• Opinion
  • 30 de April de 2024
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  • 6 minutes read

Reading Crisis, Cultural Crisis

Reading Crisis, Cultural Crisis

Reading Crisis, Cultural Crisis

We comprehend what we read thanks to what we know about what we read, not thanks to inferential strategies or predictive, interpretative or other types of skills

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Miguel Ángel Tirado

Understanding what is read with a certain depth is becoming less common in classrooms. Educators had already perceived this, but the latest PIRLS study, which evaluates the reading comprehension levels of Year 4 primary school students, has confirmed it. It is widely known and accepted that reading is a key factor for learning and academic development because it provides access to more culture and knowledge and contributes to personal, academic, social, and intellectual growth. But what determines our ability to comprehend what we read?

Understanding a text envolves not only extracting the meaning of what is written but, above all, deducing what it implies but is not explicitly stated (or information that the author omits because it is assumed that the reader already knows). We make inferences while reading when we extract information that is not explicitly indicated in the text, allowing us to contextualize what we read, make interpretations, draw conclusions and form critical judgments, thereby enriching our understanding beyond the written words.

Plans for improving reading (and the curriculum itself) often focus on teaching reading skills intended to create competent, independent and critical readers of any text. However, in a competency-based approach to as outlined by the recent educational laws, the emphasis is on ‘know-how’ (the ‘how’) rather than in ‘knowing’ (the ‘what’). From this perspective, it is assumed that by teaching reading strategies such as making predictions, distinguishing main ideas from secondary ones, generalizing, etc., students will transfer the learned skills to texts of different typology and subject, both in print and digital formats, thus becoming competent readers.

However, research in this field has not found the existence of transferable reading comprehension skills between contexts, and there is not even a consensus on how to classify them because the reader’s prior knowledge related to the topic of a text (in addition to his cultural background) play a significant role in his comprehension. We do not make inferences in a vacuum; we comprehend based on what we know.

For example, a proficient reader interested in botany will likely understand a journalistic text about plants without difficulty and will be able to easily distinguish main ideas from secondary ones, separate facts from opinions, interpret its content (even question it) and critically reflect on the matter. But, will she transfer these reading skills to a brief essay on the construction of the European Union and its current state if she lacks knowledge of the concepts, ideas and vocabulary specific to that topic? Undoubtedly, her prior knowledge—and her general culture—will play a crucial role in understanding the text and her ability to reason about what it says (and what it doesn’t say).

It is undeniable that when we have a broad knowledge of a subject, we are more likely to make more accurate inferences about the explicit and implicit information in a text, analyse it, evaluate it, critique it, relate ideas and reach deeper conclusions. In contrast, when we lack relevant knowledge or have misunderstandings related to the issue, our deductions may be incorrect, limited or superficial. For all these reasons, apart from the attention or intention with which we read, the degree of depth or shallowness of reading is determined by ‘knowledge’ not by ‘know-how’. The latter is not possible without the former.

In this regard, a competency-based approach to education that diminishes the importance of contents—or disguises them it as basic knowledge to reduce its relevance—without sufficient emphasis on cultural knowledge in various areas inevitably hinders comprehension and the ability to reason because reading requires the reader to make inferences based on what he already knows, not on decontextualized competencies. It is what one already knows that enables further learning. Hence, the importance of a well-organized, structured, coherent, cumulative, and gradual curriculum that facilitates students’ access to increasingly complex texts.

In summary, we comprehend what we read thanks to what we know about what we read, not thanks to inferential strategies or predictive, interpretative or other types of skills, because these require specific knowledge to be applied effectively. For this reason, strategies for improving reading comprehension are empty tools when one lacks the relevant knowledge to apply them, although they are very useful for making richer and more precise connections while reading and for deepening one’s reading when one has them.

For this reason, it would be a mistake to conclude that the concerning results of the PIRLS assessment are solely a lack of reading skills, as it is knowledge, vocabulary, and cultural background that limit or expand comprehension. In this context, the reading crisis is, in fact, a cultural crisis. If the school diminishes the importance of acquiring knowledge in favour of supposedly transferable competencies, it is actually building barriers to deep comprehension and, consequently, to critical thinking itself. Undoubtedly, the most affected by this approach are students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, due to the crucial influence of their context on their vocabulary and cultural knowledge, key elements in reading and learning.


National Institute for Educational Assessment (2023). PIRLS 2021: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Spanish Report). Secretaria General Técnica (Technical General Secretariat). Ministry of Education and Vocational Training.


Source: educational EVIDENCE

Rights: Creative Commons

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