There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test: Real Literacy Involves Learning about the World, Not Just Letters and Sounds

By Hirsch, E. D., Jr.; Pondiscio, Robert | The American Prospect, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview
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There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test: Real Literacy Involves Learning about the World, Not Just Letters and Sounds

Hirsch, E. D., Jr., Pondiscio, Robert, The American Prospect

It is among the most common of nightmares. You dream of taking a test for which you are completely unprepared--you've never studied the material or even attended the course. For millions of American schoolchildren, it is a nightmare from which they cannot wake, a trial visited upon them each year when the law requires them to take reading tests with little preparation. Sure, formally preparing for reading tests has become more than just a ritual for schools. It is practically their raison d'etre! Yet students are not prepared in the way they need to be.

Schools and teachers may indeed be making a Herculean effort to raise reading scores, but these efforts do little to improve reading achievement and to prepare children for college, a career, and a lifetime of productive, engaged citizenship. This wasted effort is not because our teachers are lazy or of low quality. Rather, too many of our schools labor under fundamental misconceptions about reading comprehension--how it works, how to improve it, and how to test it.

Reading, like riding a bike, is an ability we acquire as children and generally never lose. Some of us are more confident on two wheels than others, and some of us, we are told, are better readers than others. 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. Either you can do it, or you cannot.


This view of reading is only partially correct. The ability to translate written symbols into sounds, commonly called "decoding," is indeed a skill that can be taught and mastered. This explains why you are able to "read" nonsense words such as "rigfap" or "churbit." Once a child masters letter-sound correspondence, or phonics, we might say she can read because she can reproduce the sounds represented by written language. But 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.

Cognitive scientists describe comprehension as domain specific. If a baseball fan reads "A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game," he needs not another word to understand that the New York Yankees lost when Alex Rodriguez came up to bat with a man on first base and one out and then hit a groundball to the shortstop, who threw to the second baseman, who relayed to first in time to catch Rodriguez for the final out. If you've never heard of A-Rod or a 6-4-3 double play and cannot reconstruct the game situation, you are not a poor reader. You merely lack the domain-specific knowledge of baseball to fill in the gaps.

Even simple texts, like those on reading tests, are filled with gaps--presumed domain knowledge--that the writer assumes the reader knows. Research also tells us that familiarity with domain knowledge increases fluency, broadens vocabulary (you can pick up words in context), and enables deeper reading and listening comprehension.

Think of reading as a two-lock box, requiring two keys to open. The first key is decoding skills. The second key is oral language, vocabulary, and domain-specific or background knowledge sufficient to understand what is being decoded. Even this simple understanding of reading enables us to see that the very idea of an abstract skill called "reading comprehension" is ill-informed.

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There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test: Real Literacy Involves Learning about the World, Not Just Letters and Sounds


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