Background Knowledge: A Vital Component for Reading Comprehension

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Do you ever wonder why practicing reading skills hasn’t made your students stronger readers? Maybe the problem is too much practice and not enough reading. For many young readers, limited experience with the context of a text inhibits their comprehension.

The dilemma is that building background knowledge is largely accomplished through reading. Simply put, those who read more know more. And the more that students learn from the books they read, the less difficult they find the next book—or any assessment. They bring to new texts a familiarity with an increasingly wide range of subjects: geography, history, astronomy, flora and fauna.

Children who develop into avid readers at ages eight or nine learn about the world with every page they turn. They absorb information about the time and place where stories are set and remember curious, random details. The more students read about a topic that fascinates them—from dinosaurs to black holes—the more easily they comprehend increasingly complex texts about the subject. These readers have built a base of knowledge to which new learning can adhere.

Conversely, students who are confined to curriculum that has them practicing discrete skills in isolation often see little reason to put much effort into developing their reading skills. Why bother becoming good at reading if the end goal is identifying the main idea or charting character traits? Disaffected, these students decide that reading is not for them. And the less they read, the harder future reading, both in school and out, becomes.

Think about your own experience as a reader. Though I consider myself a competent reader, I struggle when confronted by a technical passage on a topic about which I possess little to no background knowledge. This paragraph from a blog post by a microbiologist is a good example. I can decode every word but comprehend very little.

Briefly, Kowarsky et al. take hundreds of blood samples collected from tens of patients, and use shotgun sequencing and assembly strategies to recover contigs from cell-free DNA. They remove sequences that match to the human genome, and investigate what is there in the remaining contigs. The authors also validate some of their findings by performing independent bench experiments, which is very nice to see since unfortunately ‘omics findings are rarely validated by additional experiments. — From a blogpost by A. Murat Eren, University of Chicago

I find it ironic that my friend is writing in what he considers an informal, even light-hearted tone. That I can sense. It’s what he is saying about the experiment that leaves me scratching my head. What if every text you encountered posed this level of difficulty for you as a reader?

Organize Instruction Around Themes

In her book, The Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler suggests that schools organize instruction around themes rather than skills. Working from a collection of books focusing on the same subject—mythology, the human body, insect life cycles—students spend weeks developing their knowledge about the topic under study. Some of the books may be highly complex and read aloud to students by the teacher. Other books in the collection are written at a level the children can read on their own. As students discuss what they are learning, pose questions for further inquiry, and write about what they are learning, their knowledge of the subject deepens. They are also learning specific disciplinary vocabulary associated with the topic.

In this scenario, students are meeting the language of the discipline where it lives: in books about volcanoes or the circulatory system or the universe. As they read about ancient Egypt, children absorb sophisticated vocabulary like civilization, artifact, and hieroglyphs. Rather than memorizing 20 words for a quiz on Friday (and quickly forgetting those same words by Monday), students encounter these words again and again as they continue to explore the topic. The corpus of words has moved from short-term to long-term memory.

Teachers devote large portions of classroom time to vocabulary instruction: defining words, drawing pictures of words, playing word games, reviewing words, quizzing students on words. I liked teaching vocabulary this way because the quizzes gave me 20 minutes of welcome peace while students took them. The tests were easy to grade and slotted tidily into my grade book. Parents were delighted to see their children studying lists of words. It felt like school. It just is not how we acquire language.

Readers who possess a robust vocabulary understand more of what they read. It’s called the “Matthew effect,” whereby those who already have receive more. Students who know more words are able to comprehend more easily, and so they read more. The more they read, the more competent they become at figuring out unfamiliar words. Rather than teaching lists of unrelated words in an attempt to inoculate students against ever meeting a word they don’t know, we need to consider curriculum that invites students to read books that pulsate with rich language.

Creating a Free-Range Reading Life

Of course, the kind of free-range reading life that I wish for every child depends heavily upon access to books, both fiction and nonfiction. Classroom libraries should be packed with titles like Candace Fleming’s Crash from Outer Space: Unraveling the Mystery of Flying Saucers, Alien Beings, and Roswell or her book The Curse of the Mummy. Kids are drawn to flamboyant subjects.

Young readers are also attracted to historical fiction that allows them to learn about lives very different from their own. Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte takes place on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805 among a predominantly deaf community where everyone can sign. Based upon the true story of a thriving deaf community, the author—who is herself deaf—deftly explores perceptions of ability and disability in the course of telling a thrilling story.

In Genius under the Table, Eugene Yelchin describes his childhood in Russia during the Cold War. Young readers learn about life in the Soviet Union through the eyes of a boy who loves to draw. The text is interspersed with delightful illustrations that bring his world to life. For students who want more, Yelchin is the author/illustrator of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose. And for another memoir on the subject of growing up behind the Iron Curtain, there is Peter Sis’s Caldecott Honor Book, The Wall. Blending history with memory, Sis recounts his experience of growing up in occupied Czechoslovakia and living through the Prague Spring.

When wide reading is an instructional priority, children employ skills in the pursuit of knowledge. They have good reason to reread a sentence when comprehension breaks down because they are keen to understand what is before them. Reading compelling texts inspires learning. Rather than demanding student compliance with practicing decontextualized reading skills, students become more skilled in the course of their reading.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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