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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Reading & Literacy Opinion

Use Knowledge-Building Curriculum to Boost Literacy

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 12, 2023 7 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
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The role of knowledge in reading comprehension has been in the news lately.

Here’s a teacher’s “take” on it based on real-life experience in the classroom.

Baseball and Literacy

Kyair Butts was teacher of the year for the Baltimore public schools in 2019. He supports educators and students in areas of literacy and diversity, equity, and inclusion:

Do you remember alphabet soup? As I child, I’d spend more time arranging and rearranging letters in the tomato mess than eating any of the letters. The combinations were endless, the fun was priceless, and dare I say, the learning was wondrous. If you’re a literacy teacher in America right now, your life might feel like alphabet soup when it comes to your professional practice. Depending on where you are in the country, certain letters might feel more like a trigger than a teachable moment. Let’s review: SoR, CRT, CRP, LETRS, W&W, Anet,and these are just the ones that I use most often. These days, our practice is less about the teachable moments and more so the triggers of the alphabet soup that is literacy instruction in the United States.

Now, let me be clear: In the era of book banning and fights over texts and the conflation of critical race theory (CRT), folks are necessarily concerned about their “letters.” The beauty of knowledge building, in my experience (teaching a curriculum called Wit & Wisdom), is that teacher writers wrote the curriculum and the themes/topics touch on the quintessence of what it means to be human: enduring hardship, survival, language’s power, poetry, loss, hope, grief, and so much more. Students can connect to unit or module themes because of the essence of those themes.

First, let’s talk about knowledge building. The results of the classic “baseball study,” which compared readers of different abilities and their knowledge of baseball. This study essentially demonstrated that reading ability, even if high, did not produce high comprehension scores—if knowledge of the subject was low. On the other hand, if reading ability was low, but knowledge of the topic was high, then students produced at high levels.

Literacy educators need to see knowledge building as a way to help begin closing (there is much more work to be done, let’s be clear) the educational equity gap. I speak from a place of my truth: I teach middle school in Baltimore. I did not believe (initially) that a curriculum like Wit & Wisdom belonged in our district. My ultimate skepticism turned into ardent support because I saw the proof. The proof was the academic success achieved by many of my students who previously had been labeled as “performing below grade level expectations.” Instead, by emphasizing in-depth knowledge building about specific topics and themes, students were able to show what they could do and not just highlight what they couldn’t.

literacyeducators

The baseball study asserts that knowledge building works like a scaffold for students from which they can use their strong content knowledge to help overcome challenges with various literacy skills. More recently, I have been facilitating professional development and supporting knowledge building. I compare knowledge building to a party. Here’s how that works: Students want to be accepted, valued, and invited. When classroom spaces value skill mastery, some students will invariably feel left behind and might actually get left behind. In knowledge-building classrooms like mine and countless others, students feel seen. They understand the layering process of scaffolds, and when the sufficient knowledge is built, they will be more likely to participate in classroom discourse actively, vigorously, and confidently.

Knowledge allows a “poor reader” to perform with their highest peers in tasks because they feel confident and capable. This by no means solves equity issues within education, but coupled with other strategies and supports, it’s a massive step toward acknowledging that it can begin to shrink.

Author and literacy advocate Natalie Wexler recently posted about this on Education Twitter to her followers, and the headline alone is revealing, if not confirming: “Dramatic New Evidence That Building Knowledge Can Boost Comprehension and Close Gaps.” This new small study is not the last word. There are plenty of questions out there, and more research should be done. However, my work with knowledge building confirms this research, or rather, this research confirms my approach to knowledge building.

I am tinkering with knowledge-building lessons, hoping for that just right combination of letters, lessons, and learning to result in something magical, wondrous, and priceless. Currently, I am experimenting with building knowledge of the legacy of Johns Hopkins, including his legacy and the impact of his institutions on the city of Baltimore. The culminating task would be a mock trial. Specific skills include: writing a claim, evaluating arguments, argument writing, selecting evidence.

I am also tinkering with building knowledge of early colonizing of Africa as my honors class reads Things Fall Apart and they unpack character motivations and analyze the root and effects of deterioration, all while perfecting skills such as topic paragraph writing, informational writing, plot analysis, and asking and answering questions.

The next time that you find your head spinning, unsure of what to do, how to attack literacy in your classroom, sit down and wade through the letters of the proverbial soup. Think about all of your students in your classroom, inherently honor all of their abilities, and ask: Could building knowledge along with integrated approaches to literacy instruction help my kids? When practiced, taught, and reinforced with sound professional development, you will find, as the research confirms, that knowledge building is a step toward closing gaps. I find myself feeling like a kid again because the curriculum we use not only builds knowledge but has some truly fascinating topics that I am excited to teach.

ifindmyself

Thanks to Kyair for contributing his thoughts!

The question of the week is:

How can educators use knowledge-building curricula to ensure educational equity?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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