Worldly knowledge and the new SAT

So how do we connect The Dreamy Child Syndrome I blogged about earlier to the SAT reading sections I promised to relate it to?

Let’s begin with some observations by cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, author of The Reading Mind. Willingham proposes that there is

a correlation between world knowledge and reading comprehension. The more stuff you know about the world, the more likely it is that you’ll know at least a bit about whatever passage you happen to hit.

In support of this, Willingham describes a 1997 paper by Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich:

The researchers administered a number of different measures to 11th graders, including the comprehension subtest of the Nelson-Denny Reading test, and three measures of general cultural knowledge: a 45 item cultural literacy test.

This test showed a “remarkably high correlation between reading comprehension and the measures of cultural knowledge.”

Willingham concludes:

once kids can decode fluently, reading comprehension depends heavily on knowledge. By failing to provide a solid grounding in basic subjects we inadvertently hobble children’s ability in reading comprehension.

But there’s another reason, beyond “we” adults, why a child could lack background knowledge. The child might in fact be (1) surrounded by knowledge (content-rich books; content-rich conversations; well-informed peers, parents and teachers; newspapers, magazines, and NPR news shows) and (2) highly encouraged to absorb that knowledge (via bedtime reading; carefully chosen books and clipped out articles; family dinners; outings to museums; and, of course, limited screen time). And yet, if that child lives mostly inside his or her head, a great deal of this knowledge will go right over that head.

This is especially true of knowledge that the child hasn’t been explicitly taught and held accountable for learning: i.e., the more ambient, worldly information that tends not to make it into even the most content-rich of K12 classrooms.

So here’s where new SAT comes in. Catherine and I have talked about it quite a bit and she has really helped me clarify my thinking on what’s afoot here. The new SAT reading passages, much more than their former incarnations, strike us both as tapping into a broad repository of worldly information and issues rather than scholastic knowledge in particular; to measure, not what a child has learned in school, but how much of a tuned-in, sophisticated, extraverted sponge he or she is.

Consider, for example, what this paragraph–an opener to one of the reading comprehension passages in the College Board’s 2017 Official SAT Study Guide–means to a dreamy child who’s had no direct experience with, or exposure to, an idea-driven economy, pressures to innovate, “collective hours commuting,” and “productive regions”:

In today’s idea-driven economy, the cost of time is what really matters. With the constant pressure to innovate, it makes little sense to waste countless collective hours commuting. So, the most efficient and productive regions are those in which people are thinking and working—not sitting in traffic.

Or–w.r.t. this opening to another SAT reading passage–consider a similar cluelessness about profits, economic efficiency, corporate social responsibility, and market outcomes:

Recent debates about the economy have rediscovered the question, “is that right?”, where “right” means more than just profits or efficiency.

Some argue that because the free markets allow for personal choice, they are already ethical. Others have accepted the ethical critique and embraced corporate social responsibility. But before we can label any market outcome as “immoral,” or sneer at economists who try to put a price on being ethical, we need to be clear on what we are talking about.

Perhaps it’s reasonable to inform colleges about how tuned in to the world an applicant is. After all, many colleges are more interested in “best graduates” rather than “best students”–i.e., in people who, regardless of how well they do in the classroom, will make the biggest worldly splash (bringing publicity, and perhaps large donations, to their alma maters). But, to the extent that the college classroom still matters, perhaps it also makes sense to assess applicants in ways that tease apart general verbal comprehension and verbal analysis skills from worldly sophistication.

Dreamy Child Syndrome

It’s not that you’re unsocial: in some ways, you’re unusually socially sensitive. While you struggle to intuit what’s socially appropriate, you worry about the impression you make and about not hurting people’s feelings. You may have trouble interpreting facial expressions, but not tones of voice. You make eye contact, speak fluently, and tentatively engage one-on-one or in small groups—especially in imaginative play. The broader world out there, however, baffles you, and so you retreat. The more you retreat, the less you sponge up. As you grow older, you fall further and further behind your peers—in worldly knowledge, in vocabulary, in knowledge of social rules. Group conversations and real-world phenomena (everything from politics to pop culture) become increasingly difficult to make sense of. Things snowball.

Your refuge is a private world–of fantasy, of systematizing, of thought experiments, or, at its worst, of brooding and perseverating. Unlike the stereotypical introvert’s retreat to a library to gobble up books, your retreat is more deeply interior. You deviate from the introvert stereotype, but not from introversion in the word’s truest sense.

Except for fantasy and sci fi, age-appropriate texts become as hard to follow as the real world. When others address you directly or give you specific tasks, or you give yourself a task (painting, learning music), you tune in, but when the topics turn worldly and tap into your knowledge deficits, you start losing focus. Keeping your mind turned outwards is exhausting, and once you’re no longer immediately accountable, you relent. While teachers teach, or kids chat, or a show plays on TV, or your parents converse at the dinner table or read to you at bed time, or you yourself try concentrating on a book, you find yourself picking up only snippets and then free-associating back into your head—back to the rivalries between witches, to the phonemic categories of English, to the nature of infinity, to a replay of a plot line from Harry Potter, or to the question of why someone snubbed you at lunch.

Has any diagnostician classified this syndrome?

And why am I talking about it here, on a blog about language and writing?

I plan to spell that out more in the next few weeks, but (spoiler alert!) this post is my lead-in to a discussion about… the reading and writing sections of the new SAT.

What I’ve been thinking about for the last 6 months (besides SentenceWeaver)

Some things that have been on my mind:

  • Catherine and my many recent conversations about the new SAT reading sections
  • Related thoughts we’ve had about SAT vocabulary challenges
  • Thoughts on verbosity and hedges (“obviously”, “apparently”).
  • The Dreamy Child Syndrome, aka Multi-Factor Introversion (not autism, and not in the DSM!)
  • Beyond background knowledge: other background variables in reading comprehension
  • How the Curiosity Mindset (or lack thereof) affects comprehension
  • Clues that “kids these days” are doing less and less careful reading
  • Clues that they’re getting less and less writing instruction
  • Thoughts on “Why do you think that?”, “Yeah!”, “It’s a good question”, and “one less thing to worry about”
  • The ongoing recovery of the English language from the Norman Conquest (or is it something more sinister?)
  • J’s adventures as a college undergraduate

For now, I’ll share the following email exchange—a sign, perhaps, of things to come:

E: Katharine, happy to meet with you. I will have my new assistant help us. Amy, can you help set up a meeting with Katharine next week?

E: I forgot to cc Amy.

K: Great—Thank you, E! Next week I am quite open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

A: Hi Katharine. Just wanted to check in and confirm what action you’d like me to take.

If this is an entirely new meeting you’d like me to get on the calendar, just let me know “Amy, please schedule a meeting” and CC in the people you’d like to meet with.

Alternatively, if you’d like me to make any updates to an existing meeting, could you please resend this message in the original thread for that meeting?

For now, I’ll take no action on this.


E: Katharine, Thank you for your patience with my new assistant. I guess “forgot to cc Amy was not understood.”  So trying again. I will take over if it doesn’t work.

Amy can you please schedule a meeting with Katharine next week?

Thank you.

A: Hi Katharine,

Does Monday at 11:00 AM EST (Eastern Daylight Time) work?

Alternatively, E is available Monday at 2:00 PM or Tuesday at 10:00 AM.

The meeting will be a web conference.


At this point I was ready to type an exasperated “As I said…”– but something made me to look back through this bizarre exchange.

It turns out that Amy, whose last name is Ingram, has an email signature that concludes with the following details: “Artificial intelligence that schedules meetings. Learn more at”