Monday, November 17, 2014
Last week, I focused on a controversy over prior knowledge. Common core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.
That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—such telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information—information not provided by the author.
They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean.
The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because you simply can’t stop students from using what they know when they read.
I promised to provide some instructional guidance for dealing with prior knowledge during reading comprehension lessons (and shared/guided/directed readings). I thought I could do this in two entries, but it will take three. Here are 10 guidelines for dealing with prior knowledge.
1. Don’t overdo it. Research shows that providing readers with key information about a text can improve comprehension, as does reminding them of relevant information that they already know. But in the research studies these things were usually accomplished pretty economically; often the researcher did not more than tell students the topic. To stimulate students to use what they know while reading doesn’t take more than this: “We’re going to read a story about a family vacation.” It doesn’t require having each student in the group tell a story about his or her family vacation. Students can make sense of a text without a 15-minute discussion of what they already know about a topic. It’s simply not necessary.
2. Respect the reader-text relationship. Whatever pre-reading information about at text that you provide should not be information that will be stated or implied by the selection. It is usually enough to tell students the topic and/or the genre. “This is a history chapter about the American Revolution.” Or, “ this is a science fiction story.” Anything you reveal ahead of time is something students won’t have to figure out from reading (which means you are swiping their opportunity to learn).
3. Don’t be afraid to fill students in on some “appropriate” background information. Remember, many texts used for teaching were not originally written for students—they may even be texts from another era—so the author may have assumed his or her readers would know certain things; certain things that your students might not know. It’s hard to imagine William Shakespeare didn’t presume his audience knew Julius Caesar was a Roman emperor. Telling kids that information won’t hurt a thing. What Shakespeare didn’t bank on was the cultural literacy of the average 21st century American ninth graders, who might not even know there was a Roman empire. Filling kids in on some of that assumed context won’t hurt anything.
4. Excerpts are special. How often do you read chapter 5 of a novel? Obviously that’s something most of us don’t do. But students are often taught to read from anthologies aimed at providing them a breadth of experience with valuable literary artifacts. Nothing wrong with that. But excerpts create a special problem for readers—the author has made pertinent information available earlier in the text, but the reader in this case is cut off from that info. When guiding students to read excerpts, providing them with key information omitted during the excerpting process is appropriate.
5. Use multiple readings to solve the prior knowledge problems. If a text is only going to be read once, and students are to gain full understanding, then conducting a thorough review of existing prior knowledge might seem like a powerful introduction. But what if, “money read” would be the second one, and the first reading would be used to create prior knowledge (students would use the knowledge drawn from their first reading go through to buttress their second reading).
6. Culturally different students may benefit from a different prior knowledge input. Not all ids know the same things. Not much we can do about that. However, you might have students from particular cultural groups who may lack key information because of their background. What is it that Guatemalan or Chinese immigrant children may not know about the culture shown in a particular text? Or if “mainstream” students are reading about their culture, what would they need to know to make sense of that material?
7. Only deal with prior knowledge if it is likely to raise a comprehension problem. Years ago, Hansen and Pearson showed the value of focusing kids on topics relevant to the comprehension issues at hand rather than to the text topics themselves. Thus, if the point of the text is to explore the nature of friendship, inventorying what students know about Europe isn’t likely to help even if the friendship in the story takes place in Europe). Not all prior knowledge is equal when it comes to making sense of a text.
8. Prior knowledge issues can be addressed during and after reading. I often read about topics I don’t know about and it isn’t much of a problem. What I don’t grasp right away, I can often figure out from the text itself. I rarely look up information prior to reading, but I might fill some gaps with Google along the way or I may do that after the reading. Avoid exploring what kids know ahead of time if it will spoil the reading (point 7 above suggests focusing on the key ideas, but if done before reading it may simply be revealing what the text is really about). During reading, I might ask students questions. If they are missing a key point and don’t seem able to grasp it, I can ask a question about their awareness of some outside information that may jump start their thinking (“Have you ever been called a name like that? How did it make you feel?”—that’s a sequence of questions that would stimulate the use of prior knowledge at a key point in the story without taking kids too far afield).
