Knowing and Reading--What Can We Do to Make Sure Kids Know Enough to Comprehend

  • 15 April, 2018

Last week, I was at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, helping roll out the new National Assessment scores (NAEP). I was on a panel with Marilyn Adams, Ian Rowe, Sue Pimentel, and Daniel Willingham. Yet again, our kids made few advances in reading.

Dan, when asked what could be done to break out of these doldrums, explained the importance increasing what our kids know about the world. Atlantic summarized his point: “whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills.”

Research has long shown the importance of knowledge in comprehension. If a reader knows much about a topic, his/her reading comprehension rises.

Studies of what American kids (and adults) know about science, geography, economics, technology, and history suggest that Professor Willingham has a point. Our kids simply don’t know enough. (There are great inequities in knowledge distribution, just as there is great inequality in reading attainment.)

Observations of preschool and primary grade classrooms reveal a rather limited amount of attention to building world knowledge in these early years.

No one has argued more strenuously than I for devoting scads of time to reading and writing instruction. But even I agree that content knowledge is important in reading and that time is also needed to develop such knowledge. Unfortunately, time for reading instruction all too often comes at the expense of content learning.

What can be done to turn this around? Here are 10 suggestions. I wonder which ones will be most controversial in your schools.

 1.     Make sure reading texts present high-quality content (including excellent literature, as well as informational texts that explore our natural and social worlds).

It is often asserted that, “It doesn’t matter what they read, just that they read.”


As a student, father, grandparent, citizen, scientist, member of the human race… I couldn’t disagree more. It’s like claiming, “It doesn’t matter what they eat, just that they eat.”  

Just as a steady diet of potato chips, ice cream, and soda pop is not nutritious (God knows I’ve tried it), reading forgettable drivel is nothing but empty calories. Nothing wrong with the occasional guilty pleasure, but for heaven’s sake it matters what our kids read.

Whether you teach from a textbook (core program) or an assembly of little books from the bookroom it is critical that kids read literature worth knowing, along with substantive content drawn from the sciences, the arts, social studies, and so on.

Quality and content considerations are important, too, when one is stocking a classroom library. 

Teaching kids to read with texts rich in content distracts from reading nary a jot, but offers kids a chance to explore spiders, forensic science, or how and why different languages punctuate or capitalize.

 2.     Set content learning goals along with the reading goals for reading lessons.

No matter how rich the texts may be, they won’t much increase knowledge—unless teachers emphasize the content.

Decades ago the late Michael Pressley used to fume over the wrongheadedness of so much reading strategy instruction. For those who don’t know, Michael was a grand supporter of strategy teaching. But, for him, such teaching had to provide more than strategy practice. A strategy lesson wasn’t sound unless the kids were learning the content of the texts that the strategies were practiced upon.

I’ve long argued that core reading programs should pose both reading objectives (e.g., students will learn to identify a main idea) and content ones (e.g., how does soap make you clean, what role does loyalty play in human relations).

Make sure your kids learn from what they read—even during the reading class.

3.     Read multiple texts on a topic.

I’m a proponent of having students (second-grade readers and up) reading more complex—and, yes, even more difficult—texts. To make that work, teachers need to scaffold kids’ reading.

One effective scaffold is to have kids reading multiple texts on a single topic. As they learn information from one text, that can serve as a useful support for making sense of another.

There are wonderful schemes out there for creating text and media sets that can provide this kind of support, for integrating science and literacy through multiple texts, and for project-based learning.

Such approaches build both reading ability and world knowledge.

4.     Include content texts in your read aloud work.

Let’s leave no rock unturned.

Even if teachers buy what I’m saying about presenting richer content within reading texts, this idea seems to evaporate if we are talking about teacher read alouds or kids’ oral reading fluency practice.

But these activities provide worthwhile content learning opportunities, too—even with young children.

Teachers often go out of their way to have kids practice oral reading fluency with poetry. But there is no reason why this can’t be done well with a social studies or math book--I’ve seen big benefits from such practice.

5.     Break the reading block.

Many schools have a set “reading block.” They’ve scheduled a specific 90-minutes when teachers must teach reading. God forbid if the reading gets out.

I’m not a big supporter of reading blocks (a subject for another time), but every good designer learns there is art in “breaking the border.” The best teachers find ways of taking reading over the reading block border.

Most reading skills can be taught as well with a science book as with the assortment of texts relegated to the reading block.

Sadly, many schools, in an effort to enhance reading, curtail the arts and sciences.

