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May 23, 2016 / Ciara Myers, Editor

Improving reading scores is about a whole lot more than teaching kids to read

by Natalie Wexler
Trustee, The Omega Foundation

Why is it harder to raise reading scores than math scores for students from low-income families? And why do kids who seem to read well in elementary school then struggle with grade-level text in middle and high school?

For decades, most elementary schools have taught reading as a skill: children have practiced reading comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences” on simple stories. The theory has been that it doesn’t matter what students are reading, as long as they’re reading something. And in many elementary schools, especially those serving low-income students, the curriculum has been narrowed to “the basics:” reading and math.

But reading comprehension is highly dependent on background knowledge – as Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, will explain at the second event in WRAG’s Public Education Speaker Series on June 2. If students don’t learn about history, science, and the arts in elementary school, they’ll be at a tremendous disadvantage in high school, when they encounter texts that assume a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don’t have. That’s particularly true for low-income students, who are far less likely to acquire academic knowledge at home.

Willingham – an accessible and engaging speaker as well as the author of several popular books – was recently cited in a speech by Secretary of Education John B. King. “We know from decades of research from folks like Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia that knowledge matters for reading success,” King said. “It is not about reading vs. science and social studies.”

Willingham’s talk will shed light on why the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students hasn’t narrowed in decades (in fact, some say it’s wider than ever), why it widens during school years, and what it will take to begin to close it.


WRAG’s 2016 Public Education Speaker Series is generously supported by The Omega Foundation, with additional support from the Tiger Woods Foundation. The series touches on a variety of critical topics facing students today. Education funders should click here to learn more about the series and to registerPlease, note that these programs are open to grantmakers only.

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