The number one reason that students perform poorly on comprehension assessments is that they can’t decode (see for example Gentaz et al.’s 2013 research). So, teaching students how to decode (i.e., read) always needs to be the starting point.
However, once students can actually read the words on a page, there is a growing body of research showing that prior knowledge is a key component of effective comprehension. It is not sufficient just to know the meaning of a word. You also need to understand the topic being discussed. As highlighted in Hirsch’s (2013) article, you may know that the word ‘sacrifice’ means “to give up something that is valuable to you in order to help another person” and ‘knock’ means to “strike a surface or collide with someone”. However, if you have no knowledge of baseball, it would be difficult to fully comprehend the sentence “Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run”.
In fact, Hirsch and Pondiscio (2010) recently argued that rather than classroom instruction for reading focusing on “trivial stories or randomly chosen non-fiction texts”, it should instead be focused on building domain knowledge. Subsequently, high-stake reading testing would be on topics that students had studied and consequently had the background knowledge required to interpret the text.
Given that this is not the reality, how can we build children’s background knowledge?
- Read Widely
- Expose children to a large range of books from different subject areas and genres. It is difficult to provide students who live in tropical climates first hand knowledge about snow, but we can provide access to books that provide this information.
- Magazines such as National Geographic can be an excellent resource.
- Embed reading activities across all curriculum areas. This is particularly important in the high school years.
- Regularly visit the library and encourage children to select non-fiction as well as fiction titles from a range of genres.
- Use Different Media
- ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is a cliché. However, a Youtube video clip, a documentary or a detailed photograph can provide children with a range of information that might not be available from other sources and are particularly useful resources if a student has reading difficulties.
- Listen to experts speak. ‘Ted Talks’ have an amazing array of interesting topics. Libraries often sponsor guest speakers. Schools can invite guest speakers.
- Go on Excursions
- Real life experiences are more likely to be remembered and have a greater capacity to build background knowledge compared to any other strategy. Take children to museums (multiple times- spend an hour and just focus on one or two exhibits), art galleries, live performances (ballets, lectures, plays, comedies), different businesses or services (fire stations, police stations, farms, factories, post offices) or different environments (by the ocean, river, city, country).
- These experiences will provided children with a wealth of knowledge about the world and a vocabulary that can assist them in their reading.
- Participate in Community Service Activities
- Visit a nursing home and listen to the residents’ stories, raise money for a charity and learn about the charity or provide services for a not-for-profit organisation (the blind institute, surf life-saving, conservation organisations).
- This can help provide children with historical and social knowledge about the world in which they live as well as practical skills associated with raising money or providing a service.
- Have a ‘Pen Pal’
- Connect children with children from other countries or cultural groups so they can gain not only knowledge of other cultures but also another people’s perspectives.
- In this technological age, children can speak with rather than just write to pen pals.
- Learn a New Skill
- Actively participate in a sport or hobby. On a regular basis try a new activity.
- This will result in the acquisition of knowledge intrinsic to that particular activity.
Improving children’s knowledge will not only improve their comprehension of material that they read, but will also increase their awareness of the world around them, making them better global citizens.
Each unit in the Reading for Comprehension books builds students’ knowledge of a particular topic.
Gentaz, E., Sprenger-Charolles, L., Theurel, A., & Colé, P.(2013). Reading Comprehension in a Large Cohort of French First Graders from Low Socio-Economic Status Families: A 7-Month Longitudinal Study. PLoS ONE 8 (11): e78608 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078608
Hirsch, E.D. (2013). Reading comprehension requires knowledge of words and the world: Scientific insights into the fourth-grade slump and the nation’s stagnant comprehension scores. American Educator. 27(1), 10-45:
Hirsch, E.D., & Pondiscio, R. (2010). There’s no such thing as a reading test: Real literacy involves learning about the world, not just letters and sounds. American Prospect, 21 (6)