January 16, 2007

Interview with Willingham

EdNews has a good interview with Daniel Willingham posted today on "reading comprehension:

6) What are your three main factors that you see as important in reading comprehension?

Decoding, fluency, and background knowledge. Obviously, if you can't decode, it's pretty much "game over." And if you don't have some degree of fluency, you're so occupied with decoding, that you can't pay attention to the meaning of the text. Finally, if you don't have some background knowledge to which you can relate the text, you may comprehend it, but your understanding will be pretty shallow—it will be closely tied to the text itself, and you won't be able to generalize the message of the text.

There you go: decoding, fluency, and background knowledge. Three things that don't get systematicallt taught in your typical balanced literacy classroom.

Here's a question: "To what extent have educators and policy-makes recognized the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension?" My answer would be "not enough!" I'm specifically concerned about the role of the National Reading Panel report. That Report is becoming crystallized in state and federal legislation as the final word on reading, and the report is great. . . but it's incomplete because it doesn't say anything about the role of background knowledge in reading comprehension. If we're concerned about having students who are good readers we have to recognize that reading is an interaction between the words on the page and the knowledge in the reader's head. Without background knowledge, you can't comprehend a text to a level we would call "understanding." We need to pay attention to developing background knowledge in students from the first day that they are in school, and encouraging parents to do so even before then. It's not a trivial matter to decide what that content should be and how to deliver it. But if we want all children to be excellent readers it has to be done.

Background knowledge: the untaught subject. Read the whole thing.


Instructivist said...

I would think that fluency subsumes decoding. No decoding ability, no reading ability, let alone fluency.

If limited to three choices, I would list fluency, vocabulary and backgroung knowledge as the three key ingredients necessary for comprehension.

KDeRosa said...

Using that same logic I think we can say that vocabulary can be subsumed into background knowledge (or is it the other way around)?

Instructivist said...

"Using that same logic I think we can say that vocabulary can be subsumed into background knowledge (or is it the other way around)?"

Come to think of it, you are right.

One can subsume all kinds of things. One could subsume everything under comprehension.

Would you agree that decoding is only needed in the initial stages on the road of becoming an expert reader? Once that expert status is reached, word identification is done visually. All, or almost all, words become sight words. (If I am using the meaning of sight word correctly. What are sight words anyway?)

The mistake of the WL crowd is that they want to bypass that crucial stage, reasoning erroneously that since expert readers identify words visually, the best way to become an expert reader is to start by identifyng whole words.

Anonymous said...

Short version, somebody actually did a research study to show that it doesn't matter how well you read if you have no idea what the author is talking about. Next thing you know they'll be doing the experiment by asking physicists to read tax documents and asking accountants to read physics articles.

Don't get me wrong, this is a valuable insight, but it should be the bleeding obvious.