History Matters Too...

The title of this post is a nod to my wife who is currently getting a Masters Degree in History. I give her a hard time about her love of all things history related, but I caught this article below and it struck a chord with me.

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.

I’ve always felt fortunate that in my younger years I didn’t have TV. My parents could only afford to pay for cable whenever the summer Olympics came around, and we never got the free network channels (lived in a valley). This meant that I read a TON as a kid. My reading comprehension was always years ahead of my peers as I got further in to my school years and was reading books meant for adults almost before I was a teenager.

The implication is clear. The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next: for example, Native Americans and Columbus in kindergarten; the colonial era and the American Revolution in first grade; the War of 1812 and the Civil War in second grade, and so on. That approach enables children to make sense of what they’re learning, and the repetition of concepts and vocabulary in different contexts makes it more likely they’ll retain information. Not to mention that learning content like this can be a lot more engaging for both students and teachers than the endless practice of illusory skills.

I look back on all those things my mother had me do as a child during summer breaks. Keep a journal. Read certain books. Write about those books.

After reading this, I appreciate that now more than ever. Looks like I’ll have to start siding with the wife when she wants to take the family to all those historical sites now.

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