Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Reading Comprehension Hinges on Building Knowledge. New Curricula Aim to Help

The series integrate thematic texts, vocabulary-building, and lots of writing practice
By Sarah Schwartz — January 15, 2024 13 min read
First grade students listen as their teacher Megan Gose helps them craft alternate endings for stories they wrote together at Moorsbridge Elementary School in Portage, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2023.
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Editor’s Note: Click on the words highlighted in this story to pull up a definition and short research summary.

Portage, Mich. -
Portage, Mich., is more than 500 miles from the ocean—so students here who attend Moorsbridge Elementary don’t have much experience with tropical storms. They hardly ever make it up to the Great Lakes region.

And yet, the 4th graders at Moorsbridge know a lot about hurricanes.

In an English/language arts lesson last November, the class directed their teacher, Courtney Eiseler-Ward, as she drew a hurricane diagram at the front of the room. The students explained how to represent the storm, drawing on books they had read and videos they had watched.

The hurricane should look like a circle from above, they told her, because the collision of the hot air from the water and cold air from above makes it spin. Draw it in the middle of the ocean, they said, because that’s where hurricanes form before making their way to the coast.

Conversations about wind speed and low-pressure systems might usually be the province of science classes. But in Portage, these subjects—along with topics in history, civics, and world cultures—are the bedrock of the English/language arts program.

Portage is one of a growing number of districts across the country to use what the field has begun to call a “knowledge-building curriculum.” These ELA materials are designed to systematically grow students’ content knowledge about the world, often by integrating social studies and science topics. The district implemented its program this year with middle school teachers. A group of early-adopter elementary school teachers began, too.

Unlike other ELA curricula, which often give teachers choices of books or allow students to pick their own, knowledge-building programs feature tightly constructed sequences of text that are all thematically related. And while students still practice comprehension strategies—such as summarizing or inferring—the curriculum prioritizes deeply understanding the content, rather than isolated skill exercises.

These programs stem from the idea, backed by research, that having a broad array of background knowledge makes individuals better readers. General world knowledge is correlated with reading-comprehension ability.

First grade students Emma Nguyen, left, and Cara McLaughlin, right, illustrate a story they created together in Megan Gose’s classroom at Moorsbridge Elementary School in Portage, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2023.

Versions of knowledge-building curricula have been around for decades, but the idea has recently gained new acolytes. Advocates in the “science of reading” movement have championed these programs, and the concept has been repopularized through the book The Knowledge Gap, which argues that teaching decontextualized reading skills is the root cause of the country’s educational inequalities.

“The idea of ELA being about something is a really good one,” said Gina Cervetti, a professor in the University of Michigan’s Marsal Family School of Education who studies the intersection of literacy and content-area learning. It can help students think more deeply about big ideas, make connections across topics, and show their understanding through their writing, she said.

Still, what that content should be, how teaching it should integrate strategy instruction, and how to approach this large shift in teaching practices are open questions—and researchers and educators don’t always agree on the answers.

The research behind ‘knowledge-building’

A knowledge-building curriculum turns the focus on comprehension instruction on its head. Its primary goal is to teach content. Skills and strategies are still present, but they’re a means to the end—not the end itself.

“The content becomes a chief driver,” said Sonia Cabell, an associate professor at Florida State University’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. Cabell has co-authored several meta-analyses on the effect of teaching literacy skills and subject-area content in tandem.

Studies show that knowledge-building approaches that work in English classes share a few common traits, Cabell said.

Units are organized around content topics—such as plants or seasons—rather than general themes, such as “what makes a good friend?” They use text sets—readings and read-alouds—on conceptually linked topics to help students build a schema, or a mental model that allows them to apply what they’ve already learned to understand something new. The programs identify vocabulary words to teach explicitly that will repeat throughout a unit. And writing and discussion prompts connect directly to the text and give students an opportunity to analyze what they’ve learned.

The texts that students are reading in these curriculum series are generally more complex than those in an average ELA class, said Jackie Eunjung Relyea, an assistant professor of literacy education at North Carolina State University.

In classrooms where teachers use leveled texts, which purport to match students’ individualized reading levels, “the priority and emphasis is on readability,” she said.“But the texts they use in knowledge-building ELA programs challenge the students to engage critically,” she said.

Comprehension strategies are still important in this equation, Relyea added. Teaching these strategies explicitly can help students become better readers, a large body of research shows. But students can use these strategies more proficiently when they have some knowledge about the text they’re reading, said Cervetti.

“We have limited attention,” she said. “If we’re working really, really hard to understand a text that we’re totally unfamiliar with, it’s unlikely that we’ll be leveraging those strategies.”

(Recent EdWeek Research Center data, representing nearly 300 educators’ responses, found that most agreed that both teaching content and comprehension skills were important. But more of them put a top priority on the skills.)

