How To Get Your Mind To Read (Daniel Willingham)


“Daniel T. 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.'”

This post appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times November 25, 2017.


Americans are not good readers. Many blame the ubiquity of digital media. We’re too busy on Snapchat to read, or perhaps internet skimming has made us incapable of reading serious prose. But Americans’ trouble with reading predates digital technologies. The problem is not bad reading habits engendered by smartphones, but bad education habits engendered by a misunderstanding of how the mind reads.

Just how bad is our reading problem? The last National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 is a bit dated, but it offers a picture of Americans’ ability to read in everyday situations: using an almanac to find a particular fact, for example, or explaining the meaning of a metaphor used in a story. Of those who finished high school but did not continue their education, 13 percent could not perform simple tasks like these. When things got more complex — in comparing two newspaper editorials with different interpretations of scientific evidence or examining a table to evaluate credit card offers — 95 percent failed.

There’s no reason to think things have gotten better. Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test haven’t improved in 30 years.

Many of these poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate — they comprehend very little of what they can sound out. So what does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge.

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.

Knowledge also provides context. For example, the literal meaning of last year’s celebrated fake-news headline, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” is unambiguous — no gap-filling is needed. But the sentence carries a different implication if you know anything about the public (and private) positions of the men involved, or you’re aware that no pope has ever endorsed a presidential candidate.

You might think, then, that authors should include all the information needed to understand what they write. Just tell us that libraries are quiet. But those details would make prose long and tedious for readers who already know the information. “Write for your audience” means, in part, gambling on what they know.

These examples help us understand why readers might decode well but score poorly on a test; they lack the knowledge the writer assumed in the audience. But if a text concerned a familiar topic, habitually poor readers ought to read like good readers.

In one experiment, third graders — some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor — were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.

That implies that students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge; they usually know at least a little about the topics of the passages on the test. One experiment tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores.

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge. That suggests three significant changes in schooling.

First, it points to decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades. Third-graders spend 56 percent of their time on literacy activities but 6 percent each on science and social studies. This disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension. Another positive step would be to use high-information texts in early elementary grades. Historically, they have been light in content.

Second, understanding the importance of knowledge to reading ought to make us think differently about year-end standardized tests. If a child has studied New Zealand, she ought to be good at reading and thinking about passages on New Zealand. Why test her reading with a

passage about spiders, or the Titanic? If topics are random, the test weights knowledge learned outside the classroom — knowledge that wealthy children have greater opportunity to pick up.

Third, 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.

Don’t blame the internet, or smartphones, or fake news for Americans’ poor reading. Blame ignorance. Turning the tide will require profound changes in how reading is taught, in standardized testing and in school curriculums. Underlying all these changes must be a better understanding of how the mind comprehends what it reads.



Filed under research, school reform policies

12 responses to “How To Get Your Mind To Read (Daniel Willingham)

  1. Alice Flarend

    Thanks for the insight into the contextual nature of reading. I noticed this effect as I progressed through grad school. Reading the research papers without knowing the norms of the field and without a deep background knowledge was very difficult and I spent a lot of time with the lit review. as I neared the end of my degree program, I could delve deeper into the experimental method because the lit review was familiar to me and I could skim it to get a sense of the author’s “take” or approach to the field.

    This contextual nature of learning is true not only for reading. In physics there are a lot of assumptions and background ideas that go into the problem solving. To a physics teacher, most of the material taught in high school is really the same idea: F = ma. To students each problem can be a new challenge because they do not yet have the coherent knowledge of the field. They think the physics is different if the object is travelling left versus right when in reality the physics is the same and it is only a negative sign that changes.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    Louisiana Seems to have adopted ready-to-use curricula instead of ” writing content-rich grade-level standards and supporting district personnel in writing curriculums to help students meet the standards.”

    I think that teachers are drowning in standards, especially national standards published by various professional groups, who want to elevate the importance of their interests, usually in the hope of commanding more time in the curriculum.

    In 2000, I reviewed the structure and quantity of standards produced by the Goals 2000 project. Back then,McRel–the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory in Aurora, Colorado–had received a USDE grant to compile a database of those Goals 2000 standards, incorporating the consensus standards for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. By 2002, McRel had a database of 256 national standards and 4,100 grade level benchmarks in fourteen subjects…at that time searchable in online database. In my analysis, I concluded that many of these standards were contradictory, redundant, based on wild assumptions about instructional time and feasibility, and occasionally fact-challenged.

    Beginning with the Common Core State Standards in 2010, I have been doing an informal inventory and analysis of a new wave of standard-setting, concentrating just on preschool or Kindergarten through grade 8. The same problem of proliferating standards is in play, with some groups offering grade-specific standards, others choosing standards for grade spans, and with some of these documents over 300 pages in length to explain the structure of the standards and elaborate coding systems.

