Standardized testing has ruined reading.
With the increased emphasis on reading and mathematics as tested subjects in grades 3 - 8, schools all across the country have narrowed their focus. They have reduced or removed unnecessary subjects like art, music, social studies, and even science to teach what is tested. For mathematics, this sometimes works. Math, in and of itself, can be taught in isolation, though the best teachers integrate other subjects and real-world scenarios. Once students learn the basics of phonics and decoding, though, reading becomes about content.
Starting sometime around grade 3, most students have learned to read. The emphasis shifts, then, to reading to learn. Reading, by definition, must contain a frame of reference. While math can be practiced with raw numbers and decontextualized algorithms, readers must read about something. Yet if you examine the reading and English language arts standards, you'll find that they mainly reference skills instead of content.
Students are supposed to find the main idea, summarize text, make inferences, and draw conclusions about what they read. Rarely do grade level standards mention specific subjects, such as 19th-century English literature or Native American folktales. Instead, students are expected to apply reading comprehension skills to a variety of texts and genres, ranging from poetry and informational texts to literary non-fiction and persuasive essays.
Smarter Than a Sixth-Grader?
Yet that's not how reading comprehension works. If you don't believe me, take a gander at the passage below and answer a few simple questions.
He had been waiting all day for this. The moment he got home, Dave ran inside, grabbed a snack, and got online. He quickly logged in and discovered that none of his buddies were available. He'd have to squad up with randoms, then. He entered the Fortnite lobby and spent a few moments grabbing random weapons and showing off his emotes. He dabbed at a few people and then loaded the party bus.
No one was using a mic. He marked Fatal Fields on the map and, though he jumped off there, only two of his squad mates joined him. The fourth dropped into Tilted Towers and didn't last 30 seconds. Down to three, he quickly looted the area. Luckily, no other squads landed there so they were unopposed. He was halfway to Lucky Landing when shots rang out.
Dave quickly forted up and peeked over the ramp. Armed with a common burst rifle and an uncommon pump, he watched as a trio of other players rushed him. His two remaining squad mates were still at Fatal Fields stockpiling materials so he was on his own. One enemy ran straight toward him firing a revolver while the other two built up. Dave picked off the first enemy with his burst rifle and started building up himself. Ramp after ramp, wall after wall, he finally gained elevation on his two enemies and one-shot each of them with his pump.
He had survived a 1 v 3 and started looting. He found some small shields, a medkit, and a rare rocket launcher. Also, he found a bolt-action sniper rifle! Thirty seconds later, he had a complete loadout and was ready to rejoin his wandering teammates. It was a promising start.
Then he glanced at his map. The storm was almost on him and the circle was over Pleasant Park on the northwest part of the island. As he saw the wall approaching, he realized that he had overlooked something important.
Please answer the following questions about the passage.
1. Why was Dave able to easily kill the first enemy?
2. What did Dave overlook? Why was it important?
3. How did Dave feel at the end of the passage? Why?
According to an online readability tool, the passage above is at the sixth grade reading level. If you give this to a sixth grade boy, he will most likely be able to quickly answer these questions. Your answers, though, might be less precise or even wrong altogether unless you've played the game Fortnite. Lacking experience with this game, you might not have enough background knowledge to make sense of the passage. Even if you've never played this particular game, familiarity with other games like PUBG or some Roblox games could aid you.
Once basic decoding and phonics rules have been mastered, reading becomes more about context than skills. Authors must assume quite a lot in order to communicate ideas through words. With shared experiences, knowledge of certain historical trends, and understood cultural references, students can use their own experiences to make sense of reading texts. Yet all of that depends on common knowledge and rich background information.
For example, in 2017 sixth graders in Texas took a standardized state-wide reading test called STAAR. Included in that test were passages about the structure of an eye and the uses of blinking, a sample about the restoration of historical aircraft in Brooklyn, a poem about a desk, and the dot photography of Arthur Mole during World War I. The 2016 sixth-grade test included selections about monkeys in India, the symbolism of the Olympic rings, red crabs on Christmas Island, composting, and monarch butterfly poetry.
See the connections? Neither do I.
Knowledge Precedes Skills
The ability to apply reading skills, such as inferencing and summarizing, relies as much on background knowledge as it does on reading ability. All the skill practice in the world won't help students with the passage about dot photography as much as a basic understanding of the sociocultural context of the Great War. By reducing the amount of time students have to explore art, music, social studies, and science, schools are actually limiting the general knowledge they generate in student. To do this for the sake of increasing the amount of time students have to practice reading skills is simply ironic.
To read better, students need to know more, not spend more time with skills worksheets. Reading depends on content and only gains coherence within a context. Rather than wasting hours and hours going over how to find the main idea of a paragraph, teachers should feed their students knowledge. By increasing their pool of information, they will can more easily make sense of random reading passages. Schools with low reading achievement should look more to their humanities instruction and less to prepackaged reading practice booklets.
In case you don't happen to have a sixth-grade boy handy, here are answers to the three questions above.
1. Dave easily killed the first enemy because of the differences in their weapons. Dave's common burst rifle is a medium-range weapon that outclassed his enemy's close-range revolver. He was able to attack effectively and finish his opponent before his enemy got too close. That, combined with Dave's hastily built fort, made the open-field enemy an easy target.
2. Dave lost track of the storm. In Fortnite, players drop onto an island and the last one standing wins. To keep games short, however, an ever-constricting circle of damage, called the storm, forces players to centralize. Players in the storm take damage and eventually die. While he was busy killing three enemies, the storm overtook him.
3. Dave was frustrated and upset. His random squad mates did nothing to help him. The first one jumped out at a different location and died. The other two were too busy gathering materials to help him fend off the attack. While he should have been elated to not only kill three enemies alone but find some great loot, it was all for nothing. Pleasant Park was too far off to reach before the storm eventually killed him.
A shared experience of either Fortnite or other related games makes this a simple passage to comprehend. Knowing about weapon types and ranges, battle royale mechanics, and the frustration of playing with random people online all help make sense of the reading selection. Asking adults to understand this passage without sufficient background knowledge is as effective as asking sixth graders about monkeys in India.
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