9. Do not focus on prior knowledge for texts that present information that will challenge readers’ current concepts. Science texts often tell us things that run counter to our perceptions of the world. A famous example is the explanation of the path of a falling ball dropped by a runner; the actual path runs counter to most people’s expectations. Some teachers want to get kids to predict the paths—to apply their prior knowledge—to prepare for reading. But that’s a bad idea because it increases the chance students won’t grasp the explanation. Prior knowledge is a two-edged sword—it can increase learning and it can encourage readers to impose their own beliefs on a text.
10. Analogies are a powerful way to bring prior knowledge to bear on a text. Just because I don’t know much about a topics doesn’t mean I don’t know anything that’s relevant. For example, I know next to nothing about cricket. But I do know some things about baseball that I might be able to use to try to understand a cricket article. If I wasn’t a long-suffering Cub fan? Then, I’d use what I know about games or sports competition to help me make sense of it. I might not know how one scores in cricket, but I suspect scoring is important—it is a game—so I’d use that insight to guide my attention towards how one scores. Prior knowledge does not have to be specific knowledge--another good reason not to send students off to inventory what they already know about a subject; that’s overkill.
Monday, November 10, 2014
Spoiler alert: This blog entry is a two-parter. The first part (today’s entry) describes a problem to which the second entry will offer some nifty practical solutions (nope, no practical solutions today).
An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).
Research findings were very clear: readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.
Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that reader’s knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.
Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading may have to be. If you already know much of what the author is going to say, you can kind of go on autopilot just watching for the new stuff. Your less informed classmates are going to have to attend to the text more carefully, trying to build up all of this information in their heads, proposition by proposition.
Let’s face it, if you have to figure out and remember 100 facts from a text and I only need to learn 50 facts from it (since I already had the other 50), then I’m going to look like I comprehended more.
Another reason prior knowledge helps is that no author ever fully explains anything. There are always inferences that need to be drawn and connections that have to be made. Sometimes readers have to sort out an ambiguity in the text’s wording, and so on. All of those challenges are easier to deal with from a basis of knowledge.
And prior knowledge affects memory matters, too. If I already have a lot of information in my memory about the ideas presented in this text, then storing the new information within those already created structures gets easier, too. (There’s a reason that P. David Pearson has long defined reading comprehension as “connecting the new with the known.”)
However, there are costs to prior knowledge as well. Research has shown that readers will sometimes allow their current beliefs to overwhelm the author’s message. Thus, readers thinking they understand how the physical world works (based on their perceptions of their experiences with processes like gravity), will disregard the author’s explanation of what scientists have figured out in favor of staying with their prior (though incorrect) “knowledge.”
Of course, in most reading prior knowledge doesn’t make us miss the author’s message altogether, but it may lead us to read less carefully (since we assume that we already know it, we don’t need to put in the effort and, thus, miss the nuance). Reading less reflectively or thoughtfully, weighing the author’s words to a lesser degree, and so on, can’t be good.
Based on such research findings, school reading programs have gone off the deep end with prior knowledge discussions (maybe you have seen the ads for “Basals Gone Wild” videos on late night cable). Such activities had already been long in evidence--at least since the birth of the “teacher’s guide” in basal readers--but since 1975 the “Background” activities seem to have exploded.
That means if kids are to read a story about a family vacation, there will need to be an extended discussion of family vacations prior to any reading. Of course, everybody has to be able to tell about their vacations and, perhaps, for the kids who haven’t had one, the teacher can have them talk about where they would like to go (we could call that pretend prior knowledge, I guess).
Apparently, there is no school text that wouldn’t benefit from a 15-minute discussion of prior knowledge before reading.
Enter Common Core (the plot thickens). CCSS emphasizes “close reading” and a key idea of close reading is to interpret what is in the text rather than examining one’s presuppositions, the author’s biography, or other sources of information external to the text.
Some CCSS proponents have gone so far as to claim that not discussing prior knowledge or asking questions about what children already know will somehow level the playing field when it comes to reading comprehension. Their hope is that the poor kids and the rich kids will then be held accountable for the same work—making sense of the information that they all had equal access to in the text itself.
That sounds great (I’m for poor kids, too), but it ignores a basic fact about reading: Prior knowledge plays a role in text interpretation whether there is a background discussion or not.
We can make it look like the playing field has been evened by not talking about prior knowledge, but the more advantaged kids will then just appear to be smarter and better when it comes to reading (since all or most of the advantages of having prior knowledge will still be there).
