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Knowledge For Literacy

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Hi Marilyn, I’ve looked at apples from all sides now, but somehow it’s apples’ allusions I recall. :-)  As always, I agree with everything you say, but I have a couple of questions. In the study of “good” and “poor” readers four-folded with more or less knowledge of the particular topics being read, what makes them generally good or poor, in spite of the reversals noted in the study? Is it just that the good readers generally have more background knowledge of the topics likely to show up in school texts and assessments, and this is a purposefully rule-proving exception? That doesn’t seem likely to be the whole story, even though it makes sense that, if a test of comprehension asks about what you know from reading a text, if you already know more about the subject, you ought to have a good chance of staying ahead in the game. My guess would be that good readers are also characterized by being able to understand (and, in the case of writing, use) the conventions through which socially developed literate communication systems represent meaning in “text” – coding it of course at the grapho-phonemic/lexical, and syntactical or grammatical level, but also at textual levels above those, including things like text structure and organization, but also in genre- and register-specific, as well as cross-cutting, forms, not to mention less linguistic things like figures, graphs, and so on. You point out that new words or concepts can only be verbally explained (“through language”) by building on known words or concepts, but then you go on to describe the role of association and direct experience, making clear that meaning is more than a Tower of – words. I understand that people who learn really different (and maybe even not so different) languages discover that the grammar and syntax of those languages are foregrounding things that they never particularly attended to. Literate communication representation systems pay attention to these things as well, but then by persisting and being reflected on, they seem to evolve and help to afford the expression of other kinds and levels of meaning. These meanings have to be decoded and encoded just as written words, and in fact speech, do, and I think kids need systematic, and I would emphasize explicit, exposure to them in the same way your suggested “topical units” do for domain knowledge. They really have to have some direct experience of the meanings being coded at these other levels or they will never really understand the code. I imagine one of the best ways for them to get such experience is for them to have to figure out how to express in writing the same or similar meanings when they have them themselves. The Common Core Standards take a stab at focusing on a few genres and talking about disciplines, but I think they provide very little guidance about how the conventions or codes involved actually might be learned. This is all very abstract. What you, and Don Hirsch, and others are suggesting about concrete curriculum seems absolutely the right way to go. I just think there’s more to be attended to (and it has very little to do with “strategies” or “skills” – though lord knows practice in using these conventions at all levels probably doesn’t hurt – and many/most kids probably do need to be helped explicitly to see what they are all about). So, good for you! Keep at it. Fritz

What a great post, Fritz, and how good to hear from you. We proposed a little bit of such stuff to the CCSS people. At the time, it was too different-from-now to make the cut. But I'm positive that you are right.

Hey Marilyn, Thank you for your insightful and reflective blog post. I could not agree more that schooling’s purpose is to prepare students for the responsibilities of adult life. Throughout our lives, we will be thwarted when miniscule to serious issues. What we choose to do when problems arise is based on the knowledge that we have gained throughout our educational experiences. Being a health teacher, I make sure to apply as many real-life scenarios and examples. Using these types of examples helps students understand the real-life application of the content that is being taught (and hopefully learned). Teacher should always strive for their students to be able to grow mentally, socially, and physically as well as contribute to society. Within the world of literature, students must be prepared to actively read, or as you call it, neuroimaging. Too many people read text, make a conclusion/inference from said text, and come to conclusions. Yet, we are missing the point of reading. As we are progressing through text, we should be able to use our “mind’s eye” and be able to paint vivid pictures to the worlds that are be comprehended. I absolutely agree that prior knowledge is vital to a student’s ability or inability to understand more complex texts. On top of challenging our students with more complex texts, educators must keep in mind the important of text relevance and application in association to the reader(s). Vocabulary takes time to build, and if the reader does not understand, more interest and knowledge will be lost rather than gained. In the coming years, I hope to apply more reading skills to help improve neuroimaging skills as well as overall comprehension, creative thinking, and real-life application. Thanks again for your blog---really got me thinking. Ken

I really enjoyed reading your take on using background knowledge as a way to prepare students to read a difficult text. I currently teach students with intellectual disabilities and have used this model without even really noticing that I was doing it. My students have significantly below standard lexile scores, and still struggle to read and comprehend texts that are on the level that has been "assigned" to them by standardized tests and other cookie cutter reading programs. I find that my students are much more successful when we discuss a topic and review the vocabulary words that are going to be addressed in that topic before addressing the text. This use of background knowledge and pre-reading should really be used by all teachers as the Common Core standards are asking us to promote text complexity and layering within our classroom curriculum. I have used reading programs before that focus on background knowledge for a few days before even looking at the text, and although I like that idea, I believe that specifically showing the students where in the text that background knowledge can be used before they read it, can be even more useful and effective. Also, your example of using background knowledge to teach 2nd graders about dinosaurs before reading a very difficult text about dinosaurs got me thinking.... if we teach and expect certain vocabularies and topics to our students- we could really instruct them on how to read anything. While lexile and reading levels are important, I think we forgot how important our instruction can be as well.

You mentioned the “reading wars,” and it seems that a current major issue in literacy is the debate of whether whole language instruction or phonics instruction is more effective, which relates to early literacy. As early as the 2000s, when NCLB was introduced, the major emphasis was on pushing phonics instruction. In any case, I think that so much pressure is being placed on teachers on choosing the “correct” way to teach reading in the first place, that educators and policymakers seem to forget the added layer of students learning to make meaning of what they have read. Currently, though, the Common Core State Standards have shifted the focus more toward identifying and decoding meaning from text rather than just simply reading the words. However, not all teachers are equipped to scaffold this type of instruction for students because Common Core only prescribes what they should teach, not how they should teach it. I think that the key to helping all students navigate texts is understanding the diverse backgrounds students bring to the table. Students who arrive to school with more exposure to books and language will have greater schema to draw on, and they may do very well with understanding figurative language or decoding hidden meaning within texts. On the other hand, I have taught students who do not have a single book in their entire home. Of course, these students have less experience to draw on and probably struggle with word recognition itself, much less associating words with multiple meanings and understanding the nuances of texts. Differentiating instruction is the only way to provide each student with the instruction that best suits their individual needs and can build on their existing schema. Admittedly, in class sizes of 25-30, this is difficult. I think that the main issue should be how we can adapt schools to meet these differing needs through smaller class sizes or more “how-to’s” for the teacher. I do agree with the Common Core premise of moving the focus from how to read (phonics vs. whole language) to decoding, but shifts must be made within the schools to equip teachers to meet the needs of diverse student populations.

I agree with and enjoyed reading the information in this post. Connecting it to my personal experience observing teachers conducting guided reading, the intentionality behind choosing texts is not always present due to a lack of planning and preparation. So, they may pull a text to utilize for a skill but did not take other factors into consideration such as background knowledge, experiences, and vocabulary acquisition levels. Therefore, students end up not being able to practice the intended skill because time is spent conquering structurally related conflicts impacting fluency and comprehension. This is especially noticeable with our English learners. To prepare readers to successfully approach complex texts, preparation time for the teacher and student must be made a priority. Previewing the text and identifying potential areas of struggle will assists teachers in how they can prepare students to approach the text with success. By building background knowledge and utilizing strategies such as reading the text backwards, will assist students with fluency and comprehension and allow them to practice other reading skills. Like you mentioned, these opportunities of preparing students and building their knowledge base will help them successfully apply skills to texts that they independently read. This approach is useful when choosing texts for read alouds too. The more intentionality and planning that goes into instruction will enhance the overall learning experience for all students.

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