Today, the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals will take place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. It’s just one of myriad academic competitions focused on different subjects, from academic bowls, to science and math bowls, to spelling bees. But one core academic subject seems to be missing from the academic competition party: reading. Why is this?
The main reason is that reading isn’t really an independent skill at all.
Of course we could imagine, say, a speed-reading competition. But if students were going to compete over who has the best reading comprehension, they would have to read about something and that would turn the competition back into something more like a typical trivia competition. Science is about science. Math is about math. But reading is about everything.
Phonics, where students learn that certain letters correspond to specific sounds, really is a basic skill students need to master early. Once they have that basic skill down, however, reading comprehension will only get stronger as a person’s knowledge and vocabulary about a range of topics expands.
Consider this sentence:
Through Monte Carlo analysis, I have presented evidence that the spectacular seven scoring system actually aggravates the post position bias inherent in jai-alai.
Sure, you can “decode” most of this technical passage from the academic journal Interfaces about how the game of jai-alai is scored, meaning you can “sound out” any words you don’t know and insert some brief pauses in places that are roughly appropriate to the flow. Yet to comprehend the text, you need to know something about statistics, the sport, and what “post-position bias” is and how it could be aggravated by the “spectacular seven scoring system.”
Now imagine you are a fourth-grader trying to read the Orlando Sentinel. You may struggle, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are “bad at reading.” Instead, like the average adult trying to decipher a passage about jai-alai scoring systems, most young students haven’t yet acquired the necessary background knowledge to fully navigate headlines and understand the news. If you want to understand an article about why President Biden’s spending plans may or may not lead to inflation or how vaccine reluctance could make it impossible for the world to reach “herd immunity,” you first need a critical mass of background knowledge and vocabulary.
This is not how many educators think about reading, though. For decades, many have claimed that reading comprehension is a fundamental skill. Admittedly, the idea is intuitive. As Sal Khan, the inventor of the online education platform Khan Academy, recently told the Washington Post: “The basics are reading, writing and math. If kids are able to progress in those, or at a minimum not atrophy in those, they’re going to be able to pick up where they left off in other subjects.” Using data from a large federal survey, a recent study I co-authored shows schools are following this logic, with elementary teachers reporting a whopping two hours per day on reading. Unfortunately, national assessments show that this approach isn’t working, with around two-thirds of students still failing to reading proficiency.
In contrast, social studies and science instruction amounted to less than an hour per day, combined. But students need to learn about those “other subjects”—geography, art, science, and history—to build vocabulary and knowledge across a range of topics and become truly literate. Our study’s findings tended to support this idea as well: While additional instructional time in the English language arts did not improve students’ reading abilities, more time spent on social studies was associated with increased reading ability for elementary students. Really, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a better understanding of the social world opens the doors to everything from novels to newspapers, or that it would show up on reading assessments.
A few dissident scholars such as E.D. Hirsch, Jr. have sounded these alarms for years, but to many educators, knowledge is still disparaged as mere “trivia.” Helping students build systematic knowledge through quality texts, iterative writing, engaging projects, substantive conversations—and, yes, academic bowls and spelling bees—probably does more to deepen reading comprehension abilities than the all-too-common focus on an ephemeral “skill” of literacy.
Editor’s note: This was first published by the Orlando Sentinel.