As we confront the literacy crisis in the United States, it’s easy to overlook one of the major stumbling blocks for children learning to read. Often, kids can appear confused not because they can’t functionally read the words, but because the content is unfamiliar.
In other words, the child may not have a reading problem, but a knowledge problem.
Awareness about the world is needed to give context and meaning to words. More serious than skill deficiencies are knowledge deficiencies that arise for children who have limited access to the world around them.
Imagine for a moment that you are reading a book about rugby written by a rugby coach and for advanced rugby players. Even if you understood the words, there would be assumptions about facts and context that you wouldn’t have. You might find the book confusing, even if you were able to functionally decode the words. There is more to meaning than words.
This is a common problem. Indications are that limited content knowledge might ultimately account for what appear to be comprehension difficulties (Vellutino et al., Journal of Educational Psychology, 1996) or higher-order thinking difficulties in older children.
Real gains can be made in the continual, systematic, everyday ways children are engaged in learning new knowledge and information, starting in the early years. Frede (University of New York Press, 1998) reported children who had a broad base of experience in many different situations were likely to move more rapidly in acquiring complex skills. This experience develops the skills used to make sense of new knowledge and concepts. In turn, these end up forming the basic foundations for later learning.
To put it simply, kids need to learn how to learn. The more new experiences they have, the more they learn how to explore and solve new problems and to acquire new knowledge.
In a recent study, low income first-grade students were given extensive exposure to categories of information. By the end of the year, the experimental group of children was better at writing informational text than children in the control groups. The experimental group also had progressed more quickly in reading level and had shown less decline in attitudes toward recreational reading (Palincsar & Duke, Elementary School Journal. 2004). Help processing the information reaped benefits down the line.
Kids care about what they experience. Flowerday, Schraw, and Stevens (Journal of Experimental Education 2004) identify differences and similarities between the importance of topic interest and situational interest. What kids already know and care about (topic interest) flows out from what they need to know to complete a task in the moment (situational interest). Situational interest often precedes and facilitates an individual’s development of personal interest. When combined, these are an excellent way to activate students’ attention, increase effort, engagement, and maintain deeper mental processing levels.
If a child has limited experiences, he or she may also have limited interests. We’ve already seen how important interests are to reading. Hidi (Educational Psychology Review, 2001) found that all types of interests (topic and situational) served as powerful determinants that contributed to students’ increased recognition, comprehension, and recall. Interest was a clear indicator for the quality of learning derived. Students’ interests were activated, which influenced readers to go beyond the surface elements of the text and focus on more elaborate, higher-order thinking skills, to help them uncover the underlying meaning of the main ideas.
The enjoyment of reading comes from comprehension, not decoding words. Skilled readers ‘interact’ with a text, thinking about what will happen next, creating questions about the main characters and so on. Children who love to read have good comprehension skills.
With that in mind, if a child is struggling with not being interested in reading, don’t assume they can’t read. They may not be interested in what they are reading. If a child isn’t interested, it may be that they don’t understand what they are reading about. If they don’t understand the subject, it may be that they lack the experience necessary for the subject to make sense. What looks like a reading problem may be a knowledge or experience problem in disguise.