Reading comprehension depends on content knowledge

Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra

Walk into an elementary school classroom and you’ll probably see a lot of books on the shelf. Take a closer look and you’ll often find a coloured dot, a number or a letter on each book’s spine. Those dots, numbers and letters show the reading level of each book.Books are assigned levels so students choose books that will challenge them without being too difficult. Instead of having the entire class read the same book, students pick books from their designated reading levels. Levelled libraries make it possible for students to find the best books to read. At least that’s the theory.

The reality may be somewhat different.
In order for students to read a text effectively, they must be able to do two things: decode the individual words and comprehend the sentences and paragraphs. Too often, we focus on how students decode words (the ongoing phonics versus whole language debate), but in that debate we neglect the importance of reading comprehension. A student may be able to ‘read’ every word on a page and yet not understand what the text actually means.
I used to be an elementary school teacher so I remember doing running records with my students to assess their reading levels. It didn’t take long before I noticed that my students performed much better on the comprehension questions after reading an article about a sports game than after reading an article about Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician who went to China in the early 20th century, even though both articles were officially at the same reading level. Why?
The problem with reading levels is they focus on quantitative factors such as word complexity and sentence length, but fail to account for the important connection between specific content knowledge and reading comprehension. A student may be able to decode every single word in an article about Bethune, but still be clueless about the article’s meaning since they know virtually nothing about communism, the Second Sino-Japanese War or blood transfusions.
In contrast, most students will breeze through an article about a hockey game because they know how the game works. They have no difficulty understanding phrases like high-sticking, pulling the goalie and killing a penalty. However, imagine how hard it would be for someone who had never heard of hockey to understand an article that used these phrases. Prior knowledge about the game is actually more important to reading comprehension than the length and complexity of the words and sentences in the article.
Reading levels by themselves do a very poor job of matching students with the proper books to read. That was the finding of a recent peer-reviewed research study printed in the April 2018 edition of Reading and Writing.
James W. Cunningham, Elfrieda H. Hiebert and Heidi Anne Mesmer examined two of the most widely used reading level classification systems, the Lexile Framework and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade-Level Formula.
Both systems have the aura of precision because it’s relatively easy to calculate the average number of syllables in words, mean sentence length and word frequencies. However, precision doesn’t guarantee validity, particularly when it comes to reading comprehension. Cunningham, Hiebert and Mesmer, in fact, found that “these two text tools may lack adequate validity for their current uses in educational settings.”
By placing reading level stickers on their classroom library books, teachers may be inadvertently preventing students from reading the books that would benefit them the most. Students who know a lot about a particular topic can read almost any book about it, no matter its assigned reading level. Conversely, students who know little about a topic will struggle with books at even the simplest reading levels.
This means schools must place much stronger emphasis on the acquisition of subject-specific content knowledge, particularly in the early grades when students are building up their general knowledge base. Instead of spending hours working on generic reading comprehension strategies, students should learn as many facts as possible about science, history and today’s world. Time spent classifying books into reading levels would be much better spent building up the students’ background knowledge.
The more knowledge students acquire, the more they’ll be able to learn. This is how we can help our students become stronger readers and gain a better understanding of our world.

— Michael Zwaagstra is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher.

©2018 Troy Media
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