Is Building Knowledge the Best Way to Increase Literacy Achievement?

  • 18 June, 2017

Blast from the Past:  This entry was first published June 18, 2017 and was re-posted on October 12, 2019. I thought it would be a good time to re-release this blog entry about practical steps schools could take to address “prior knowledge” for reading comprehension. Recently, Natalie Wexler released The Knowledge Gap, which is getting a lot of well-deserved attention. Although we definitely should not reduce the amount of reading instruction to make way for some new curricular initiative, we definitely should rededicate ourselves to ensuring that kids know a lot about our world and that increases what they know about science, history, geography, literature and so on.

Teacher question:

             E.D. Hirsch makes a compelling argument for the systematic teaching of essential knowledge in elementary school as the best way to close the achievement gap. Daisy Daidalou in her book, Seven Myths of Education, makes a similar argument for building a broad, but not necessarily deep, knowledge base in assumed knowledge to improve reading comprehension. First, is there a solid research base for their claims? Second, what are the implications for a middle school, especially one with many students who are lacking strong background knowledge? Thank you.

Shanahan response:

             Research over the past 40 years or so has made it clear that the knowledge that students bring to a text—any text—will have an impact on what is comprehended or learned from that text. The more you know, the better your comprehension tends to be.

             Studies have shown that prior knowledge influences comprehension in many ways. Most obviously it reduces the learning load. The more you already know about what an author is telling you, the less new information that you have to learn. That makes the reading task an easier one. (Of course, that can also lead us to overstate what it is that prior knowledge provides, since it can make it look like you learned a lot from a text when you really didn’t learn much at all.)

             Knowledge (prior knowledge just refers to the knowledge that we already possess “prior” to reading a text) also helps us to draw inferences and to elaborate on what a text must have meant. It allows us to figure out ambiguity—when you don’t know what an author really meant prior knowledge is a great resource to turn to. It reduces processing difficulty during reading, as operating on items already in long-term memory is less demanding than operating on items from the text newly placed into working knowledge. And prior knowledge helps to improve long-term recall, since we can store the new knowledge that we gained from a text within the prior knowledge structures in memory that we already possessed prior to that reading.

             No question about it—the more you know—the better that you tend to comprehend (correlational studies certainly support that). We use our knowledge when we read.

             However, we don’t have experimental studies (or studies capable of showing causation) with this variable. What I mean is that we don’t have evidence that if you increase kids’ awareness of cultural literacy (such as Hirsch’s –and other’s--intriguing lists of social, historical, literary, and scientific touchstones) that the students’ reading scores consequently improve. It makes sense that they would—the more we know the better we tend to comprehend—and, yet, no direct proof. Just correlations. Lots of correlations.

             Given that, I wouldn’t drop direct lessons in reading skills and strategies in favor of teaching science, social studies or the arts.

             But, like most scholars, I an persuaded that American children don’t know enough, and that increasing their knowledge about the world—whether or not it directly enhances reading comprehension—would still be valuable. Surveys routinely reveal our collective ignorance about science, government, current affairs, history, literature, and geography, and television seems rife with shows that revel in this ignorance (e.g., Jay Leno’s Jaywalking routine, or “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”).

             Personally—without research evidence—I don’t see increasing general world knowledge as a certain way of enhancing reading achievement; at least not in the same way that I think improved phonics or reading comprehension lessons are likely to. But I do believe that we should take knowledge more serious in schools, even within the literacy curriculum at all grade levels.

