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June 14, 2016 / Rebekah Seder, Editor

How funders can support students to become better readers

By Natalie Wexler
Trustee, The Omega Foundation

Standardized reading tests “are really knowledge tests in disguise,” according to cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. That helps explain why students from highly educated families do so much better on those tests than other students.

Willingham, a University of Virginia psychology professor who has written extensively about the science of learning, spoke at the second event in WRAG’s Public Education Speaker Series earlier this month.

Willingham explained that authors inevitably leave out information when they write, assuming that readers will fill in gaps with their knowledge. Take these two sentences: “Tricia spilled her coffee. Dan leapt up to get a rag.” The author assumes readers will know that coffee makes a mess, and rags can be used to clean up.

Designers of standardized reading tests know some students have more knowledge than others about certain topics. To control for that, tests include passages on a variety of topics.

The result, as studies have shown, is that students with broad general knowledge do best on standardized tests. They’re also better equipped to understand a newspaper—or high school and college texts.

To ensure that students acquire knowledge, Willingham said, schools need well-rounded, logically sequenced curricula, beginning as early as possible. But many schools have narrowed the elementary curriculum to reading and math, pushing out history and science. While students from educated families continue to acquire knowledge of the world at home, others fall further behind.

So science, history, and art aren’t extras that can wait until after kids learn to read. To become readers, kids need exposure to those subjects as early as possible.

What can funders do to ensure kids are getting the well-rounded curriculum they need? First, take a look at the information available on the website of the Knowledge Matters Campaign. Then check the programs you’re funding to see if their curricula give kids the systematic exposure to rich content that builds knowledge—not just one book on a topic like sea mammals, but immersion in that topic for weeks at a time.

If a school or program is focusing primarily on reading comprehension “strategies” and jumping from one topic to another, students aren’t getting the kind of foundation that will enable them to do well in high school and beyond.


WRAG’s 2016 Public Education Learning Series is sponsored by the Omega Foundation, with additional support from the Tiger Woods Foundation. The next session, on July 7, will focus on addressing gender and racial disparities in school discipline. Education funders: register for the session here.

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