Translated and edited by Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner
This article was originally written by Erik Meester and Martin Bootsma and published as an education blog in the Dutch newspaper NRC.
Erik Meester is a teacher and educational developer in the Pedagogical Sciences of Primary Education program at Radboud University in Nijmegen. Martin Bootsma is a team leader and teacher at the Alan Turingschool in Amsterdam.
In the Netherlands there are genuine and rising concerns about the declining reading skills of our students. And rightly so: The OECD reported – in the much discussed PISA 2018 study – that 24 percent of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands run the risk of leaving school as functionally illiterate (also see Paul’s recent blog Traditional Is the New Progressive and Paul & Mirjam’s blog on Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library).
Recently, the education committee of the parliament in the Netherlands invited a number of reading experts to discuss the reading problem. However, this ‘round table’ conversation mainly focused on technical reading (i.e., word reading), which in reality is only part of the problem.
This requires an explanation. Skilled reading depends on two very distinct abilities. First, readers must be able to read the words in a text: They must be able to convert the letters into sounds (also known as decoding). That’s the technical reading bit. Second, readers must be able to understand the meaning of the text. This is called reading comprehension.
A good ‘technical reader’ effortlessly reads words like ‘school, ‘steadfast’, and ‘oxymoron’. Now that’s a good start, but it isn’t enough to be able to actually understand what the words ‘say’ (i.e., their meaning). To understand that, you must know the meaning of these words. That’s likely not a problem for a word like ‘school’, but ‘oxymoron’ might prove to be a challenge. In short: Technical reading is necessary, but not enough to understand a text (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001).
Skills for reading comprehension
If you take a closer look at the 2018 PISA results, you can see that Dutch students in particular drop out on ‘evaluation and reflection’. To evaluate and reflect, they must read a text and then answer questions about it. For example, the assessment shows a number of statements from the text and students must then indicate whether the statement is a fact or an opinion (See Figure 2; more released items can be found here).
Figure 2. Sample PISA evaluation and reflection question
What do you actually need to know and be able to do to answer this type of question?
- You must be able to read at a certain pace in order to be able to give meaning to a text. If your pace is so slow that by the time you’re at the end of the sentence you’ve forgotten what the beginning of the sentence said, reading comprehension will be challenging. As Professor Anna Bosman rightly pointed out in the Dutch round table discussion at the parliament, the pace doesn’t have to be particularly fast at all. She used a wonderful metaphor of cycling: You just have to cycle fast enough to avoid falling over. If you manage that, you can go a long way.
- You must have a certain vocabulary size to understand a text. We know from research (e.g., O’Reilly, Wang, & Sabatini, 2019) that you actually need to know 95 to 98 % of the words in a text in order to not give up. In the case of the sample question in Figure 2, 15-year-old students will therefore understand very little of the text if they’re not (or hardly) familiar with words such as ‘consequences’, ‘environment’, ‘civilizations’, ‘flourishing society’, ‘speculate’, and so on. They’ll also have to deal with the ambiguity of words such as ‘flourish’. In the context of the text, it’s obviously not about flowers, but about social and economic prosperity.
- Furthermore, when reading a question like the one in Figure 2, you need to use reading strategies: the 15-year-olds can think about the purpose and origin of the text, ask themselves questions about the core idea of the text, and try to deduce the meaning of words that they don’t know from the overall sentence. For example, the author of the text indicates that we can prevent previously made mistakes. Readers can use this as a hint that ‘optimistic’ could indicate ‘something positive’.
- Finally, and this is perhaps the least recognised aspect when it comes to reading comprehension, understanding a text (and answering the question) requires 15-year-olds to bring a lot of background knowledge to the table (also see Paul & Mirjam’s blog Are comprehensive reading assessments unfair? No comprehension without prior knowledge). In the context of the example: What’s a book review? What exactly is the difference between a fact and an opinion? What kind of people were the Polynesians and what, more or less, did their life look like around 700 BC? How can a civil war lead to the collapse of a society? Why was cutting down all those trees a problem anyway?
What we want to illustrate with this example isn’t that technical reading or reading strategies are unimportant. Rather, we want to point out that world general knowledge is at least as important for reading literacy if not more so. When it comes to reading comprehension, yes, it’s important that students are strong enough technical readers, but more classes in reading strategies is definitely not the right solution.
Research by Willingham and Lovette (2014) has shown that teaching reading strategies ‘are helpful but they are quickly learned and don’t require a lot of practice’. Yet many schools still practice endlessly with reading strategies under the guise of ‘teaching reading comprehension’.
Our suggestion is to scrap ‘reading comprehension’ (as in ‘practising reading comprehension strategies’) from the class schedule altogether and use the time saved to invest in students’ general knowledge of the world. This can be done by letting students work on dense, knowledge-rich texts and books so that the main focus is on the content and not the strategies. For example, reading comprehension strategies can be integrated in subjects such as geography, history, and technology. This way, students build up the background knowledge that enables them to evaluate complex texts on various topics. As a bonus, this enables them to actively participate in democratic society.
Oakhill, J., Cain, K. & Elbro, C. (2015). Understanding and teaching reading comprehension. London: Routledge.
O’Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J. (2019). How much knowledge is too little? When a lack of knowledge becomes a barrier to comprehension. Psychological Science, 30(9), 1344-1351. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797619862276
Scarborough, H. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. B. Neuman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy (pp. 97-110). New York: Guilford Press.
UNESCO (1978). Records of the General Conference. 20th Session Vol. 1 Paris: UNESCO.
Willingham, D. T., & Lovette, G., (2014). Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught? Teachers College Record 116, 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.danielwillingham.com/uploads/5/0/0/7/5007325/willingham&lovette_2014_can_reading_comprehension_be_taught_.pdf
 According to UNESCO (1978), a person is functionally illiterate if they cannot engage in those activities where literacy is required for effective functioning of their group and community and also for enabling them to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for their own and the community’s development (e.g., read and understand a medicine label or a bank statement, fill out a job application, compare the cost of two items and choose the item that offers the best value, follow a recipe, read and understand a letter from the government or the platform of a political party,…).