Reading Between the Lines

Last week, I wrote in response to a reader's question concerning whether children should be allowed to focus their interests into a few things, or if they should be encouraged to sample a wide range of experiences. It's a hard call, but I lean toward the latter; a broad base of knowledge makes for well-rounded kids.

And it makes them better readers. So says E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in his book, The Knowledge Deficit (Houghton Mifflin; 2006).

Hirsch has poured over reading statistics in recent years and found something very interesting. All the recent effort in our country to pull up reading scores has made an impact in the early elementary years. Teaching phonics has helped young readers improve. But curiously, older elementary students have not fared so well. Why? Hirsch argues - convincingly, I think - that older children need a different approach: rather than more instruction in the mechanics of reading, they need to understand the context of what they read.

Every writer makes assumptions about what the reader knows. If I were tell you that a few minutes ago I rolled up my chair to my desk in my studio to begin typing this article, I'd assume that you knew about computers and web pages and email, as well as the fact that my office chair has wheels. (Without wheels, my rolling a chair over and over would seem particularly odd.)

All that seems plain to you because you have a general knowledge of offices. Children may or may not. Now, imagine how much knowledge is assumed in stories! If a child reads a story without understanding its context, he won't read with comprehension. Hirsch writes that it's often not what is on the page that needs explaining; it's what's not on the page -- that which is implied that the reader knows.

How do we help our kids learn those contexts? He recommends reading aloud -- but not just one kind of story. Read a wide sampling of writing, fiction and non-fiction. Then discuss what you've read. The more you fill up your children's general knowledge, the easier reading will be for them.

There are other benefits. You'll talk more with your children. And chances are, you'll learn a thing or two yourself.

A wide range of experiences can bring a wide array of results.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2006 Bruce Van Patter