U.S. elementary schools spend lots of time trying to teach reading skills, writes Robert Pondiscio in a Forbes commentary Most of it’s wasted because reading comprehension is not a skill.

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Students have trouble understanding what they read because they lack background knowledge and vocabulary, Pondiscio writes. A boy who likes basketball and already knows about it is encouraged to choose a basketball book and practice skills such as “making predictions.” That’s “time not spent learning history, science, literature, art, and music, and other subjects that build the common knowledge base that mature literacy rests upon.”

One of the hardest things for educated men and women to do is imagine what it’s like to read without it background knowledge. Like the fish that doesn’t realize it’s in water, literate Americans are swimming in knowledge, allusions, and idioms that enliven their discourse and resolve ambiguities. A simple example is the word “shot.” Very young children can “read” the word, but it means something very different on a basketball court, in a doctor’s office, or when the repairman uses it to describe your refrigerator. Speakers and writers assume their listeners and readers know enough to supply the proper context and fill in the gaps.

When Pondiscio taught 5th graders in the South Bronx, “even a simple reading passage was like a game of Jenga, with every block in the tower a bit of background knowledge or vocabulary. Pull out a few and the tower stands. Pull out one too many and it collapses.”

His students “weren’t missing what good readers do,” he writes. “They were missing what good readers know.