    I am not arguing for more national standards, but for state and local efforts based on a reasoned view of education and a coherent curriculum with some greater balance among studies in the arts, sciences, and humanities than has been spawned by the sharp focus on math and ElA in the Common Core. The process of standard-setting has largely reverted to setting forth specifications for “what students should know and be able to do” in a manner not much different from goal-setting for programmed instruction, early 1950s, foreshadowed much earlier.

    PARTIAL INVENTORY of 3,547 NATIONAL STANDARDS: PREK to GRADE 8 only. left column number of standards, next column year of publication, then brief notes on the domain or discipline and grade level distribution
    747 2010 Common Core English Language Arts and Literacy.
    K-8 (eachgrade)
    285 2010 Common Core Mathematics. K-8 (each grade)
    74 2016 Computer Science. K-2, 3-5, 6-8
    99 2012 National Sexuality Standards. K-2, 3-5, 6-8
    12 2012 Common Career Technical Core: Career Ready Practices
    “ungraded” for 16 Career Clusters and 79 Career Pathways.
    85 2013 Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Early and late
    elementary, middle/junior high)
    208 2013 Social Studies. K-3, 3-5, 6-8
    144 2013 Next Generation Science Standards. K-8 (each grade, but
    3 grade spans for engineering), Add 410 connections to the
    Common Core.
    453 2013 Physical Education Literacy. K-8 (each grade)
    18 2014 School Social Workers, Competencies for early & late
    elementary, early high & late high school
    1,038 2014 National Core Arts Standards. Pre-K-8 (each grade)
    Dance=210, Media Arts=180, Music=272, Theater=226,
    Visual arts=150
    35 2014 School Counselors. Restricted access the grade level
    standards for the 35 key concepts.
    240 2015 Personal Financial Literacy. K-8 (K, 1-3, 4-8)
    98 2015 National Health Standards. PreK-2, 3-5, 6-8
    11 2015 World-Readiness Standards for Learning (Foreign)
    Languages. ungraded
    ? 2016 21st Century Skills. Eleven “core” subjects (English, reading or language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science, geography, history, government and civics)
    Plus five to seven Interdisciplinary literacy themes: Global Awareness; Financial, Economic, Business and Entrepreneurial Literacy; Civic Literacy; Health Literacy; Environmental Literacy.
    Plus four to six Learning and Innovation Skills: Creativity and Innovation; Critical Thinking and Problem Solving; Communication; Collaboration.
    Plus three to five Information, Media and Technology Skills: such as: Information Literacy; Media Literacy; Information, Communications and Technology Literacy.
    Plus five to ten Life and Career Skills: Flexibility and Adaptability, Initiative and Self-Direction, Social and Cross-Cultural Skills, Productivity and Accountability, Leadership and Responsibility (In my opinion, the 21st century skills meme is a conceptual mish-mash—word salad—successfully marketed by Ken Kay a lobbyist for the tech industry. Apart from marketing the tech skills, nothing is distinctly 21st century.

    State standards suffer from many of the same problems. In 2012, Ohio had 3203 standards on the books, about 267 per grade. I found no methods or suggestions for building a coherent curriculum from these.

    In my experience, content rich curricula can be built without making standards and the first consideration.

    • larrycuban

      Your point is well taken, Laura, that state curriculum standards have gotten out of hand, do not meet what Willingham recommends, and fall far short of content-rich curricula. E.D. Hirsch, as I recall, recommends what Willingham suggests. As you know, the search for tougher curriculum standards has been a persistent pattern in U.S. schooling going back to the Commission of Ten report in 1894. The belief that better, richer curriculum standards (and not the Common Core since 2010) can provide the knowledge that Willingham believes is crucial to understanding what one reads is a belief that surfaces repeatedly–most recently in the new math andscience standards and in the backwash of A Nation at Risk. Thanks for the background on standards that you offered in your comments.

    • Alice Flarend

      Great information. I have seen the proliferation of standards lead to more of a checklist mentality, meaning”covered this one. Onto the next standard.”

  3. Simon Haywood

    thanks for contributing in this way, I was actually looking for cartoon ideas for classes on -line. I´m not a profeesonally( as you can see !!!) trained teacher, but have been teaching English for several years using cooking, crafts, theatre music…looking for new ways to connect with the students on a simpler level…they enjoy what they´re doing and thats enough.
    thanks, will follow when I can.

  4. This article succinctly makes the same point E. D. Hirsch made in his book Cultural Literacy, which ideas we should have implemented 25 years ago.

  5. Pingback: 2017 Medley #33 – Live Long and Prosper

  6. Pingback: What you know strongly influences what you can learn – Learning Aloud

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s