Is knowledge scarcity to blame for kids' substandard reading comprehension levels?

Mother And Daughter Sit On Sofa In Lounge Reading Book Together

Is knowledge scarcity to blame for kids' substandard reading comprehension levels?


Is knowledge scarcity to blame for kids' substandard reading comprehension levels?


Education Week published an opinion piece in 2016 saying kids reading comprehension skills are struggling not because of teachers but because kids lack a well-rounded base of knowledge to begin with.

It’s nearly half way through 2018, and based on the most recent assessments of American kids’ reading skills, it seems the reading comprehension problem still exists.

A multi-ethnic group of school children are indoors in a classroom. They are wearing casual clothing. They are sitting on the floor and eagerly listening to their teacher read a storybook.

Credit: Getty Images

To be fair, it seems kids in the U.S. have always struggled in this area, at least if you agree with the test and scoring methodology.

Since 1992, when reading comprehension skills were first measured and recorded nationwide by the National Assessment of Education Progress, on average students never met a “proficient” reading comprehension achievement level.

How the U.S. records kids’ reading comprehension skills

“Achievement levels,” according to the NAEP site, “are performance standards that describe what students should know and be able to do.” The reading tests distributed are scored out of 500 points.

The three levels for fourth graders are:

  • Basic: Minimum score of 208 out of 500
  • Proficient: Minimum score of 238 out of 500
  • Advanced: Minimum score of 268 out of 500

The average fourth grader in 2017 scored 222. The score in 1992 was 217.

The Three levels for eighth graders are:

  • Basic: Minimum score of 243 out of 500
  • Proficient: Minimum score of 281 out of 500
  • Advanced: Minimum score of 323 out of 500

The average eight grader in 2017 scored 267. The score in 1992 was 260.

So where does the struggle come from?

Does the 2016 opinion column still hold relevance today? Simply put: Are kids struggling to understand what they read because they don’t know enough about various subjects?

Lisa Hansel and Robert Pondiscio argue “the problem is not our children’s poverty—it’s the poverty of our ideas, of our high-stakes accountability policies, and of our curricula.”

They say when schools spend more time on reading class than other classes, such as social studies, art or science, kids actually do worse.

Books stacked up on a table at a library.

Credit: Getty Images

“To understand this paradox, you first have to know that reading comprehension is not a ‘skill’ like riding a bike or throwing a ball,” the column says.

“A child does not become a strong reader by learning to sound out words and practicing reading alone (though these are important).”

Instead, Hansel and Pondiscio say reading comprehension “is largely a reflection of a child’s overall education” and “good readers tend to know at least a little about a broad range of things.”

The two argue “knowledge, vocabulary, and reading comprehension are intimately intertwined” and point to an academic study that concluded teachers most often can provide “‘teachable moments’ in the context of other instruction.”

Credit: Getty Images

In layman’s terms: Students who more often have the opportunity to hear words while learning about subjects that interest them have stronger reader comprehension skills.

What do you think? Do you agree with this line of thinking? Let us know in the comments. 

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