Why Does Knowledge Matter?
We recently released a report examining reading laws enacted by states in the past four years. One finding that has generated interest is the fact that these laws pay almost no attention to the role of background/content knowledge in reading. Specifically, 6 out of 46 states that passed reading legislation between 2019 and 2022 mention background/content knowledge in their laws; of these, only 4—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—include a more substantive (if brief) mention.
Florida’s law, for example, requires the state’s department of education to “develop and provide access to sequenced, content-rich curriculum programming, instructional practices, and resources that help elementary schools use state-adopted instructional materials to increase students' background knowledge and literacy skills.” But language like this is almost non-existent in the corpus of over 220 reading bills we examined. Why does this omission matter?
There's widespread agreement within the reading community regarding the association between knowledge and reading comprehension: the more you know, the more you understand when you read, and the more you gain from reading. Furthermore, there's a growing body of evidence (also here and here) suggesting that this association is causal. Thus, building knowledge, particularly through a content-rich curriculum, is expected to enhance general reading comprehension. While this is a encouraging finding, shouldn't we value knowledge for its own inherent worth? Beyond its essential role in comprehension, why else might knowledge matter?
Knowledge and Student Motivation
Young children are naturally eager to learn about the world. They want to be experts at things. Learning deeply and sequentially about the world—as opposed to jumping from topic to topic—feeds their natural curiosity, grows their engagement, and builds their confidence. As Susan Neuman puts it, “deep knowledge is better knowledge.” “Why give them gibberish?” she asks in a recent episode of the READ podcast. Let’s not! Instead, let’s offer our youngest students a challenging, content-rich curriculum that they can get excited about right from the start.
Knowledge and Equity
An explicit focus on building knowledge can level the playing field for students, as not everybody comes to school with the same cultural knowledge. Explicit content-rich instruction makes fewer assumptions about what children know; it leaves less up to chance.
For English learners, focusing on knowledge-building instruction is crucial for second language acquisition. This is because language is best absorbed in a context that offers rich, well-organized, and sequential content. In terms of gender, boys, who tend to lag girls academically and in reading, tend to prefer informational texts and learning about how things work, both of which are central aspects of a knowledge-building approach. Finally, a knowledge building curriculum can be designed to be intentional about cultural responsiveness and inclusion. Such a curriculum can also ensure consistency across schools, which can be particularly beneficial for students who live in more transient circumstances.
Knowledge and Efficiency
Explicit, systematic, well-organized instruction is important because every moment counts in the classroom. As Claude Goldenberg aptly put it, “we have to use our time smartly and efficiently because the agenda is so large.” In addition, as advocate Karen Vaites recently wrote: “A teacher can write good thematic units, but no one teacher can ensure that students get a balanced course of study across grades. Broad knowledge acquisition in K-5 is only guaranteed by a scope and sequence that ensures breadth plus depth across the years.”
Knowledge and Organizational Learning
Discussing the benefits of shared, explicit, sequential curricula (usually knowledge-building curricula), educator Michele Caracappa highlights the way teachers, liberated from “having to create year-long scopes and sequences or design rigorous and relevant units – day by day, lesson by lesson – […] could instead focus their energy on the students in their care.” Caracappa cites Susan Moore Johnson's research, research, underscoring that schools that are more like 'beehives'— more collectively oriented—are generally more effective than those resembling isolated 'egg-crates.' In beehive schools, a shared high-quality curriculum can be the school’s common ground or lingua franca, enhancing collaboration, coordination, and mutual learning and growth among educators.
In summary, while there's a probable causal link between broad general knowledge and improved reading comprehension, this benefit shouldn't eclipse the many other reasons why knowledge is essential. After all, we care about reading comprehension because it enables us to learn from text, underscoring that gaining knowledge is indeed a goal unto itself.
As a mom of school aged kids, I often compare notes with other moms. Like myself, many are foreign-born; their schooling experiences were primarily about learning history, geography, science, literature. When I share my views on knowledge and how children should learn things in school their reaction is: “well duh! what else would they do in school all day?” They are genuinely surprised (and unsettled) when I mention that many US schools don't emphasize that kind of learning in elementary grades.
Developing a robust, content-rich curriculum is no simple task. It needs to attend to cultural diversity, comply with academic standards, and be flexible enough for educators. While it's hard to please everyone, worthy options exist; I would take any of them for my children over approaches that focus primarily on skill development or are a mile wide and an inch deep.