Come hear the cognitive scientist: why our efforts to help struggling readers haven’t worked

Why is it harder to raise reading scores than math scores for students from low-income families? And why do kids who seem to read well in elementary school then struggle with grade-level text in middle and high school?

Students Standing In Classroom.

For decades, most elementary schools have taught reading as a skill: children have practiced reading comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences” on simple stories. The theory has been that it doesn’t matter what students are reading, as long as they’re reading something. And in many elementary schools, especially those serving low-income students, the curriculum has been narrowed to “the basics:” reading and math.

But reading comprehension is highly dependent on background knowledge–as Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, will explain when he comes to DC on Wednesday, June 2. If students don’t learn about history, science, and the arts in elementary school, they’ll be at a tremendous disadvantage in high school, when they encounter texts that assume a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don’t have. That’s particularly true for low-income students, who are far less likely to acquire academic knowledge at home. But all students will benefit from a broad, content-rich curriculum–and they’ll also find it more engaging than a narrow focus on reading skills.

Willingham is an accessible and engaging speaker as well as the author of several popular books–and the cognitive scientist behind the column “Ask the Cognitive Scientist,” a recurring feature of American Educator magazine. He has become one of the leading advocates of bringing content and a focus on building knowledge into the elementary school curriculum and
was recently cited in a speech by Secretary of Education John B. King. “We know from decades of research from folks like Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia that knowledge matters for reading success,” King said. “It is not about reading vs. science and social studies.”

Willingham will speak on Wednesday, June 1, from 6:30 to 8 at McKinley Tech High School, 151 T Street NE. Parking is available behind the school. To RSVP, email Ward 3 State Board of Education representative Ruth Wattenberg at

This event is co-sponsored by the DC State Board of Education, SHAPPE (Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators), DC Public Schools, the Public Charter School Board, Coalition for 4 DC Schools and Communities (representing all 8 Ward Education Councils), Washington Teachers Union, DC Language Immersion Project, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and Deputy Mayor of Education.

I hope to see you there!

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