When It Comes to Improving Reading Skills, Content Knowledge Is Vital

December 8, 2019 Updated: January 7, 2020


The good news is that, when it comes to academic achievement, Canadian students typically rank well above average. The bad news is that our raw scores have declined over the last 20 years.

Interestingly, in international test results released last week, significant variations in scores were found across country. In Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta students performed at the top, while Manitoba students once again scored at the bottom. Sadly, Manitoba has seen a steady decline in all three assessment areas over the last 20 years of PISA testing. While other provinces performed better, Canada’s overall performance has continued to gradually decline.

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) was developed by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation in 2001 and evaluates the reading, science, and math skills of 15-year-old students. Conducted every three years, the current test was written by students in 79 countries.

PISA results are used to rank countries (and provinces in countries like Canada) based on their students’ academic achievement on the tests. Countries such as Singapore and China typically score at or near the top, while less developed countries, such as the Dominican Republic and the Philippines, usually score near the bottom.

The latest round of PISA testing focused primarily on reading skills. Students were given various sample texts to read and were then asked to distinguish between fact and opinion, answer questions about the information provided, and make inferences from the main ideas in the text. The point of these questions was not to evaluate students’ prior knowledge about a topic but to determine whether they can make sense of the text they are reading. This is why the texts used in PISA are non-content specific.

In many ways, PISA testing reflects the key ideas of the so-called 21st Century Skills movement. This movement argues that since the world is changing so quickly, there is little point in having students memorize facts that will soon go obsolete. Instead, teachers are encouraged to help their students develop generic skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and cooperation, simply because these generic skills will never go obsolete.

As a result, education officials who are looking for a quick fix for their low PISA scores will no doubt be tempted to encourage teachers to focus on these 21st Century Skills. Since PISA doesn’t test for content knowledge, they will argue, curriculum guides should be rewritten to put less emphasis on knowledge acquisition and more emphasis on critical thinking and creativity.

In particular, English courses should focus less on books written by dead white males and more on texts that are interesting to students. Since the specific content doesn’t matter, there is no point in filling students’ minds with a bunch of useless facts.

This reasoning might seem logical, but it is dead wrong. Replacing content knowledge with generic 21st Century Skills is a sure-fire recipe for academic stagnation and further decline on future PISA tests. Few things are as mind-numbingly boring as doing reading comprehension worksheets to develop skills such as “locating information,” “understanding,” and “evaluating and reflecting.” In reality, the best way to develop these critical reading comprehension skills is to immerse students in a content-rich curriculum—not by removing the content or trying to develop the skills on their own.

A great number of studies show that students’ prior knowledge about the topic of an article is more closely correlated with their reading comprehension than the technical reading level of the words and sentences in the article. For example, students who know a lot about baseball will have a much easier time understanding an article about last night’s baseball game than students who know nothing about the game and need to Google terms such as bunt, home run, and inning.

In other words, if we want students to understand articles about baseball, we must teach them about baseball. It would be the height of folly to replace instruction about baseball with a bunch of reading comprehension worksheets where students practice “finding the main idea” in paragraphs without really understanding the game or the terms that are commonly used in talking about baseball.

Of course, the same principle holds true in all other subject areas. For students to read and understand articles about history, politics, government, and science, they need to learn a lot about these topics.

In one of the reading comprehension questions that appeared on the PISA test, students had to read a website article about the Galapagos Islands and answer a series of questions about the islands. These questions included identifying what type of food marine iguanas eat and asking students to locate where scientists have restored a breeding population of giant sea turtles. While the article contains all the necessary information for students to answer these questions, it is obvious that students who possess some knowledge about the Galapagos Islands, or even just about biology and ecosystems, would have a significant edge over those who lack this knowledge.

Drilling students in reading comprehension exercises might improve their achievement on the PISA tests, but the impact will likely be short-term at best. If we want sustained, long-term improvement in student reading skills, we need to immerse them in content-rich learning environments. There is no other way! Abstract strategies can’t be effectively taught without students having a good understanding of the content they are expected to understand.

Let’s handle the PISA data carefully. We must be concerned about the declining performance of Canadian students, particularly those in Manitoba, but we must not unintentionally deprive them of the content knowledge they need to succeed in school and later in society.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.