The Importance of a Systematic Build-Up of Discipline Knowledge in Improving Reading Comprehension

 1/2/17 The Importance of a Systematic Build-Up of Discipline Knowledge in Improving Reading Comprehension

A recent spate of research reports and a new book by E.D. Hirsch, Why Knowledge Matters underscore the key role of knowledge in reading comprehension and deeper understanding.

Hirsch says after decoding and fluency are learned, a steady buildup of content knowledge through reading, writing and discussion is the main element in improving reading comprehension. He also argues that teaching  skills such as problem solving, and creativity in the abstract are not generalizable and only work within each discipline. Teaching main idea, inferencing, and close reading don’t pay off after their introduction and Hirsch argues that teaching them should be minimized. Tests of these skills actually are testing how much knowledge is brought to the  task (assuming fluency). He recommends two week spurts of content subjects in literature, history, science, and the humanities which he calls domain immersion. The California Language Arts framework and adopted textbooks incorporated most of these ideas.


Catherine Snow is one of the leading reading researchers and is leading some of this extensive research on teaching literacy through active engagement with the disciplines. She reports:

The demands of literacy tasks change appreciably after students have mastered the basics of reading words accurately and with reasonable automaticity. At about age 10 reading becomes a tool for acquiring information, understanding a variety of points of view, critiquing positions, and reasoning. The results of international and US assessments show that many students who succeed at early reading tasks struggle with these new developmental challenges, focusing attention on the instructional needs of adolescent readers.  Commonly used approaches to comprehension instruction in the post-primary grades, such as teaching reading comprehension strategies, do not adequately respond to the multiple challenges adolescents face. One such challenge is the need to acquire discipline-specific ways of reading, writing, and thinking, often from teachers who are themselves insufficiently aware of how reading literature differs from reading science or history. We argue that appropriate attention in instruction to discipline-specific literacy practices, to maintaining an authentic purpose for assigned literacy tasks, and to the role of focused discussion as a central element in teaching comprehension would improve reading outcomes and would revolutionize current theories about the nature of reading comprehension. Goldman, S., and Snow, C.E. (in press). Adolescent Literacy: Development and Instruction. In A. Pollatsek and R. Treiman (Eds.), Handbook on Reading. Oxford University Press.

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