Decline of Reading in America
Academic Success in American Education
How Americans Test
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a federally-appointed test designed to measure students from grade 3 to high school in various “important” subjects such as math and reading, but also tests in things like history and the arts. More on those later.
The first test was given in 1969, and ever since, it has become the de facto method for education researchers to gather meaningful data about how students are progressing in these areas. What we mean by this is, the results are the best way for Americans to see how the nation is doing academically. What do the results of this exam say? Well, surprisingly, we have seen little to no change in reading scores since 1998. That should come as a big problem for educators. But where have we gone wrong? Why haven’t student scores increased in this area in over twenty years?
How Americans Teach
Well, it seems to be in our teaching methods. Our emphasis in schools has been on the mystical thing called reading comprehension (AKA how we interpret and analyze a text). What information can we glean from a text, and can we answer questions based on that text? In other words, what information do we retain after we read something? Literacy is a pretty important skill, so our methodology goes something like this: drill reading comprehension into students at an early age (we’re talking first to third grade) until they gain the ability to analyze effectively. That sounds logical, right?
Except, well, the science doesn’t back that approach up at all. In fact, students are more likely to run into problems in reading comprehension when they don’t understand general knowledge concepts first. What does that mean? Basically, if you read a passage about ancient Rome and are asked to answer a bunch of questions as a kid, the odds are already against you, even if the answers are in the passage. Why? Language is tied to certain subject areas (in this case, history). If you never learned about that specific area, you’re less inclined to know the associated vocabulary, because you haven’t seen it before (what’s an aqueduct, anyway?). Makes sense! Well, our schools beg to differ.
What Students Are Missing
Instead of teaching general knowledge to students, we are prioritizing reading comprehension first, which isn’t proving too conducive to good test scores, or literacy, for that matter. We’re treating comprehension as an equal-opportunity skill that can be applied without regard to the material. Passages that are testing for reading comprehension are relying on students to know certain things.
There’s implicit meaning that goes into a paragraph about Rome: that Rome is in Italy, that Rome as an empire no longer exists, and many more things that we’ve all come across as facts at one time or another. But if you’re a student, this information may not have been presented to you yet. The info you’re trying to fill in just isn’t there, and that leads to some problems. If you’re looking for the main idea of the passage about Rome, you may assume it’s that ancient Rome was in Italy. Why would you assume any different?
What We Can Do
We know ESL and beginner English learners have context to rely on. They aren’t (usually) without some basic understanding of the world. But as an ESL teacher, it’s just safe not to assume anything about a student or their ability level. It’s going to be a lot harder to teach an English word or phrase when they don’t understand that concept in their native language.
Should we focus on how to gather information from a text? Yes, but to a limited degree. Instead, we should develop a strategy in tandem that ties other areas of learning into the process. How this approach pans out is a little foggier, but is a lot more comprehensive.
Further, there’s no evidence suggesting students should be matched to reading levels that are equal to how proficient they are in reading comprehension. In fact, studies show that quite the opposite is better for kids. When paired with a text that is too challenging (like the ones they may encounter on the NAEP exam) and a supplemental education and teacher to guide them through associated contexts, students performed better in reading in the long run.
This is all to say that general education is the key to better reading skills, and should not be limited to drilling reading comprehension over and over.