Reading & Literacy

What’s Missing From States’ Reading Laws? The Role of Content Knowledge

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 28, 2024 3 min read
Group of 7 diverse elementary children sitting in library, reading books, side view of kids on red couches with books.
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Legislation aiming to push literacy instruction in schools more closely with research evidence continues to flow fast and hard. Some 17 states passed new policies last year alone—and more are on the runway for 2024.

Now, several researchers are highlighting what they say is largely lacking from these laws: The central role of content knowledge in reading comprehension.

In a new statement, the Knowledge Matters Campaign, which offers tools and other support for educators shifting their reading practices, urges lawmakers to explicitly address content as they draft reading legislation.

“Prioritizing the acquisition of knowledge across a broad range of topics should be the focus of instruction and will require high-quality curricula in, and daily time devoted not just to English language arts, but also to science, social studies, and the arts,” said the group’s scientific advisory committee of leading reading researchers. “English/language arts curricula should be rich in content about the natural and social world, with topics sequenced to provide opportunities to build oral and academic language so that students can make meaning of the words and sentences they encounter in print.”

Beyond the ‘Big 5'

Nearly all of the recent state laws reference the five components of evidence-based reading detailed in the 2000 federally commissioned National Reading Panel report: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, according to a 2023 analysis of the laws from the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

The problem, noted Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University who sits on the campaign’s scientific advisory committee, is that comprehension is not a discrete task that can be taught alone.

“It’s very particular to the text you’re reading: You need the background knowledge,” she said. “It’s not a generic concept, like phonological awareness or some of the foundational skills. It changes according to the text and the content and you’re going to be reading.”

Researchers have known about the link between content knowledge and students’ general reading ability for some time. Still, newer studies show that teaching students about content—and the vocabulary that underpins it—can help them develop a mental model that allows them to transfer this knowledge to new contexts.

Educators frequently struggle with how to put that knowledge into practice. Although publishers have put out new curricula specially designed to build content knowledge, research on their effectiveness is still developing, and only a handful of programs have been independently studied.

“The jury’s still out on whether many of those curricula really do build knowledge,” Neuman said.

Structuring legislation

Lawmakers can signal the importance of a carefully planned content sequence for students in writing their policies. Here’s what she’d include:

A nod to the importance of starting early. Even as they learn how to decode words, students should be learning about the world, through read-alouds and discussions. In its statement, the Knowledge Matters Campaign notes that: “Comprehensive, coherent literacy instruction must begin in the earliest grades—preK and kindergarten—so that as students are learning to read, they are also building their reading comprehension.”

Content knowledge and activation. Researchers tend to use the term “background knowledge” interchangeably with content knowledge. But in policy, using the term background knowledge could imply that kids either have it or don’t when they come to school. Neuman stressed it’s schools’ job to teach content—and to do it thoughtfully, by asking them to activate that knowledge and explore what they learn through writing and class discussions.

“It’s not a perfect term, but at least it conveys knowledge-building in a promotional way, not in an expectation that kids already have it,” she said.

Underscoring integration of content. Laws should explicitly say that literacy development needs to be integrated with social studies, science, and the arts, Neuman recommended. Each of those disciplines contains its own important vocabulary and concepts, and the decades-long trend of squeezing out those areas has likely undermined efforts to improve reading.

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