Funny thing is that I agree with those critics who think we’ve gone off the deep end when it comes to prior knowledge in reading. The discussions go on too long. The questions about it aren’t thoughtful or strategic. Frankly, our instructional practices don’t seem especially consistent with the research studies. In other words, we have taken a valuable set of insights and turned them into a dogmatic and inflexible set of practices that accomplish very little.
What role should prior knowledge play in classroom reading discussions and how should teachers handle prior knowledge in the classroom? For some brilliant (yeah, right) answers to these provocative questions, tune in next time.
There have been requests for a couple of recent presentations that I have made: One was the talk I gave at the U.S. Consulate in Belfast, Northern Ireland concerning key issues in literacy learning and the other was a recent introduction (and history lesson) on the Common Core that I presented to my friends at the Ka Hui Heluhelu Reading Council in Honolulu, Hawaii. Here they are:
Monday, August 25, 2014
I don’t hear anything about comprehension strategies anymore. Was that idea just another fad or are should we still teach those?
Your question raises an interesting point about American reading instruction. We tend to chase fads. Instead of building on past reforms and improvements we instead ride the pendulum back and forth.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of interest in teaching students how to think effectively about the ideas in texts. There was lots of research on how to engage prior knowledge, summarize information, ask questions, monitor understanding, and so on—and lots of interest in bringing these strategies into classrooms.
Strategies engage readers in thinking intentionally—rather than just reading a text and hoping something sticks, the reader enters the enterprise aware the text is like a mountain to be scaled or a problem to be solved. In such situations, you take actions that help you to reach the goal.
Thus, readers may preview texts ahead of time to increase anticipation and to ensure that relevant prior knowledge will be at the ready. Readers may set purposes too—like turning headings into questions to be answered. As they read, they may stop occasionally and sum up the information provided to that point—rereading if there are apparent gaps.
In the strategy world, readers need to be “meta-cognitively” aware. That means, for instance, that they should notice when they are not understanding something and to do something about it (such as rereading the pages that you you phased out on, looking up a word in the dictionary, or asking someone for help).
The whole language movement has been pilloried for nudging phonics out of the primary classroom, but—something not often noted—it booted comprehension strategy teaching, too. Strategy teaching tends to be direct instruction—the teacher explains what the strategy is, how to use it, and why it’s important. Then the teacher may demonstrate the use of a strategy and engage kids in a heavily scaffolded version in which the teacher does much of the work (“This would be a good place to ask a question about what we have read. If you ask and answer questions you’ll remember more of the information later.”). Over time, the teacher would fade the support with kids doing it more and more on their own.
Strategies came back a bit during the 2000s, probably as a result of the National Reading Panel’s review of more than 200 studies showing that we could effectively teach students to comprehend better by teaching such strategies.
As your question reveals, now strategies are on the retreat, yet again. The reason this time is almost surely due to the fact that the Common Core State Standards don’t include any comprehension strategies. They don’t prohibit the teaching of comprehension strategies, but they don’t require them either.
I’ve long been a proponent of the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies, and yet, there is a part of me that says their omission is not that big a loss.
The reason for my skepticism about strategies? I’m well aware of the fact that many students—perhaps the vast majority of students—don't actually use these strategies when they read. They use them when teachers guide the process, but they don’t do so on their own. I don’t believe, for instance, that “good readers” make predictions before they read a text, even though I have no doubt that good readers could be induced to make such hypotheses under controlled conditions.
The problem is that comprehension strategies are only useful for helping readers to make sense of text that they can’t understand automatically. Many texts are easy for me to read; they are comfortably within my language and knowledge range. This morning I read USA Today and didn’t feel the need to look up a single word or to stop and summarize any of the information.
But if you asked me to read a chapter on theoretical physics—and you were going to evaluate my understanding somehow—that would be a different story altogether. Now I’d have to suit up for heavy combat, which would mean doing various things that I don’t do in my daily reading (like taking notes or turning headers into questions).
What I’m saying is that in the past we taught strategies—overtaught strategies???—but we then asked students to apply them to relatively easy texts (texts at the students' instructional levels). Now, the new standards are asking us to ignore strategies while assigning harder texts.
Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
I would encourage you to continue to teach comprehension strategies as a scaffold for dealing with challenging text. The point would be to make it possible for kids to make sense of truly challenging texts; the use of strategies could be enough to allow some kids to scaffold their own reading successfully--meaning they might be able to read frustration level texts as if they were written at their instructional level.