  1. What kids read matters. There are good arguments for the use of decodable texts within decoding lessons and beginning reading materials necessarily have to be simple to facilitate early reading development (Grades K-1). However, beyond these specific limitations, there is little excuse for not using reading materials that expose children to classical literature (e.g., Fairy Tales, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are), or to rich content about geography, history, science, social science, and other subjects. Just because it is a reading lesson, there is no reason that the content of the texts one is practicing reading with can’t be rich in information (and the same can be said for the books that are read to children in the classroom). Check out your own middle school reading curriculum: how much opportunity is there for kids to enhance their science, social studies, or math knowledge? We often tell content teachers to expand their instruction by showing kids how to read like a scientist or an historian. Perhaps they should be telling us how to enhance our literacy curriculum by increasing students’ exposure to particular content from their fields of study. (I’m a reading guy, but I think that is a good idea).
  2. Kids should learn what they read.  Too often the emphasis of a reading lesson is so much on the reading skill or strategy that the opportunity to expand children’s understanding of their world is lost. If kids are going to spend the next three days reading and rereading a selection about Martin Luther King or why empathy matters or about children in Brazil—studying the vocabulary, answering questions, practicing fluency—there is no excuse for them walking away from those lessons not knowing who the Reverend King was, what empathy means, or where Brazil is. Reading lessons needs to have double outcomes: an improvement to reading ability and an increased knowledge about whatever was read. (When is the last time you tested kids on the content of the texts they were reading in reading class? I think we should do more of that.)
  3. Content instruction needs to be protected. Regular readers of this blog know that I promote increased reading instruction as a way of improving reading achievement. However, I not only place a minimum on the reading instruction time, I place a maximum on it, too. I do this to protect time for math, art, music, social studies, science, and so on. It is crucial that kids get instruction in all of those areas and that those subjects should both give kids additional opportunities to read and write, but also to expand their knowledge of the world. Low reading scores are not a good excuse for dropping social studies instruction.
  4. Encourage kids to read on their own time.  One way a lot of us learn is by reading. Kids don’t read enough, but they can be induced and encouraged to read more away from school. Hook them up with books that they can read on their own, beyond what you do with them in school. Work with local librarians to identify hot books about science, the arts, and social studies and actively promote these with kids.  
  5. Review matters. I understand the idea of a spiral curriculum, but I also fear that what kids walk away from such lessons may deliver the idea that it doesn’t matter very much whether they learn something or not (since they will be exposed to it again). Content lessons need to be taught with the idea that the facts matter and that we care whether students retain that information. That typically means that we need to do more review, revisiting content again and again.  
  6. Encourage parents to help. Parents can help (or more accurately, some parents can help) by getting their kids magazine subscriptions or watching educational, nature, and current events shows with their children, or by encouraging the use of those kinds of Internet resources. There are many television shows that are great for building children’s knowledge (e.g., Arthur, Nature Cat, Wild Kratts, National Geographic) and many terrific websites that can help there too (e.g., Time for Kids; Here, There, and Everywhere; Learning Network, CNN Student News); encourage kids to watch and use these—advertise them in the classroom, and promote them with parents, too.

        I suspect that our kids would read better if they knew more, so expanding kids’ knowledge of the world very well might promote higher literacy.

            I also suspect that knowing more about the world will foster curiosity, adventure, a greater sense of community, environmental responsibility, health, patriotism, and even, healthy skepticism—so it definitely isn’t all about reading. 

        However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to teach kids how to read about these things.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Michael Aug 26, 2017 06:53 PM

Thank you for your insights Tim on this subject. I too have been very curious to know your opinion on how a structured knowledge based curriculum would impact reading achievement.

We had the pleasure of having you speak at our opening day institute last year and that is how I discovered your blog. This year there was some talk at our institute of having a guaranteed curriculum. Teachers at the 7th grade for example would plan to teach essential standards or skills each year and then 6th and 8th could plan accordingly as well to prepare for 7th and to build upon those skills in 8th. However I feel it will be very standards based and will not necessarily focus on specific content or vocabulary but rather on general skills that can be approached with various different content ( especially in language arts and social studies). Plus there will unlikely be any cohesion between the 3 K-4 buildings.

My own personal sense about how my child's school is approaching literacy is promising. I have a 1st grader and Kindergartener. They have a Very structured phonics based program that emphasizes repeated reading, Phonemic awareness, phonics, shared reading and writing. When the social studies and science curriculum was described I was less enthused. 45 minutes for science and social studies . That means some days science and some days social studies. Social studies revolves around current events using time for kids and learning about national holidays. I do believe there is no way to know what elementary students might know about history until middle school where it's likely they will get there first exposure to American history and possibly some world history. The curriculum is so fragmented that I've come to expect that high school age students can only be reliably expected to know about Martin Luther King and the Holocaust.

I agree with your assessment that more time should be devoted to these content areas at a younger age, this is the thrust of Hirsh's argument, and perhaps we should be focused on teaching students how to read in history, science and with complex literature.

timothy rasinski Oct 12, 2019 04:59 PM

Well said Tim. In the era of social media and so called fake news, it is important that provide opportunities for students to increase their knowledge as well as their ability to make critical judgments about the information they encounter. So important, as you say though, to not sacrifice reading instruction to build world knowledge.

Barney Brawer Oct 12, 2019 06:37 PM

I agree with everything Dr. Shanahan presented above. I would like to urge now that we shift some of the discussion from the "prior knowledge" that students bring to reading -- and focus more directly on the knowledge that students ACQUIRE and USE as the result of reading.

Take, for example, the topic of Thanksgiving, an old-fashioned but now quite contentious topic that still comes around every year. Last year, I was a visiting teacher in an urban fifth grade at a public school near a major airport. All of the students were the sons and daughters of immigrants. Most of their parents worked in airport-related jobs (loading cargo, cooking food, cleaning hotel rooms, etc.). The countries from which their families had immigrated were diverse and covered the globe (Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Bulgaria, Mexico, Guatemala, China). I began by asking all the students to write a few sentences or paragraphs about EVERYTHING they knew about Thanksgiving. They knew there would be no school that day, they would be eating a big meal, and "there's something about football," but they weren't sure what. That's about all they reported knowing.

Our focus question (typed out and pasted into their notebooks before we started) was the following:

"When two groups of people, from opposite sides of the planet, meet for the first time, what determines whether they will get along and live together peacefully – or fight and kill each other?" A juicy question.

We then distributed to the students a diverse range of books about Thanksgiving. The books were at reading levels from grade one-ish to adult. Students chose the book to start with, but could easily shift if it was "too easy" or "boring" or they wanted to find out more information. Many of the books, not surprisingly, focused on the role of Tisquantum, often called "Squanto," and the details of his life, to the degree that it is known. Many adults do not know that Squanto lived for about 6 years in ENGLAND after having been captured and sold into slavery in Spain, freed by Spanish monks, and then employed in London under the protection of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a businessman assembling Native American translators for the fur-trading business he hoped to establish in North America. When Squanto finally was able to return to North America, he discovered that his entire tribe, the Pawtuxets, had died – probably from a smallpox epidemic. Their bodies had been buried by members of nearby tribes or had been eaten by wolves, but those famous corn fields surrounding their village were still there.

Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, fertilize the plants with fish: the mythical stories previous generations were taught in American schools. He also became a translator and intermediary between the Pilgrim leaders and the Wampanoag Chief known as Massasoit.

Each student had an additional blank notebook to be used as a Personal Dictionary. On the blank "I" page, they entered the word "intermediary" as "someone who helps communication and decision-making between two groups who don't know each other very well" and the word "inevitable": "Was it inevitable (it had to happen) that the good relationship between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims would fall apart and then they would fight and kill each other?"

Why or why not? Use evidence from the diverse texts. (On the "D" page write "diverse = different from one another.")

The students discovered that these "historical" events were told quite differently in different books. Some of the books published in the 1950's (purchased cheaply on Amazon as discards from a jillion public libraries and schools) told a cleaned up version of the encounter between the colonists and the Native Americans. Books published in recent years in coordination with current tribal members and historians of the Wampanoag tribe covered some of the same events, but with a very different perspective. By the end of one week, the students knew much more than most adult Americans about the documented events of 1620-1621, in the area now called Plymouth, MA, and they had begun to write their own views and interpretations of our focus question. The relatively peaceful relations between the leaders of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags lasted more than 50 years, and ended in the terrible "King Phillip's War." The relationship between the "Puritans" and the Pequot tribe became a genocidal war only 10 years after the arrival of the Mayflower.

But were the "Puritans" different than the "Pilgrims"? In what ways? Should the Pequots and the Wampanoags be mixed together as "Native Americans," although the two tribes perceived the other as "enemies"? How do our current language choices influence our perceptions and our responses to this famous holiday?

These are juicy questions, fascinating to fifth graders (and to adults), with diverse and complex answers. The students get to THINK and WRITE analytically – and personally, if they so choose – about what we (collectively?) THINK happened in the 1600's, how we know or don't know what actually happened – or didn't, what we think it all means, how we differ AMONG OURSELVES (adults as well as students) about "we" think it all means today.

And if, in 1621, your family lived in Sri Lanka and mine lived in a shtetl in Poland, who are "we"? Does the fact that your skin is darker than mine – as was true of the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims – affect our answers to these questions?

How? Why? Is that helpful to our understanding, or not helpful?

And how will this "We, the people" issue come up – big time! – between 1620 and 1787 . . . and forever since then?

These big questions, and the "diverse" readings that we can easily obtain and read are VERY interesting to fifth graders and to many adults. In a week or so, students who began with almost zero knowledge about the events we call Thanksgiving can become more knowledgeable than most of the adults in our society. Writing analytically about the topics and readings described above is both fascinating and powerfully "college preparatory." There are no simple answers, either about what actually happened years ago or what it means to "us" today. Students are excited not just to demonstrate their "prior knowledge" but to acquire new knowledge and to write their own views about the complex questions those events raise for "We, the people" today.

Is this ELA or Social Studies? It is both, big time.

Amelia Larson Oct 12, 2019 07:07 PM

Would Nell Duke's research add to this conversation?

Barney Brawer Oct 12, 2019 08:30 PM

Nell Duke's research and her presentations of other scholars' findings are always relevant, clear, and comprehensive. The research base certainly supports students' reading of diverse texts and engaging in analytic writing about
• the knowledge they've acquired,
• their own interpretations, and
• questions for future exploration.

When students' reading and writing focuses analytically on topics about which adults have a wide range of opinions (rather than just pre-packaged agree / disagree assignments), they LOVE doing it. Or, as I have said to many students, "This is what 'being smart' about a topic FEELS like!" They always agree that it feels really good.

Anna Gill Oct 13, 2019 05:02 AM

Imagine if you had a way of enabling a child to develop their spelling vocabulary and reading vocabulary at the same time, beyond the K-1 stage. The answer to your question would simply be: 'Yes, building knowledge is the best way to increase literacy achievement'. The trick is to establish the evidence for this statement. can make all of this happen but it needs speech and language professionals to really understand it benefits. We have to harness this concept/technology as a way to improve outcomes for all students. Academic achievement doesn't have to be linked to socio-economic status anymore. Login as a free user on Google Chrome web browser.

Nancy Duggan, M.S.C. Oct 13, 2019 11:31 AM

Another interesting blog on literacy sure to stoke conversation! Mr. Brawer, bravo for the example of good planning and teaching. Good reading instruction before fifth grade enables kids and fifth grade teachers like yourself to expand knowledge through reading.
Unfortunately, schools and teachers using boxed sets of leveled books, like those in too many districts like mine, miss out on the opportunity. Working their way through colorfully labeled collections that label and color code people too rather than choosing and using literature in a classroom that teachers themselves collect for both content and levels of reading ability. Wish there were more classrooms like yours. But in addition to the content curriculum texts you chose so carefully, reading curriculum matters and all teachers should become better consumers looking deeply at reading instruction used in the district for ample clear and systematic phonemic awareness, phonics, and sufficient background information to foster reading fluency and instruction in the structures of written language to improve comprehension.
Reading interventions that are lacking proven reading methods, foster poor reading habits like guessing or skipping words leave kids unable to access all that solid content teachers like yourself prepare in 6th grade. Beyond that, the content they do receive, in certain intervention texts is not designed as carefully as your lesson to question racial or ethic bias.
You might be interested in ‘The hidden curriculum of reading intervention: a critical content analysis of Fountas & Pinnell’s leveled literacy intervention’
Deani Thomas & Jeanne Dyches, “Conclusion
Our critical content analysis of Level U of the F&P LLI Teal system revealed a hidden curriculum that perpetuates majoritarian narratives. The collection of twenty student books and accompanying lesson scripts presents stories in which Whites are celebrated while people of Colour are demeaned and relegated to the margins. Our study adds to the existing body of critical curriculum literature by bringing into focus curriculum targeted at the vulnerable population of students labelled struggling readers.”
So in my humble opinion, both Mr. Shanahan’s important message regarding reading content and your example of appropriate knowledge content fit together for best practice.
What parents, teachers, administrators and policy makers need to do is be better more informed consumers of bother when choosing what curriculum to invest in. #BeBetterConsumersOfReading #TheScienceOfReading

Debbie Meyer Oct 13, 2019 04:54 PM

I wrote this - because not article - especially in commercial press - should lead parents astray:

Harriett Oct 13, 2019 06:02 PM

I recommend reading Debbie's piece, which provides excellent context for the full range of reading components. After reading Natalie Wexler's article in the Atlantic, I definitely wondered whether the Knowledge Gap would include a discussion of foundational skills, and it definitely does. As a reading specialist working with hundreds of struggling readers, I know that kids can't access content if they can't read the words.

Ann Christensen Oct 29, 2019 09:48 PM

I find it very disturbing that an idiosyncratic report where N=1 is presented as evidence of anything. My child
needed all students need this.
My aunt lived to the age of 96 and smoked from the age of 13 on. So that proves that smoking leads to a long life?
Although I don’t always agree with Tim’s analysis, I love that he presents real research.

Paul Chamberlain Mar 01, 2020 11:02 PM

Damn, it’s taken me two years but I’m finally a fan. As a proponent of Guided Reading (especially Independent Reading) for almost two decades. I’ve run the full gamut of despising your theories (yet I’ve kept up with your blog during the last year) to fully appreciating your thoughts. Unfortunately, I’m now retired and don’t have much of an opportunity to share these ideas. So why finally admit this today? I have found myself researching SoR lately and just finished Th Knowledge Gap. I enjoyed this new information immensely but had some serious addressed all of those reservations in this blog. Thank you.

Dr. William Conrad Jun 19, 2021 10:55 AM

All the more reason to teach the truth about Black History in the United States. Armed with the truths of slavery, Jim Crow, and racist abominations in US history, students will be able to think more critically about the white hegemonic literature and history that they are often indoctrinated with in our schools.

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Is Building Knowledge the Best Way to Increase Literacy Achievement?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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