Even if the theory of action behind the knowledge-building approach is sound, researchers note that there are still things to learn about how it works. Knowledge about a specific topic makes it easier to read text about that topic—knowing a lot about ocean animals, for example, might help one understand a book about deep sea diving. But it’s not always clear how far that knowledge can transfer to support understanding of other topics. Would knowing a lot about ocean animals help someone on a test of general reading comprehension?

Some research has shown that a couple of commercially available knowledge-building programs can lead to better general reading-comprehension scores. But few programs that schools can purchase have gone through these independent tests, and as Cervetti put it, “there’s a great difference between a controlled efficacy trial and use in the real world.”

She also cautioned that any ELA program, no matter how rich in social studies and science content, shouldn’t be considered a replacement for those courses. There are ways of reading, writing, and thinking that are unique to science, for example—analyzing and interpreting data or planning investigations.

If students’ only science instruction is learning about science content in ELA, “we lose a lot of what is most essential about acquiring disciplinary understanding,” Cervetti said.

How these curricula work in classrooms

In Eiseler-Ward’s 4th grade classroom in Portage, where students were discussing the hurricane diagram, she and her co-teacher, Susan Pullo, prepared the class for their daily writing assignment: Write about why and how hurricanes form, using cause and effect sentences.

“Will your drawing help you?” Eiseler-Ward asked, referencing the diagram the class made together. “What else could you use?”

Students worked together in teams, flipping through the book they had read earlier that day on hurricanes to pick out key information. At one table, a student started to write that hurricanes form in oceans. Another jumped in to correct—“warm oceans,” the second student said.

At the elementary school level, most of the lessons in the program that Portage uses follow the same format. First, teachers explicitly teach important vocabulary words or concepts—in this lesson, “atmosphere” and “evaporation.” Then students read a text. (In earlier grades, they listen to a read-aloud.) Finally, the class completes a written response.

This structure isn’t unique to a knowledge-building approach. But the questions that the curriculum asks students are vastly different from those in the district’s previous programs, said Courtney Huff, a district literacy coach.

For instance, she said, the 4th grade team had always read Shiloh, a novel by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor about the bond between a boy and his dog, a text teachers felt was dull. This curriculum also happens to include Shiloh. But the lesson was transformed.

“The unit we were doing before was so surface-level,” Huff said. The new unit plumbs deeper themes: What do the characters believe? What do they value? How do they change? “The kids would whine when it was time to put the books away,” Huff said.

And in 5th grade, students study human rights by exploring young women’s experiences in the Middle East under Taliban influence. They read The Breadwinner, a novel about an 11-year-old girl in Kabul, but also memoirs and first-person accounts from real children living in Afghanistan and a book about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani women’s rights advocate who won the Nobel Peace Prize as a teenager. Incorporating knowledge from throughout the unit, students write about such sweeping questions as: “How do beliefs, ethics, and values influence behavior?” And: “When should you take a stand against injustice?”

“These big driving questions, kids can’t get enough of talking about them—versus, ‘who is the main character?’” said Mackenzie Sheahan, the district’s director of K-8 curriculum and professional development.

Debating the question: Whose knowledge?

Having students read the same books and articles allows them to share a common language in class discussions. But taking this kind of prescriptive approach to the texts students read can also court controversy.

English classrooms have long been at the center of a political battle about whose voices to center in the classroom. A knowledge-building curriculum prescribes these decisions for an entire district, and it can bring these issues to a head.

Some commercially available knowledge-building programs have been criticized for having a Eurocentric slant, placing disproportionate emphasis on white, male authors and figures in history. Portage district leaders kept that in mind as they went through the curriculum-selection process. “We were really approaching it from the lens of, we want to represent every single person in our community,” said Sheahan. The district is about 77 percent white, 6 percent Black, 8 percent Latino, 7 percent Asian, and 9 percent two or more races.

One of Portage’s final choices didn’t pass muster on its diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics. A consultant pointed out that it featured some illustrations that seemed to offer a distorted historical representation, including one of enslaved children playing happily on a plantation.

“That was kind of shocking to us,” Sheahan said.

The program the district eventually picked met the district’s DEI benchmarks. But this past summer, before schools even began using it, some school board members and parents started to speak out against the program, calling it “biased” and “socio-politically driven” in a tense board meeting.

The district responded by hosting a family literacy night to walk parents through the curriculum and answer any questions they had. Going forward, Sheahan said, it will be important to invite parental input and approval earlier about these kinds of curriculum changes. “What I’ve learned is we have to do the back work,” she said.

First grade students read over a story they crafted together in Megan Gose’s classroom at Moorsbridge Elementary School in Portage, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2023.

In other districts, teachers are figuring out how to navigate some of the gray areas—a prescribed list of texts that meets their goals for representation in some ways but falls short in others.

In Evanston, Ill., 5th grade teacher Steve Yasukawa is in his first year using the district’s new knowledge-building curriculum, a different program from Portage’s.

