Critical Reading Depends upon Content Knowledge: Why Reading Scores Aren’t Improving

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Appreciation for the direct impact of memorization upon a student’s skill in critical reading is something that educators are rediscovering. As educators review the results of testing, they are recovering an appreciation for the role that memorization and content knowledge plays in a reader’s ability to understand and diagnose texts for meaning.

Recent studies have revealed that attempts to develop universally applicable critical reading skills in children without providing them with substantial content knowledge are generally unsuccessful. These findings are at odds with the prevailing view that students may be taught reading skills without demanding substantial content knowledge. According to Natalie Wexler, writing in The Atlantic, educators believe that this focus on skills helps to account for why American students have not improved as readers for decades:

“The long-standing view has been that the first several years of elementary school should be devoted to basic reading skills. History, science, and the arts can wait. After all, the argument goes, if kids haven’t learned to read—a task that is theoretically accomplished by third grade—how will they be able to gain knowledge about those subjects through their own reading?”

It certainly sounded “reasonable” to develop skills without concentrating on content—after all, basic reading skills prepare students to acquire content knowledge and allow them to develop as critical readers. But in what has proven to be a kind of chicken-and-egg relationship, it turns out that reading comprehension does not develop in a vacuum and is not independent of content knowledge. In fact, comprehension is dependent upon students being able to connect what they are reading with a body of knowledge.

In order for students to read critically, they require not only reading skills, but the kind of content knowledge that allows them to ask meaningful questions of what they are reading—otherwise, they will be ill-equipped to encounter and reason with new information. It is understandable that wanting to provide young students with material that is developmentally appropriate might lead educators to expose them only to the kind of information that they can grasp thoroughly and completely. But this impulse may deprive students of the kind of intellectual background knowledge that they will one day invoke to make sense of new and more sophisticated material.

In Classical education, learning is understood to happen in developmental stages: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These stages roughly correspond to Elementary, Middle-School, and High-School ages and grades—although the lines of demarcation between them will vary somewhat by subject area and for different students. In the Grammar stage, students memorize vast quantities of information, which they understand in a very limited way. In the Logic stage, students reflect on what they have learned and make sense of it—they begin to understand not only that something is the case, but why it is the case. And in the Rhetoric stage, students examine and compare competing claims to test whether or not they are true in relationship to other considerations.

Consider catechetical formation. Children are taught very early the articles of their faith. They memorize the Creeds, their prayers, and questions and answers in the Catechism. Most Catholic children can tell you that they believe God to be triune/three in one, that they believe in the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that they await the second Advent of the Lord and the final restoration of all things in a new heaven and a new earth. But it is only when they approach middle-school age that they really grasp what those articles of faith mean. What’s more, it is really only adolescents who begin to understand and defend those articles of faith in relationship to competing claims or criticisms. This experience of learning is not limited to catechesis; it is the model that all learning takes, and it makes the importance of acquiring a body of knowledge at an early age crucial.

Content knowledge, even if it is not comprehensively understood when it is acquired, is necessary for students to form critical judgments about new information. Without some sense of the intellectual terrain, they are ill equipped to ask the necessary questions to make sense of new material.

For example, although students in early grades cannot be expected to grasp the full significance of the Ten Commandments and Hebrew Levitical law, or the Code of Hammurabi and the notion of an Eye for an Eye, if they have read and learned about those ancient standards of justice they will be better equipped to examine critically other codes of law like the U.S. Constitution, the U.N. Charter on Human Rights, or different elements of Shariah Law. While students may not be expected to appreciate all of the implications of Levitical law or Hammurabi’s code, familiarity with them will certainly prepare them to distinguish justice from revenge or identify some rubric of standards of evidence for establishing guilt.

It is past time for American education to recover a regard for developing content knowledge at an early age. The recent findings about reading comprehension and critical thinking suggest that the Classical categories are well founded.