New theories on why we can’t – or don’t – read

The man who can read books and does not is no better off than the man who cannot read.

Author unknown

For many of us, the pleasure of reading cannot be matched by any other human activity.

Reading transports us to a different place. It fires our imagination. It satisfies our interests and curiosities.

But with so many good things coming out of reading, the question becomes, “Why don’t more people read?”

girl readingScientists and scholars are taking a closer look at that question these days and are coming up with some interesting, and occasionally surprising, answers.

According to a recent article in the New York Times (How to Get Your Mind to Read – The New York Times) by Daniel Willingham, our reading problems stem not from an inability to see words and translate them or from the ubiquitous technology that we have in our hands:

The problem is not bad reading habits engendered by smartphones, but bad education habits engendered by a misunderstanding of how the mind reads.

Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.  Willingham has written other books about reading, including Raising Kids to Read.

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To read just about anything above the level of literature for young children requires a base of knowledge — a set of background facts — that many people simply do not have.

All prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Consider “I promised not to play with it, but Mom still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.” The author has omitted three facts vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library; Rubik’s Cubes make noise; kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you’ll miss why Mom forbade the toy in the library.

American education’s approach to the problem is to treat reading comprehension as an isolated skill and to spend too much time trying to hone that skill, according to Willingham.

Instead, he says, we should spend far less time on reading comprehension and far more time on helping student broaden their knowledge base.

. . . the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design. The Common Core Standards for reading specify nearly nothing by way of content that children are supposed to know — the document valorizes reading skills. State officials should go beyond the Common Core Standards by writing content-rich grade-level standards and supporting district personnel in writing curriculums to help students meet the standards. That’s what Massachusetts did in the 1990s to become the nation’s education leader. Louisiana has recently taken this approach, and early results are encouraging.

Learn more facts, the professor says. That way, reading will become easier and more enjoyable — and we will be more likely to do it.

Good point.

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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