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Background knowledge and the State of the Union address

favicon According to Politico’s Byron Tau, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday was written at an eighth grade reading level.

Even worse, Tau analyzed all the SOTUs going back to 1934, and Obama’s addresses scored among the lowest on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. (In contrast, President John F. Kennedy’s speeches required college-level reading skills.)

While political blogs debate the significance of Obama’s relatively simplistic prose, I am wondering about a different question: If Obama’s speech is so easy to read, then why did seniors at my school have such trouble understanding it?

A quick answer, of course, is that our students have poor reading skills. Indeed, it’s altogether possible that some of our seniors read at an eighth grade level. I don’t dispute that we need to build our students’ reading skills.

(Short aside: I don’t like how adults put down young people’s poor reading skills yet do very little — if any — reading themselves. End of rant.)

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. Instead, my hunch is that our students struggled with the text because of their lack of background knowledge concerning current events, the federal government, and politics.

After all, it’s much easier to read something when you already know something about the topic you’re reading about.

I am reminded of Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide (my favorite teaching book), and his emphasis on building students’ background knowledge as a crucial component of teaching reading. Mr. Gallagher tells a story of teaching about 9/11 and realizing that a number of students thought al-Qaeda was a person. His response, the Article of the Week (which I launched last year at my school and which two of my colleagues are improving), aims to build students’ schema so that they can approach new texts.

Our students’ struggle with the State of the Union address fuels my passion to learn how to teach reading well. It’s much more than teaching reading strategies. It’s about making sure students don’t go into a text cold. It’s about encouraging curiosity and questions. And it’s about showing students how to attack a text rather than feebly slogging through word by word. favicon

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