17 Aug 2018
Cervetti, G.N., Hiebert, E.H. (2018). Knowledge at the center of English/language arts instruction. The Reading Teacher 72(4).
When we think about teaching literacy, we most often think about skills and strategies—the how of reading rather than the what of reading (Palincsar & Duke, 2004). Yet, dozens of studies over the last five decades have demonstrated the importance of the what—that is, the ideas within texts and the knowledge of those ideas that readers bring to the text (see Cervetti & Wright, in press, for a review of this research). Simply stated, the more readers know about the topics of texts, the better their comprehension and learning from texts (e.g., Alexander, Kulikowich, & Schulze, 1994; Gasparinatou & Grigoriadou, 2013). This is probably the best researched and least controversial statement we could make about reading. Many factors contribute to successful comprehension—accurate, fluent word reading, vocabulary knowledge, and use of strategies to prepare to read and fix up meaning when it breaks down—but in studies that examine these different contributions to comprehension, knowledge is the most important contributor (e.g., Cromley & Azevedo, 2007; Ozuru, Dempsey, & McNamara, 2009).
Why is knowledge so critical to comprehension? Cognitive theories of reading comprehension describe a process in which readers continually integrate their background knowledge with the propositions in a text as they build a coherent understanding of the text [e.g., Kintsch’s (1998) Construction-Integration Model]. That is, readers use their knowledge to fill out meaning and make connections in text, and these connections help readers form local and global understandings about the text. Readers’ knowledge makes the experience of reading more meaningful and helps them form rich associations with text, make mental images of the text, and remember what they have read.
In a classic example of how knowledge influences reading, Anderson, Spiro, and Anderson (1978) asked college-age readers to read and recall one of two passages—a narrative about dining in a fine restaurant or a narrative about supermarket shopping. The same food and beverages were embedded in passages in similar order, but the referents were more consistent with the experience of fine dining. Students recalled more of the food and beverage items when they read the restaurant passage, suggesting that students’ ability to associate the items with their knowledge of fine dining made the foods more memorable.
Research has demonstrated that many different kinds of knowledge positively impact comprehension—from knowledge of the topic of the text (e.g., Alexander et al., 1994) to knowledge of the broader domain such as science (Gasparinatou & Grigoriadou, 2013) to cultural knowledge (Kelley, Siwatu, Tost, & Martinez, 2015) and general world knowledge (Best, Floyd, & McNamara, 2008). Knowledge is associated with better comprehension for readers from elementary students to adults. And, importantly, recent studies suggest that English language learners experience similar benefits from knowledge as students whose first language is English, showing stronger comprehension when they bring topic and general world knowledge to reading (e.g., Burgoyne, Whiteley, & Hutchinson 2013; Hwang, 2018).
To illustrate the role of knowledge, consider the two sentences that follow from the perspective of third or fourth graders. After reading each sentence, ask the question: What knowledge would students need to understand this text?
Sentence 1: A lion’s golden coat blends in well with the grassy plains and open woodlands where the big cat lives (National Wildlife Federation, n.d.).
Sentence 2: Siberian tigers are considered endangered by IUCN’s Red List. One cause of their dwindling population is loss of habitat due to deforestation (Animal Facts Guide, n.d.)
Even these short excerpts call upon considerable background knowledge: the subject (lions or tigers), ecosystems (woodlands, grassy plains), lower-level earth and biological concepts (animal coats, population, habitats), and higher-level concepts (significance of camouflage for survival; endangerment and extinction of animals; challenges associated with deforestation). This knowledge is necessary for students to form connections with and possibly augment existing knowledge. Imagine the experience of reading these passages without this background knowledge.
In spite of the power and significance of knowledge for comprehension, knowledge building has often not been regarded as a primary goal of literacy education (Palincsar & Duke, 2004). As is described in the next section, two obstacles have hampered an emphasis on knowledge acquisition within literacy instruction.