Instead of dropping your music program or elbowing social studies out of the curriculum, it makes more sense to bring text into those subjects. Not for the kind of round robin reading that so often is reading’s “place” in such classes (no wonder they get dropped), but for real reading.

Ask yourself, if I want kids to know about timbre in music, how can text best support this learning? What should kids read in addition to the ear training I’m going to provide? How should they read those texts? (A paragraph at a time aloud in a group of 25? I don’t think so).

The time devoted to learning how to read about timbre should count as much as the time used to read a story about a boy who looks like a mouse—just because we go out of our way to ask “inferencing” questions about one of these texts doesn’t distinguish.

6.     Try not to pull kids out of science, social studies, or the arts for interventions.

If you read this recommendation, be sure to read the one that follows, too.

When kids are falling behind in reading we often pull them out of class for extra tuition in reading. Yep, RtI intervention time.

Some schools protect content teaching by expanding the reading block to include intervention time, which means that Johnny or Janey get their extra phonics then, rather than instead of social studies. Some clever interventionists even rotate their instructional times so that kids don’t always lose out on the same content (limiting the damage). My favorite schools have even found ways to provide interventions beyond school days and school years, so that the subject content can be protected--hooray.

I get it. School days are complicated, and reading is important. If we let kids fall back in reading they will eventually lose out in science, history, and math anyway. In many situations there is no other way than to pull kids out of those knowledge building classes.

Nevertheless, you need to do whatever you can to protect content instruction. It matters.

7.     When it is necessary to pull kids out of content courses for reading interventions (and sometimes it is), build that content into the IEP.

I rarely see an IEP (or more informal learning plan) that provides any intention of replacing the content learning that the intervention is going to countermand.

Let’s say you have a struggling reader whose intervention is going to take the place of his social studies class.

What about the social studies content? Can any of the reading work be done with the social studies book (in class or in the intervention)?  Can/will mom or dad help? Do we have any afterschool options there? What can be done with our audio and video resources to sneak this content back into this student’s learning?

Let’s be as diligent about that part of the problem as we are about the reading deficit.

8.     Write about content.

Remember recommendations 2 and 4? Writing, too, belongs in content area classes. Having kids write about content that they have read about increases content learning. ‘Nuf said.

9.     Establish content clubs—even in elementary schools.

High school academic clubs are common: French club, Red Cross, United Nations, Debate, etc. Those clubs give kids a great chance for increasing knowledge beyond the school day. (Such clubs are most available to our most advantaged and knowledgeable students and are less prevalent in economically depressed communities; something I hope foundations and community groups will try to address.)

Wouldn’t it be great to have such clubs in the elementary schools, too?

In fact, some elementary schools do this, something I recently learned from Tyler, my kindergarten grandson. He is a proud member of the science club and is learning all kinds of cool things about science in this multi-age club (getting to work with the older kids is a real attraction for Tyler).

Again, look for opportunities for expanding kids’ academic knowledge.

10.  Use technology to break the borders of content classes.

I’m not a tech geek, but I’m a big fan of Catlin Tucker… and she manages to be very techy without being geeky at all. Just as I put in a pitch for reading within content classes, she argues the importance of discussion in learning content.

She’s not wrong, but where will all this reading and discussion time come from?

One solution is to use tech platforms like Schoology to expand class discussions about content beyond the classroom. Caitlin provides some sage advice on how to blend online and in-class content discussions.

Again, an example of expanding the opportunity to build knowledge—without undermining reading instruction at all.

Good readers know a lot about their world. Let’s not let reading instruction be the enemy of knowledge.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Mary nance Apr 16, 2018 11:35 AM

One international private/charter school company has fabulous results with their practice of using passages with real, relevant content for reading tests. For example, a test of reading ability might have a paragraph or two about Napolean instead of about Johnny and his dog. Uses otherwise wasted time, as well.

Harriett Janetos Apr 17, 2018 04:01 AM

This is an important topic. I also appreciated the Atlantic article but wondered whether the example below was a good choice. The article states:

"Students from less educated families are usually the ones who are most handicapped by gaps in knowledge. Another panelist—Ian Rowe, who heads a network of charter schools serving low-income students in New York—provided a real-life example during his remarks. A sixth-grader at one of his schools was frustrated that a passage on a reading test she’d taken kept repeating a word she didn’t understand: roog-bye. The unfamiliar word made it hard for her to understand the passage. When Rowe asked her to spell the word, it turned out to be rugby."

