Reading & Literacy

The Role of Knowledge in Reading Comprehension: 3 Takeaways

By Sarah Schwartz — April 21, 2023 4 min read
Staff writer Sarah Schwartz speaks with Gina Cervetti and Ana Taboada Barber during the How Background Knowledge Fits Into the ‘Science of Reading’  webi
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“Knowledge-building” has become a buzzword in reading instruction.

It refers to English/language arts approaches that aim to systematically build students’ understanding of the world—rather than focusing solely or mainly on comprehension skills and strategies. Studies suggest that this approach can be effective at improving students’ reading ability.

In a recent Education Week webinar, two researchers who study the role of content learning in reading comprehension talked about what this body of evidence says, and how schools can use the findings to inform the way they teach early reading.

Ana Taboada Barber is a professor and associate dean for research, innovation, and partnerships at the University of Maryland’s College of Education. Gina Cervetti is an associate professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan School of Education.

See below for a few highlights from their conversation.

‘Background knowledge’ doesn’t just mean academic knowledge

Much of the research on background knowledge and reading has been focused on academic or experiential knowledge, said Cervetti.

Children who come into school with more academic knowledge tend to have better early success with reading comprehension than children who have less. Kids who have learned a lot about specific subjects, like soccer or baseball, through their own experiences do better when they’re asked to read passages on those subjects than kids who don’t know as much about those topics.

“But if we go back to the earliest research on the relationship between reading comprehension and background knowledge, there was a focus on what we can call a kind of cultural knowledge,” Cervetti said.

Researchers looked at whether knowledge about certain cultural experiences—what happens during the course of a meal at a restaurant, or a trip to the grocery store—would influence children’s reading comprehension.

“Recently, we’ve started to go back to thinking about these everyday kinds of knowledge and cultural knowledge, but with a strong focus on the cultural knowledge that students bring to school as a result of their participation in racial and social groups outside of school, and how that can play a role in their reading comprehension,” Cervetti said.

Children come into school with different variations and combinations of all of these kinds of knowledge—academic, experiential, and cultural—and teachers can draw on all of them as assets, Cervetti said.

Schools can play a role in growing students’ knowledge

Several studies have shown structuring lessons in ELA classes around a set of connected concepts can help students build knowledge systematically, said Cervetti. Teachers don’t need to introduce a new “universe” of knowledge every day, she said.

For example, there are a lot of different ways to approach the topic of “water.” Students could learn about discrete issues that are related to water: potable water, precipitation, or the ocean. But without an overarching framework, these are only superficially connected, Cervetti said.

“What we’re looking for is deeper and connected understanding,” she said. “That requires us to be driven by a question, like, ‘What role does water play in weather?’ for example, or a set of concepts.”

With young children, read-alouds are a great way to build knowledge for students who are still learning to decode on their own, said Taboada Barber.

Reading aloud, and having rich conversations, is especially important to English learners and emergent bilinguals as they’re developing their oral language in English, she said.

How teachers do this would look different in bilingual or English-only settings, she added. But in an English-only setting, she said, “We know from research that [best practices] do not differ that much from what we do with monolingual children.”

Teachers should focus on vocabulary development as well as morphology—teaching children the underlying structure of words and what root words mean. All of this literacy instruction should happen in ELA classes, but also across content area subjects like social studies and science, said Taboada Barber.

“The idea of pulling [English learners and emergent bilinguals] out just for language instruction, and not letting them benefit from rich content knowledge in class—we’re doing them a disservice,” she said.

It’s not comprehension strategies or knowledge—it’s both

A focus on knowledge-building doesn’t mean that schools should abandon comprehension strategy instruction, said Cervetti. In fact, blending the two can lead to stronger results, she said.

“When we develop student reading and writing as we’re also developing their knowledge, those interventions tend to be especially powerful,” Cervetti said.

Taboada Barber discussed her work on concept-oriented reading instruction—an approach that merges lessons on reading comprehension strategies with texts that are organized to build knowledge around a few themes.

“Strategies were taught, and kids were using strategies, but in the direct service of learning, understanding text, and building knowledge,” Taboada Barber said.

In studies with elementary school students, children who did concept-oriented reading instruction did better on reading comprehension measures than students who received strategy instruction alone. The first group of students was also better at applying reading strategies independently, with new texts.

For more research insights and practical suggestions, watch the entire webinar here.

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