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Does the Common Core help boost reading comprehension?

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Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of several books, including “Why Don’t Students Like School? and “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog. Willingham started teaching at U-Va., in 1992, when his research focused on the brain basis of learning and memory. But after 2000, his research centered on applying cognitive psychology to K-16 education. He has in recent years written a number of popular posts for this  blog, including, “Left/right brain theory is bunk” and “The 21st Century skill students most lack.

Willingham has just written a new book, titled “Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.” Over the next five days, I will publish a piece each day by Willingham about issues in his book. The first post, below, is about the Common Core State Standards and whether they can boost reading comprehension.

By Daniel Willingham

Teaching children to read is not the same project as teaching children to love reading. My new book, Raising Kids Who Read is a how-to guide for parents and teachers who want children to choose reading as a leisure-time activity. In it, I suggest that avid readers (1) decode fluently, (2) readily comprehend what they read, and (3) are motivated to read. Over the next five days I’ll post here at Answer Sheet, focusing on what teachers and schools can do to raise readers, especially in the areas of reading comprehension and motivation.

Today I’ll discuss how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) aims to boost reading comprehension. The approach makes sense, but the aim seems unlikely to be met.

To understand the motivation behind this part of the CCSS, you need to appreciate a crucial (but sometimes underestimated) aspect of reading comprehension. Once a child can decode fluently, prior knowledge—that is, the reader’s knowledge of the topic of the text—is the main driver of comprehension.

That’s so because writers routinely omit information that is needed to connect the ideas in a text. For example, consider this brief passage: “We’re not going on that vacation to Miami after all. My wife could get only get vacation time in July.” Connecting these ideas—rejecting Miami and time off in July—requires knowing something about summer weather in south Florida. The writer doesn’t spell out this connection because she is guessing that the reader already knows it and that such elaboration, when unnecessary, slows the reader down and makes the text boring. But omissions represent a gamble. The second sentence will seem a non-sequitur if the reader doesn’t know that Miami is very hot in July and that many people prefer temperate weather when on vacation.

That’s why people who have broad background knowledge are better readers. Whenever the writer gambles that she needn’t explain something because her reader has the knowledge necessary to fill the omission, she’s more likely to be correct when the reader has broad knowledge of the world. So if one factor in raising a child who reads is to raise a child who readily comprehends most texts, we need to raise a child with broad background knowledge. How do we do that?

One way that children (and adults) learn about the world is through reading (e.g., Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). But Marilyn Jaeger Adams (2009) suggests that for reading cannot be haphazard if it is to make a substantial contribution to knowledge. To support this contention, she cites data from large databases of word-counts—that is, how often a word appears in general interest newspapers, books, and magazines.

Consider the concept “Mars.” Knowing a bit about Mars (that it’s a planet in our solar system, perhaps that it is visible to the naked eye) is exactly the sort of knowledge a newspaper writer might take for granted in his audience. Yet the word “Mars” appears very infrequently in books and magazines—less than one word in million is the word “Mars.” To put it another way, if you were counting on learning about Mars by chance encounter in your leisure reading, you’ll probably wait a long time.

Instead, we might ensure that children are taught about Mars in school, that is, make it part of the curriculum. More generally, if we want high school graduates to read a serious newspaper like the Washington Post, we need to ensure that they acquire the sort of knowledge that the writers and editors of the Post assume in their readership. Sadly, the available evidence indicates that curricula in American schools are narrow. Most study time in elementary grades is devoted to English Language Arts and math, with other subjects (science, civics, geography et al.) accounting for perhaps ten or fifteen percent of instructional time (NICHD, 2002; 2005). It’s worth noting that these data were collected in the late 1990’s, before No Child Left Behind. Further, the texts used in English Language Arts is mostly narrative, and seldom include information that students don’t already know (Duke, 2000).

These two facts—background knowledge is crucial to reading comprehension, and most elementary curricula are insufficiently focused on building background knowledge—are behind the emphasis on knowledge-building in the Common Core standards. To quote directly from the standards:

“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

I’ve read a lot of commentary about the greater proportion of non-fiction the CCSS recommends, but almost nothing about the sequence in which students will learn this content. That lack of discussion is, no doubt, due to the fact that the CCSS don’t mandate particular content. But the sequence of topics is critical. If prior knowledge drives comprehension, wouldn’t you understand a text about the Pilgrims better if you had already studied the Native Americans who they met when they arrived? And wouldn’t it be easier to understand the culture of those Native Americans if you had already studied farming? And wouldn’t it be easier to understand farming if you had already studied plants?

Including 50 percent non-fiction is a good idea, but that mandate will fulfill its intended function much more effectively if the texts are logically sequenced.

When people evaluate English Language Arts curricula for their alignment to the CCSS, they naturally enough focus on the standards. But it’s the internal alignment—the logic of the sequence of topics—that may be the more important determinant of how much students get out of the curriculum and ultimately, how well they do on CCSS assessments.

So that’s the first thing that teachers and schools can do to help students grow to be confident and enthusiastic readers in their leisure time. Ensure that students have broad background knowledge so that, when they pick up a book, magazine, or newspaper, they are likely to know at least a bit about the topic. Developing (or choosing) and then implementing such a curriculum may be one of the toughest tasks schools take on, but it’s probably the most important contributor to reading comprehension. The sort of knowledge such a curriculum ensures is definitely a larger contributor to reading comprehension than the teaching of reading comprehension strategies. I’ll take up that topic tomorrow.


Adams, M. J. (2009). The challenge of advanced texts. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.) Reading More, Reading Better. New York: Guilford.

Duke, N. K. (2000). 3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(2), 202-224.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Early Child Care Research Network. (2002). The relation of global first-grade classroom environment to structural classroom features and teacher and student behaviors. Elementary School Journal, 102(5), 367–387.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). A day in third grade : A large-scale study of classroom quality and teacher and student behavior. Elementary School Journal, 105(3), 305–323.

Stanovich, K. E., & Cunningham, A. E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator22, 8-15.