He appreciates the tight link to social studies in the ELA materials, but he’s had mixed feelings about the way the curriculum depicts Indigenous people in U.S. history. In the year’s first unit, students explored the history of U.S. westward expansion and its effect on Indigenous tribes, specifically the Nimiipuu, also known as the Nez Perce.

That unit incorporated many primary sources that depicted Nimiipuu culture and presented maps that used not the state boundaries of today but the historic homelands of different Indigenous nations—choices that set students up for a “mental shift,” Yasukawa said. The program was, literally, centering Indigenous voices.

But Yasukawa didn’t agree with the curriculum writers’ decision to use the term “Nez Perce” instead of Nimiipuu throughout the materials and felt that one novel in the unit inaccurately portrayed the relationship between the Nimiipuu and the U.S. government.

On balance, Yasukawa thought the pros of the unit outweighed the cons and knows that one curriculum won’t perfectly meet all his needs. But the knowledge-building curriculum is harder to flex.

“The knowledge building in these modules is so specific to the text that if we moved away from these texts, it would take years” to adapt the lessons, he said.

Trying a new way of teaching

This is a key feature of knowledge-building programs: The texts are set, unlike programs that are based on student choice.

In the Evanston/Skokie schools, where Yasukawa teaches, district leaders have talked about the change as a way to advance equity. Reading programs that match children with different books often operate on a leveling system that can keep students who score lower on reading-comprehension tests perpetually behind their peers.

“If students are always given materials that are below grade level, they will never be able to achieve grade level,” said Shyla Kinhal, the district’s director of literacy.

With the new ELA program, all students read the same texts. Now, Kinhal said, district leaders are working to help teachers offer other kinds of support for students with different reading abilities. Before moving on to specific texts, teachers can teach important vocabulary and concepts, or they can pair students to read the text together—without changing the text itself.

In Portage, instructional coaches have also created worksheets that students can use to organize their thoughts as they read or before they write—resources that make explicit some of the reading and writing strategies that are more implicitly conveyed in the curriculum.

Even with all this support, though, students still struggle with some of the lessons. Teachers and district leaders in Portage agree that they’re holding students to higher standards than they have in the past.

Learning materials in 6th grade teacher Todd Chappa’s classroom at Portage West Middle School in Portage, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2023.

In one 6th grade English class, students were discussing similarities and differences between two brothers in the novel they were reading. Then, their teacher asked them to make connections to a news article they had read in an earlier class period about researchers’ different theories for why siblings develop diverging personality traits. She asked them: What evidence does the novel demonstrate for any of these theories?

This question stumped the group for a while. Translating the scientific ideas in the article to apply to the brothers in the book was a heavy lift.

Yasukawa, in Evanston, has also struggled at times to help students synthesize information from class discussions and the curriculum’s texts into their written work.

Still, students’ interest in the discussion demonstrates to him that the curriculum is helping students really connect with the text they’re reading.

“They love it. They love arguing,” he said, remembering how students kept raising their hands, agreeing, and laughing with one another during a recent Socratic seminar.

In education, people always talk about the pendulum swing, Yasukawa said—the way that thought leaders and district administrators seize onto a new idea and decree that everything about the way teachers approach their work should change.

“I hope what I’m experiencing right now is not the end of the swing,” he said. “I hope it’s still bringing us in this direction of knowledge-building and making connections—because the kids are really engaged.”

Words Used in Story

Knowledge-building curriculum:

An approach to English/language arts instruction that aims to systematically grow students’ knowledge about the world. Literacy skills—such as applying comprehension strategies, analyzing text, writing about texts, and discussing them—are taught in the context of this content. Studies show that teaching students literacy skills in context in this way can improve reading outcomes, though many curricula in this category have not been evaluated for efficacy.


Schema:

A mental model that readers can apply to understand new, related concepts. Many knowledge-building curricula are built around units of topically connected information—a series of lessons on natural disasters, for example, that covers hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards—to make it easier for students to apply what they’ve already learned to understand something new.


Vocabulary:

The words used in a language. Best practices for vocabulary instruction include teaching words within a meaningful context (rather than the traditional list of unrelated words), offering children multiple exposures to a word and opportunities to use it, and connecting new words to related words that children already know.


Comprehension strategies:

Routines and tools that readers can use to make sense of text. Decades of studies have shown that explicitly teaching students how to use certain strategies—such as summarizing, visualizing, inferencing, creating graphic organizers, and asking questions about their understanding—can support their reading comprehension. Advocates of knowledge-building curricula have argued that isolated strategy practice isn’t as effective as teaching these skills within the context of topically related texts that allow students to draw connections.


Reading comprehension:

The ability to understand what one reads. The skills that underlie reading comprehension, though, are complex and varied. Students need to be able to decode the words on the page, understand the vocabulary used, apply their own background knowledge to make sense of text, parse syntax and text structure, and monitor their own understanding as they read. Supporting students’ reading comprehension requires carefully planned and sequenced instruction.


See the full list of words used in this special report in our glossary here.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2023 edition of Education Week as Reading Comprehension Hinges On Building Knowledge

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