I picked up a book this morning and was reading away, but the snow outside and the quietness of the early morning began to draw my attention away from my reading and my thoughts began to wander. I began thinking about the concept and skill of reading itself. (The words of Dr. E D Hirsch were echoing in my head - love that man!) I was thinking of just how important background knowledge is to reading comprehension and when we look at the reading levels of our fourth grade students in America why we see such a deficit in their reading skills - we are so short-sided in the way that we teach reading! Sure, we can teach decoding and questioning the author and finding the main idea - all "how to" concepts, but what about the importance of prior knowledge? We give endless practice to strategies instead of learning substantive knowledge of reading. We must give children a good base in equality education - science, history, math, language arts, music, and art to see an increase of background knowledge and, thus, a rise in reading comprehension!
Schools that place a high priority on math, history, science and the arts are boasting the high reading scores! It's really a "duh" when you think about it! Here's an example that I have heard used in a teacher workshop: There was a study conducted of a group of children in the fourth grade where the large group was divided into two groups. One group had low reading skills but knew a lot about baseball. The other group was comprised of high level readers but they knew very little about the subject of baseball. They were given a written description of a scene in a baseball game and the instructions were for them to read the scene and then "act it out" on a game board shaped like a baseball diamond with baseball player figurines. Guess which group scored higher on the activity - the group that were low readers but knew a lot about baseball! Their prior knowledge assisted them in "making sense" out of their reading!
Don't get me wrong - it's not that we stop the "how-to's " of reading - those strategies I mentioned earlier in this post, but we have to create a friendship between those strategies and the advancement of the subject areas like history, science, math and the arts to continue to add to the students' prior knowledge base. Take a stand for your child by talking to their teacher about this and when the school district wants to cut time out of the day studying history, math, science or the arts to allow for more "quiet reading time" - speak up about this concept of prior knowledge affecting reading comprehension.
For more information regarding this topic check out any of Dr. E D Hirsch's books and visit the Core Knowledge Foundation web site! Happy reading!