A couple of Sundays ago, I woke up and spent a couple of hours puttering around my apartment doing chores and the like. At some point, it occurred to me that I needed to check something on my website, and so I grabbed my computer and navigated to the site and… nothing.
The entire site had vanished.
All I got was an error message saying that the server could not be found.
At first, I thought that perhaps there had been an Internet outage, but I checked some other sites, and they seemed to be working fine.
It was an absolute Twilight Zone moment. How could an entire, just-updated website that had been functioning perfectly a few hours previously simply disappear? Had it been hacked? Was this some kind of bizarre practical joke?
I logged into my web hosting account (while walking to the gym, in the freezing rain, I might add), and managed to get a tech to “chat” with me. He informed me that as a result of some recent upgrades to my account, the site’s name server had been changed, and that unfortunately that information was not controlled by my current hosting company.
Now, while I am not exactly technologically illiterate, my knowledge of the intricacies of developing and registering websites is fairly limited (the whole book-writing thing tends to get in the way of my attempts to develop other skill sets). Suffice it to say, I had absolutely no idea what the heck a name server was.
I sent an urgent message to one of my occasional tech people, but when I didn’t hear back after an hour, I did what any reasonable person in my situation would do: I panicked.
To make a long story short, I spent the next three hours getting ping-ponged back and forth between my old hosting service and my new hosting service, with each phone call more hysterical than the last. By the end, my exchanges sounded something like this:
Me: Can you PLEASE just tell me how you can fix the name server?
SiteGround Tech: Ma’am, I’m sorry, I’ve explained to you, we don’t have any control over that. You need to-
Me: BUT CAN YOU PLEASE JUST EXPLAIN TO ME HOW I GET THE NAME SERVER CHANGED???!!!
After about 10 calls, I finally — finally! — I had gathered enough understanding of the issue to sort of kind of know what questions to ask, and was lucky enough to be put through to a tech at the correct hosting service who figured out what I was getting at.
He told me where to click, what to update, and lo and behold, the problem got fixed in less than a minute.
Now, why am I telling this story? (Other than to explain why my site was down two Sundays ago, in case anyone tried to access it then.)
Well, because I think there is actually a parallel to reading comprehension. Bear with me here.
I actually didn’t make the connection between my recent experience and the difficulties inherent in teaching reading until last night, when I stumbled across this video of UVA cognitive science professor Daniel Willingham discussing the key role that background knowledge plays in reading comprehension. (FYI: I attempted to post the video here but wasn’t allowed to because of privacy settings. I strongly recommend watching it for even a few minutes.)
To summarize, research shows that supposedly “weak” readers perform at a level comparable to highly skilled readers when reading about topics with which they are highly familiar. Provided that a student can decode reliably, comprehension is largely dependent on subject-specific knowledge.
Although instruction in formal reading strategies such as identifying main ideas, making inferences, determining meanings of unfamiliar words from context clues, etc., can provide a very significant boost, it only provides a one-time boost. After about 5-7 sessions of strategy-based instruction, this type of instruction does not produce further gains. Incidentally, that is precisely what I observed as a tutor (that’s a big part of why I’m such a big fan of Willingham’s work). While reading programs based on these types of strategies are likely to show some effectiveness, they cannot address the whole problem.
This is why I get terrified when I encounter teacher websites hawking hundreds of strategy-based curricula. A student using such a curriculum could conceivably spend a year (or more) practicing identifying “main ideas” and “inferencing” without ever gaining the knowledge they need to actually improve on those skills.
This is also why I’m never quite sure what to say when people tell me, for example, that they just can’t seem to master inference questions and want to know what to do. The problem is that it is arguable whether there is a discrete skill called “inferencing” that is fundamentally separable from comprehension — which in turn depends on existing knowledge.
Obviously a student does not need to be an expert in a subject to understand a passage about it; however, he or she must be sufficiently familiar with the general subject matter and its attendant terminology to get the gist of what is being said. If background knowledge falls below a certain threshold, there is no way to put the pieces together.
I can offer some strategies, but there’s no short-term fix for missing knowledge. As a tutor, I encountered that stumbling block over and over and over again.
Which brings me back to my little website rigmarole.
Now, by most people’s standards, I have pretty decent problem-solving skills in the abstract. I know how to observe closely, ask questions, gather information, summarize, check sources, etc., etc. But when it came to figuring out how to update the name server, I was utterly and completely lost. Why? Because I just plain didn’t know enough about the topic to make sense out of things.
Sure, I had the very basics — I could find the site of my web host, log into my account, find the support ticket that included my updated account information — but otherwise, my knowledge was so limited that the rest of the task was simply beyond my immediate grasp.
It didn’t matter that an easy solution existed; I didn’t know enough to implement it, and no one I talked to could explain just what I needed to do in a way that I could apply to get the results I needed.
I had to expend so much mental bandwidth just grasping new terminology (name server, DNS zone file, host file) that my normally sharp problem-solving abilities were all but ineffective. In fact, I was so panicked (website anxiety!) that I overlooked a simple inconsistency that could have gotten me to the answer about 1.5 hours before it did. In fact, I overlooked it on multiple occasions.
And that brings me to another big takeaway: time problems are often knowledge problems in disguise.
This is very much consistent with my observations of students studying for standardized tests: those who do not really understand what is being tested will hem and haw, go back and forth between answers, reread irrelevant sections of a passage, change their answers, etc. They might get to the right answer eventually, but they’re as likely to hit on it through luck as through any other means.
The fact that they take so much time is a result of their uncertainty; it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a general problem with speed. (Whenever prospective clients used to ask me how I dealt with time-management, I almost invariably answered that I didn’t.)
I’m not saying these things to discourage anyone from thinking they can raise their reading score, by the way. But if you do genuinely struggle with comprehension and really want to improve, it helps to understand what you’re up against. You need to read, and read consistently: the more knowledge you’re exposed to, the more likely you’ll encounter topics, themes, and people you already have some knowledge of.
As for me, I’m going to try fit in a WordPress class one of these days. But in the meantime, if my name server ever gets changed again… well, at least I know what to do (I think).
Yes! I have been trying to tell students and parents for years that no amount of test prep will improve a reading score if the student has no base knowledge. I run into this problem not just with SAT students but with MCAT students who are shocked, nay amazed, at my ability to understand even science passages that they can’t. Imagine an English major having a rudimentary grasp on string theory and mitochondrial DNA. I must be an anomaly. No, I just watch way too many documentaries and the Discovery channel and somehow am able to retain the gist. So when presented with a passage, I already have a foundation to start with.
John Green has a great little rant at the beginning of Crash Course History when he informs the viewers that it will ALL be on the test, and the test is life. I am afraid too many students dump their knowledge once the test in school is over or are reluctant to learn anything that they can’t see an immediate practical application for.
Hi, I am going to use your story in a teacher OF about getting to the basics with emphasis on reading. Would it be possible to do a quick interview with you for a podcast?