and the World — E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (PDF). This excellent article provides research-based advice, along with many references for follow-up study.
Research Says… / High-Stakes Testing Narrows the Curriculum — Jane L. David