How Can We Improve Students' Reading Abilities?

Back in the Philippines, I took quite a number of standardized exams. After all, scholarships as well as admission to a college always came with an exam. In one of the reading comprehension exams given to me, there was a passage about one of America's favorite pastimes, baseball. I did not know much about baseball, not surprisingly, I found that part of the exam difficult. Matthew Lynch recently wrote "Black Boys in Crisis: They Aren't Reading" in which he cited statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education, the Educational Testing Services,and the National Assessment of Education Progress. He highlighted the fact that "only 10 percent of eighth-grade black boys in the U.S. are proficient in reading".

There are indeed racial gaps according to the U.S. Nation's Report Card:

Below, however, is an even bigger gap:

In looking at the scores, one must keep in mind that these are for children in eight grade. Thus, there seems a disconnect between what these exams are and what people think we must do. A comment on Lynch's article demonstrates this:
Despite the myriad literacy challenges black boys face at home in terms of limited access to books, few relevant reading models, and infrequent or nonexistent read alouds, a lot can be done in schools by teachers to change reading outcomes for black boys.

1. Teachers can seek out and read books that reflect the diverse interests of black boys. There's no reason a 1st grade teacher can't use Captain Underpants for instructional purposes. 
2. Schools can connect books and reading to the different things that black boys in their school identify with. Reading experiences should be flexible. Let boys lay on the floor during independent reading time or read comic books or take the class on a field trip to the local corner store to read environmental print that might pique their interest. 
3. Teachers/schools should find creative ways to involve black men in black boys' early reading experiences. Invite black fathers, pastors, husbands into schools and classrooms to be a part of fun reading experiences.
One could easily see the common prescription: Let children find joy in reading. This, of course, assumes that poor reading comprehension is largely due to not developing a habit of reading. Marsha Riddle Buly and Sheila W. Valencia had already shown that doing poorly in a reading comprehension exam was multifaceted and was individual. More than a decade had passed since this study was published and we are still pretty much confined to a very narrow perspective.

One perspective, in addition to realizing that reading comprehension involves so many factors that include vocabulary, fluency, and word identification, is that our reading ability really depends on our knowledge, especially when it comes to eight grade reading. I found the baseball passage difficult to read because I simply did not know baseball.

Daniel Willingham posted more than four years ago on his blog an article entitled "School time, knowledge, and reading comprehension". In that post, he shared a very informative table from a 1988 paper by Recht and Leslie:

Willingham placed those red circles to make a point:
The numbers ("quantity" and "quality") are two different measures of comprehension--in each case, larger numbers mean better comprehension. I've circled data from the two critical groups: Lower left = "poor" readers who know a lot about baseball. Upper right = "good" readers who don't know about baseball.
Willingham started this post with two very important sentences: "I deplored the lack of time devoted to science in early elementary grades. Well, if kids aren't spending time on Science, what are they doing?"

We can only improve our reading ability by accumulating knowledge. The things that we are learning in science, social studies, music and the arts, help us to comprehend what we are reading. Fittingly, Willingham ended his post with the following sentence:

Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading.