Joanne Jacobs wrote in a recent blog post:
In a Washington Post op-ed, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham critiques the standards for assuming students can understand what they read without background knowledge. Teaching “strategies” doesn’t lead to comprehension.
Remarkably, if you take kids who score poorly on a reading test and ask them to read on a topic they know something about (baseball, say, or dinosaurs) all of a sudden their comprehension is terrific—better than kids who score well on reading tests but who don’t know a lot about baseball or dinosaurs.
In other words, kids who score well on reading tests are not really kids with good “reading skills.”
Once students have “cracked the code of letters and sounds” and read fluently, the good readers are the ones with the prior knowledge to enable them to understand what they read, Willingham argues. Students who lack background knowledge can reason their way through a text, but it’s slow and difficult, “a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.”
Joann Jacob’s blog isn’t the leading authority on the connection between “background reading” and reading comprehension though– that research has been out for decades:
“Prior knowledge has a large influence on student performance, explaining up to 81% of the variance in posttest scores (Dochy, Segers, & Buehl, 1999). And there is a well established correlation between prior knowledge and reading comprehension (Langer, 1984; Long, Winograd, & Bridget, 1989; Stevens, 1980). Irrespective of students’ reading ability, high prior knowledge of a subject area or key vocabulary for a text often means higher scores on reading comprehension measures (Langer, 1984; Long et al., 1989; Stevens, 1980). In addition, high correlations have been found between prior knowledge and speed and accuracy of study behavior (reviewed in (Dochy et al., 1999) as well as student interest in a topic (Tobias, 1994). Thus, prior knowledge is associated with beneficial academic behaviors and higher academic performance.”
More recently, Robert Marzano devoted an entire book on the subject: “Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement “
HOW WE BUILD ON STUDENT’S PRIOR KNOWLEDGE
Here at MCS, our students come to us with lots of background knowledge– only IF their parents are highly educated, if they travel extensively, if there are hundreds (thousands) of books and publications in the house, if the family talks about “stuff” at the dinner table, if they are innately curious, if they are consistently exposed to lots of different and interesting adults who engage them in deep conversation.
Or they don’t. And if they don’t, then we are the next best source for building “background knowledge”.
We know we are building students’ background knowledge whenever we:
• Focus on essential vocabulary
• Consistently demand the use of Academic Language
• Maintain high expectations
• Encourage lively conversations (and Accountable Talk) for the “Brainstorming” phase of the writing process
• Emphasize “Text To Self… Text To Text… Text To World” Connections
• Give them cause to “wonder”
• Encourage, Incorporate, Emphasize NON-Fiction, Expository reading passages about lots of varied and interesting things
• Have classroom discussions and about world events, the arts, space travel, and other things that interest our students
• Utilize our technology as a portal to the world: United Streaming, Teacher Tube, You Tube (I know it’s filtered!), PBS, DVD series from Discovery and Animal Planet and Ken Burns, etc.
CNN STUDENT NEWS
Lately many of our classrooms have been weaving “CNN Student News” into their daily routine. This strategy has been very effective… and very exciting for kids. Today there was a story about the tsunami in Indonesia and Samoa (science, geography, world culture, economics)… There was also a story about the President’s call for a longer academic year (up to 200 days!!!) and longer school days! And there was a story about Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.
At Mueller Charter School, our classrooms really are a window to the world!