Mark Bauerlein wrote a summary in The Chronicle of Higher Education of Ed Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio’s perceptive article in The American Prospect, “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test“. The title of Mark’s review is “Reading is Not a Skill“. As someone who cares about interpretation, I don’t think that title is complete (probably just designed to be controversial) because that is not what the article is about. As Mark agrees with Hirsh and Pondiscio, their contention is that reading tests in schools are inadequate because the students don’t have knowledge of the reading samples they are being tested on. If students simply had a familiarity with the subject matter of the samples, their results would improve. Let me complete Mark’s sentence: “Reading is Not a Skill That is Being Tested Well”. I think by “reading” we really mean “interpretation”. The bigger issue is that people don’t know how to engage grammar so as to ascertain meaning from written texts. That is what is really being tested in “Reading” tests. Thus, I will continue to beat the drum for the study of Discourse Analysis…
Reading Is Not a Skill
Over the years, I’ve spent some time reviewing items on reading-comprehension tests, evaluating the passages selected as texts and checking the following eight or ten questions for accuracy, validity, etc. It can be a draining activity, scanning rather dry and often remote informational text, then spotting ambiguities or confusions in the questions that must be corrected.
One thing, I’ve found, lightens the load: a little knowledge about the passage material. Just a little bit helps a lot. Indeed, the difference between no knowledge and a little knowledge means much more than the difference between a little knowledge and abundant knowledge.
That’s my experience, and it corresponds with long-time arguments made by E. D. Hirsch and others about the importance of “domain knowledge” to reading comprehension. A recent essay in The American Prospect (magazine motto: “Liberal Intelligence”) argues just that. It is by Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio, and it bears the blunt title “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test.”
Hirsch and Pondiscio lay out the conventional understanding of reading.
“The culture of testing treats reading ability as a broad, generalized skill that is easily measured and assessed. We judge our schools and increasingly individual teachers based on their ability to improve the reading skills of our children. When you think about your ability to read—if you think about it at all—the chances are good that you perceive it as not just a skill but a readily transferable skill. Once you learn how to read you can competently read a novel, a newspaper article, or the latest memo from corporate headquarters. Reading is reading is reading.”
That outlook sounds common-sensical, Hirsch and Pondiscio admit, and they grant it partial accuracy. “The ability to translate written symbols into sounds, commonly called ‘decoding,’ is indeed a skill that can be taught and mastered,” they write. One can “read” words that have no meaning (“rigfap,” “churbit”), and one can sound out words in a sentence filled with allusions to something one doesn’t understand (say, a 10-year-old reading a paragraph on the Thirty Years War).
“But,” the authors insist, “clearly there’s more to reading than making sounds. To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command—to read, write, listen, and speak with understanding. As nearly any elementary schoolteacher can attest, it is possible to decode skillfully yet struggle with comprehension. And reading comprehension, the ability to extract meaning from text, is not transferable.”
Why? Because texts contain embedded assumptions, things the writer assumes the reader will know. Their example: “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game.” Think of the implied meanings. One, it’s the ninth inning. Two, a man on first and one out. Three, the Yankees are behind. Etc. If you don’t have the domain knowledge, you’re not a bad reader. “You merely lack the domain-specific knowledge of baseball to fill in the gaps.”
This is why reading is not an abstract transferable skill (except at the most basic levels of literacy). Hirsch and Pondiscio note that “poor readers” do well when faced with a passage whose subject matter is familiar to them, “outperforming even ‘good readers’ who lack relevant background knowledge.” The problem is that knowledge in one area usually doesn’t help you to comprehend a text covering a different area.
The authors quote Dan Willingham on the national implications of the knowledge factor:
“The mistaken idea that reading is a skill—learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies, and you can read anything—may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country,” Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, recently wrote in The Washington Post. “Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge base problem must be solved.”
You see the problem, though. If reading is not an abstract, transferable skill, if reading comprehension relies upon sufficiently broad knowledge of important cultural, political, scientific, historical, and artistic materials, then we run squarely into delicate Culture War questions of curriculum. The inevitable question arises, “Who’s to say which traditions and histories and literature and philosophies should be required in the classroom?”
I’ll take Hirsch/Pondiscio’s advice: “Rather than idle away precious hours on trivial stories or randomly chosen nonfiction, reading, writing, and listening instruction would be built into the study of ancient civilizations in first grade, for example, Greek mythology in second, or the human body in third. . . . Let’s say a state’s fourth-grade science standards include the circulatory system, atoms and molecules, electricity, and Earth’s geologic layers and weather; and social-studies standards include world geography, Europe in the Middle Ages, the American Revolution, and the U.S. Constitution, among other domains. The state’s reading tests should include not just fiction and poetry but nonfiction readings on those topics and others culled from those specific curriculum standards.”