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Teaching Content IS Teaching Reading

Why Knowledge is the Key to Reading Comprehension

The ability to decode text fluently is only part of the challenge developing readers face. "In order to understand what you’re reading, you need to know something about the subject matter," notes University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham. "And that doesn’t just mean that you need to know the vocabulary–you need to have the right knowledge of the world," he observes.

Educational practice for teaching reading comprehension in most schools tends to focus on "reading strategies:" asking students to find the main idea of a passage, to pose and answer questions about it, or to identify the author’s purpose. "Reading strategies figured prominently in the report of the National Reading Panel," Willingham points out. "And reading strategies work, to a point. Reading comprehension scores go up after instruction in strategies. But it’s a one-time boost."

There is "truly a mountain of data" demonstrating that content knowledge is essential to comprehension, Willingham says. Narrowing the curriculum to make more time for reading strategy instruction is ultimately self-defeating. As Willingham explains in this video, teaching content is teaching reading: