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.
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.
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.
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.
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