I tell my struggling readers that if a word they've sounded out sounds strange, they should try a different sound and "listen for a word" they know. In this case, both the /oo/ and the /ie/ (perfectly logical choices) can be changed to /u/ and /ee/ respectively. However, changing the sounds probably wouldn't have helped that sixth-grader. Then again, would middle or even high-income kids necessarily have known the meaning of rugby? The point about gaps in knowledge is an important one--I'm just wandering if "rugby" is the best example to make that point. Or maybe rugby is more common than I've always thought it was.

N Chartouni Apr 17, 2018 01:15 PM

I have long argued with my team about teaching reading during social studies, math and science. I truly believe that teaching kids skills and strategies for reading in content areas is crucial! Kids need to know the differences in structure and be able to navigate these texts as well. I am so glad that you have put this back into the conversation we have at school.

Nancye Motley Apr 17, 2018 08:01 PM

I am a retired teacher, but I still feel I must put in my 2 cents worth! The NCTA North Carolina Teacher Academy had a great presentation on Reading in the Content Area. We presented it classroom teachers,coaches, p. e. teachers,special teachers,principals etc. ,all over the state to rave reviews. I still remember the enthusiastic comments of a coach,and a music teacher!Teachers want to do this,they just need to know how!I used to say I was going to teach them the tricks! NC lost an outstanding resource when they eliminated our funding.However, many of our trainers are sharing their knowledge in their schools and systems on their own. I can give you the names of outstanding trainers still doing this in NC. Anyway, this is a great article, Administrators as well as teachers should read it and especially, get the discussion started in their school!

Peter Apr 18, 2018 01:49 PM

I appreciate this focus on integrating reading instruction and content area study, Tim. I suspect we still differ quite a bit about the appropriateness of the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology (as structured word inquiry does) from the beginning of formal word-level literacy instruction. However, from reading this post, I suspect that you -- and your readers who agree about the importance of integrating reading and content instruction -- may be much more interested in the way structured word inquiry is explicitly used as leverage for deepening understanding of terms and concepts of core units of study. I suspect this overlap is why I was pointed to this post of yours.

I regularly do workshops in schools with model lessons. To prepare for those lessons, I always ask teachers to send me descriptions of what they are studying at the time and ideally images of texts so that we can use their content area as the launching pad for whatever word investigation we take on. I rarely just start with a word. I usually start with a page of text, a paragraph, or even just a sentence. I want to work at understanding how the underlying meanings of words bring insight into the context of what is being studied.

If you don't mind, I'll share a few examples so your readers can get a sense of what I mean.

See a video at this link where a Gr. 7 student in a Humanities Studies class studying political movements. The teacher at this school used SWI throughout this Humanities class, and for this assignment, each student used a linguistic investigation of a word to frame a short discussion on the topic of their choice. In this video the student used analysis of the etymology and morphology of the word "dissident" to discover that the Latin root of this word goes back to the sense of "sit" and thus that a "dissident" is one who does not just sit and let bad things happen -- they stand up to make things better. Wait until you hear how this student understands and expresses his thoughts on this topic, and how central his orthographic investigation is to the quality of his understanding and ability to to express his ideas.

Click this link for multiple resources of content area based SWI investigations

I preview just some of the investigations that can be found at that link below...

The science of "condensation".

This story is from a Grade 4/5 public school class in a rough part of town at a school that had recently had the lowest literacy scores in the province of Ontario. This teacher did a great active investigation about condensation. With the orthographic background the teacher had given, the student's first question when he wrote the word on the board was "What's the base?" Through student motivated morphological problem-solving with word sums, they arrived at the hypothesis that "dense" might be the base. Given the typical weak vocabulary found in their demographic, they didn't even recognize this word when they got to that spelling. They did run to dictionaries to see if their hypothesis held up. This is how they discovered the word "dense" and the idea of "tightly packed together" that perfectly informed their study of "condensation". Sadly this was the only teacher in that school working this way. I imagine the difference if they had been studying words this way in the years before.

Grade 1's start their first "journal"

This very short investigation happened when a teacher asked me to help them with this word because they were about to begin their first journal writing. I hadn't thought of the word before, but we did a short look and found that the structure was "journ + al" and that same base built "journey" (journ + ey) and of course "journalist" (journ + al + ist). The root of this word went back to the sense "day", so we discovered that writing in a journal is like being a kind of journalist writing about the journey through though the day. Normally journalists write about the events of the day in a newspaper, but in their journal, it was them writing about the events in their own daily journeys.

"media" and social justice

The document on this investigation is quite extensive. A short version of the story is that this investigation began with a request to use etymology to help inform Gr. 5 speeches on social justice. The text I presented addressed the fact that studying issue of social justice would need to take the role of media into account. Our investigation discovers that "media" is actually a Latin word we have adopted, and it's underlying meaning is "middle, between" and that this Latin word goes back to another Latin word "medi(us)" that has given us the English bound base "medi". We see that this base builds words including the following:

medi + an ? median
inter + medi + ate ? intermediate
medi + ate/ + ion ? mediation

And a favourite discovery for me...

medi + eve/ + al ? medieval (the "eve" is a bound base for "age" -- the middle ages!)

But in terms of social justice, the key question was why do we call TV, advertising, news sources etc "media", and what is it between? We came to the conclusion that the media is like a mirror between the consumer and "reality". We can't learn about events, cultures, places in the world that we can't see for ourselves, so we need some sort of "medium" through which to learn about them. In an ideal world that mirror would be a flat mirror with a perfect reflection of reality -- but that we know that is not possible. One issue for social justice is realizing that the messages we receive about different groups through the media are being through a warped mirror that includes the implicit and/or explicit biases of the journalist presenting it. We get into trouble when we react to media as if it IS reality rather than a warped reflection that needs to be interpreted carefully.

I apologize for long comments like this, but given your focus on the importance of integrating reading instruction and content learning I hope this detail helps offer a sense of how SWI is used specifically for this purpose. But I would argue this kind of integration goes beyond ensuring that there is not a compromise between reading and content time. If folks dive into the links, I think you'll see that this kind of reading instruction deepens content area understanding -- and the ability of students to notice meaningful structures during reading later on. That class that discovered the term and concept of "dense" for "tightly fit, packed together" in their study of is well prepared to makes sense of the concept of "density" and how it differs from "mass" when they get to that topic in later years. Once we notice meaningful structures in words, we are more likely to notice them when we encounter them in related words in texts as we encounter them.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 18, 2018 01:55 PM

Thanks, Peter.

Sam Bommarito Apr 18, 2018 03:53 PM

Retirement has not stuck very well- I'll be going back to teaching part time in the fall. The course will be Content Area Teaching. It is for preservice teachers getting their content area certifications. You can be sure that this information will be shared with them. Also- I'm still unpacking Dr. Shanahan's ideas about how to teach reading. I know they will help to inform the content of the Fall course. Thanks for these insights Peter, and thanks to Dr. Shanahan for his patience, and for taking the time to still share his very important ideas with literacy teachers. Dr. Shanahan, I don't necessarily agree with 100% of what you say but I most certainly learn from what you say and what you say is helping me to reshape my view of reading, and in turn reshaping the advice I will be giving the future teachers with whom I'll be working. Thanks for doing this blog!!!!

Rebecca Apr 22, 2018 11:49 AM

I just wanted to express gratitude to Peter for his extensive explanation accompanied by examples and links.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 23, 2018 01:11 AM

I agree, Rebecca. thanks Peter.

Peter Apr 23, 2018 02:54 AM

Glad you found the examples useful Rebecca. Just so folks understand, what turned into a question mark in that post was supposed to be a "re-write arrow" which is the name of the process arrow that points to the right in a synthetic word sum like the ones I tried to put in that post. Not sure if this will work, but you can also make the arrow with two dashes and a right angle bracket like this: -->

Laura Parkhill Apr 27, 2018 12:37 PM

Great article that my principal had us ESL teachers just read- thank you for your no nonsense outspokenness, and no, Mr Shanahan, ESL will not pull during teacher direct instruction in the content areas until small groups break out- only 30 minutes then- but it’s a packed schedule to do it- 8 groups a day 5 days a week to pull for listening/reading and speaking/writing per WIDA

some of your comments appreciated much as a former elementary homeschooler and advocate of of ED Hirsch and his cultural literacy -which I’ve preached since I returned my kids to public schooling in middle school 17 years ago....

May I please have the contact info for Nancye Motley to ask about contact info for NCTA trainer on reading content PD. or would you please pass her my info?

Thank you!

Mary Sauerbrey May 01, 2018 09:12 PM

Background knowledge and vocabulary expansion is key to reading comprehension! Yes, you are so right. My only problem with this in K- 2. These young children need to learn the skills to unlock words with sequential skill development in phonological awareness through structured phonics. Even a child reading above level needs these skills as reading to learn in a 4th through high school and beyond curriculum demands the ability to unlock words in different disciplines. Giving kids the skills they need early on would, along with a developmental curriculum in all subjects, reduce theamount of intervention so many kids seem to need after 2nd grade. Children need to practice skills ....practice makes permanent!

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Knowing and Reading--What Can We Do to Make Sure Kids Know Enough to Comprehend


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.