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Does teaching history and science improve reading comprehension?

I invite you to review the article from the Atlantic: Why American Students Haven't Gotten Better At Reading In 20 Years. From the article,

"One of those cognitive scientists spoke on the Tuesday panel: Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who writes about the science behind reading comprehension. Willingham explained that whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills. That’s because writers leave out a lot of information that they assume readers will know. If they put all the information in, their writing would be tedious.

But if readers can’t supply the missing information, they have a hard time making sense of the text. If students arrive at high school  without knowing who won the Civil War, they’ll have a hard time understanding a textbook passage about Reconstruction."

As adult educators, we have often focused on the background knowledge students bring to the classroom and we often bring in real world text, but I'd like to revisit the idea of multidisciplinary teaching. How do you integrate instruction for career pathways and high school equivalency programs across all of the content areas? Do you have model lessons you could share? 

What tips and strategies do you have? I look forward to your ideas.

Kathy Tracey



ecappleton's picture
One hundred

Hi Kathy,

Thank you for sharing this article. I think Willingham's ideas are important for adult education. I'm currently reading Why Students Don't Like School by Willingham and I recommend it highly. It's an accessible, well-sourced guide to recent cognitive science on learning and how to apply this knowledge in the classroom. The parts that have been most interesting to me so far are about how interest works. I think teachers often believe that some subjects are inherently interesting to some people, so we try to connect the topics we're teaching to something the student finds interesting. There are a number of issues with this. It limits what we bring to the classroom and limits the scope of what our students learn. It also ignores the fact that high-interest topics can be presented in a boring way. Willingham uses the example of a tedious sex-ed class he took when he was a kid.

Interest is actually not directly related to the content. It's more about the design or style of the presentation. This is what I want to learn more about. If something is overexplained, it's boring, of course. We've all heard jokes explained to death. And if we don't have enough knowledge to understand something at all, it's going to be boring. So, part of the trick is about finding the right level and the right information to share, so that background knowledge is triggered or filled in while interest is being generated. I want to know more about how to do this. How do we make tectonic plates and Reconstruction and linear functions interesting on their own merits, not by trying to find thin connections to pop culture, for example.

The most interesting part of the article to me, though, was this:

"Louisiana has not only created its own curriculum but has also asked the federal government for permission to give tests based on that curriculum rather than passages on a variety of randomly selected topics."

This is really promising and maybe something we should fight for in adult education. If our students were given reading, math, science and social studies tests on the content that we have taught them, we would assume that their reading comprehension scores would be much higher. If our instruction is coherent and makes connections across topics in different eras and subjects, our students would have the opportunity to build knowledge that would allow them to comprehend a range of material in these subjects. Of course, the assessments we currently use for reading comprehension and HSE equivalency are completely disconnected and present reading passages on random topics, so we're in the position of trying to help students develop background knowledge in a range of topics at once. This doesn't seem like the best way to help students develop the background knowledge that they need for general comprehension.


Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

I love the comment that we have to make instruction interesting. And I recognize the challenge about making diverse topics "appealing" to learners. I've struggled with this entire concept so it would be great to hear what others have done in the classroom. I wonder if this is where classroom climate comes in. Not every lesson can be enthralling for every student. Should we be okay with this?
I'd love to hear more thoughts on this topic.
Kathy Tracey

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hello colleagues, Thanks for posting this article, Kathy. In my view, it is essential for us teachers to plan units of study that focus on a theme. A thematic unit may take up to a week or even longer, depending on the class.The goal is to deepen learners' understanding of the content, and at the same time enhance a range of skills, including reading, writing, communication skills, critical thinking skills, even numeracy and teamwork, etc

The CCRS has emphasized bringing more informational text to the classroom. From personal experience, I have found that nonfiction content is highly motivating to adult learners, I will add that through thematic units, fiction, including poetry, can be added to add variety and depth.

It's good to hear your thoughts on this, Eric. I'm eager to hear more!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP