The Great Minds® Educators Engage webinar “Research Spotlight: The Relationship Between Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension” included a rich discussion about that relationship and its implications for the classroom. You can listen to the webinar recording here. The audience asked so many thoughtful questions that we didn’t have time to address them all, so our panelists graciously offered to respond to the remaining questions in the following blog post. One panelist, Reid Smith, lead researcher for the report “The Role of Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension: A Critical Review,” summarized and wrote their responses below. Many thanks to Smith and his colleagues Dr. Pamela Snow, Dr. Tanya Serry, and Dr. Lorraine Hammond for sharing their time and expertise with us.
All responses provided by Reid Smith, Dr. Pamela Snow, Dr. Tanya Serry, and Dr. Lorraine Hammond.
Would you agree that this information [the relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension] is also true for students who study more specialist areas, for example, science, history, or geography? Topics perhaps outside the limits of their general knowledge?
The interactions between a text and the reader’s prior knowledge exist whenever we need to integrate new information into our current knowledge and understanding. Misconceptions can make it difficult to learn new information and resolve any differences that might exist between what we think we know and novel information in the text. The same is true for misunderstandings that are developed in the act of reading a text—less skilled readers are less likely to identify incongruences between their situation model and aspects of the text than more skilled readers. We would expect this to be the case for any knowledge, even in specialist areas. Therefore, similar consideration needs to be given in these specialist areas as well as in language arts and related subjects.
Do you have thoughts as to whether background knowledge can affect ability to solve applied math questions?
This sits a little outside our areas of research, so we are loath to make a definitive statement. In saying that, research on cognitive load would indicate that anything that makes reading more effortful leaves less capacity to identify and work through a math problem. It would stand to reason that a math question that involved an unfamiliar application would be likely to increase cognitive load (particularly in novices) and so make any calculation or problem solving more effortful.
Can you explain how oral language comprehension affects reading comprehension and background knowledge?
Gough and Tunmer’s (1986) Simple View of Reading reminds us that language comprehension is essentially half of the reading comprehension component. (The other half is word recognition or decoding.) This means that students must be able to understand the meanings of words (i.e., have a well-developed vocabulary) as well as be able to work with meaning that is conveyed through syntax (word order, use of active vs. passive voice, understanding various types of subordinate clauses, etc.), and the ways in which meaning is managed at a text level (e.g., the use of cohesive devices such as pronouns to link to particular named characters in a story). These processes all assist students to draw (and then test) inferences from written material about information that is implied by the writer but not necessarily explicitly stated. When children have well-developed oral language skills as well as proficient decoding skills, they are more likely to feel motivated to read, and so can develop their background knowledge via their own reading. More background knowledge on a topic means a greater likelihood of understanding new texts on that topic, being able to question prior assumptions, and also being able to add new knowledge to long-term memory.
Are there differences between early readers and “developed” readers in terms of the effects that background knowledge has on them?
Yes. Less skilled readers with high background knowledge can use it to compensate for their lower reading ability, particularly to recall the text. This compensation is less apparent for more skilled readers. However, the presence of incorrect knowledge has a greater impact on lower skilled readers, for two reasons:
- They are less likely than skilled readers to notice differences between information in a text and their prior knowledge.
- They are less able to ignore prior knowledge that is irrelevant to the text. Trying to integrate incorrect or irrelevant prior knowledge with the text results in a mental model that is inconsistent with the text.
These skills relate to metacognition and comprehension monitoring, which become more well developed in the context of strong oral language and word recognition skills, as these promote reading fluency, which is regarded as a “bridge” to reading comprehension.
I find the relationship to cohesion [the visibility of the link between phrases and sentences] and coherence [the extent to which a text provides information and cues to the read to help them relate information across different parts of a text] very interesting, and the notion that this should be reduced to “tax” stronger decoders. How would you translate this in the classroom?
A quick clarification on this comment. A reduction in cohesion and coherence can benefit skilled readers who have high levels of background knowledge. Other readers benefit from an increase in cohesion and coherence. This “reverse cohesion” effect is particularly relevant when we require students to learn new material from nonfiction texts. It is interesting to note that this is a finding that exists in the research literature, but we are not sure yet as to its translation into practice. It may be beneficial for these readers to remove some of the text elements that aid cohesion. An example would be to remove subheadings from an information text, requiring readers to expend more cognitive effort identifying the important elements of the text. However, given the lack of research into text adjustments like this in the classroom, it may be more beneficial for teachers to learn about cohesion and coherence, and keep these concepts as considerations when selecting a text for the class to read.
Given the challenges of how to assess comprehension, how can teachers go about determining the why of student “deficits” in comprehension in order to provide appropriate and effective intervention(s)?
When assessing reading comprehension, it is worth beginning at the most abstract level. Standardized reading assessments give an indication of a child’s reading ability compared with children of similar age. If these assessments detect that comprehension may be a problem for a particular child, it is worth then screening for different elements of reading to discover what the specific problems might be. Classroom teachers might start with a test of decoding to determine whether it is the source of the problem. If it is not, then they should move on to another aspect of reading. Multiple “batteries” of assessments are available that assess aspects of reading comprehension and allow you to focus on the area that the child finds most difficult. Teachers should also consider the role of background knowledge: What inferences or assumptions is the writer expecting readers to make for themselves instead of explicitly stating the ideas the reader should grasp?
Do you have any thoughts about how students’ reading “results” can be compared across programs or situations when assessments for each program ask different questions?
This is a difficult proposition, to be honest. One of the reasons that standardized assessment results are often reported in percentiles compared to state or national norms is that this allows some sort of comparisons across assessments. When you use these types of broad assessments, you are mostly looking to triangulate different pieces of assessment information, whether they are mandated state or national assessments, school-based assessments, or classroom observations. The percentiles at least will give you an indication of where a child sits relative to their peers on that assessment.
I’m in Australia. Our curricula in geography, science, and history have become quite narrow and linear over the years. How do you [Mr. Smith] incorporate trying to broaden students’ knowledge within these constraints?
At our school, we use two methods to address constraints imposed by the Australian curriculum regarding knowledge building. The first is to bring elements of these subjects into our teaching of English—the Australian curriculum is agnostic when it comes to texts and topics for teaching, so we made the decision that including science, history, and geography in our English teaching was important. It allows our English teachers to teach elements of nonfiction reading and writing in a context developed over time and frees up time in our history and science classes for a greater selection of topics and ideas that we build on over time. In addition, we deliberately incorporate nonfiction texts in our fiction units so that students develop knowledge that we think will bring them greater insights and understanding (i.e., build background knowledge) as they read the fiction text.
When you are trying to explain why a child might have background knowledge and yet cannot decode and still struggles to infer or make connections, is it possible that the issue is just general intelligence rather than something specific to reading? I feel as if it’s taboo to suggest this, but it seems like an obvious possibility.
I think it is generally acknowledged that central processing skills, including working memory, play a significant role in the reading process. Students with working memory deficits find it more difficult to hold information in the short-term memory and are therefore less likely to produce detailed representations of the texts they read. However, difficulty with decoding per se should not automatically be attributed to low IQ. Evidence has shown us for quite some time that IQ and reading (dis)ability can and very often are independent of one another. The first thing we should consider is that the child has not received adequate teaching on how the English writing system works. Low IQ would be more likely to impose comprehension limits caused by difficulties with abstract reasoning, inferencing, and the ability to identify and test multiple meanings of vocabulary items.
As I begin the new school year for my second graders, what is the one thing I should do weekly or daily to help my students?
Considering just the outcomes of this research (there is so much more out there to choose from to answer this question), it is important to make careful and deliberate decisions about the texts that you teach and what exactly you want your students to know and be able to do as a result of the teaching. Take the time to consider what prior knowledge is required for students to comprehend a particular text, including the vocabulary, and then devise a plan for how you will develop this expertise. It might include preteaching some vocabulary, pairing some nonfiction pieces with your fiction, or providing some deeper analysis of the text itself in order to model problem solving with a text.
I teach seventh graders (ages 12–13), and I have a lot of students who read far below grade level. Some have good fluency and some have terrible fluency. Should I assume that students who demonstrate high fluency as readers may have weaker background knowledge than other students? And students who demonstrate less fluency as readers have more decoding and phonemic awareness skills? When the whole class is reading the same novel, how can I best provide help to the readers who need it?
I am not sure we can make too many assumptions about the background knowledge of readers based on their fluency. I have seen a significant number of students who could read a piece of writing fluently and yet have no idea about what the meaning of that passage was! We can all fluently read texts on complex topics of which we have little understanding. Fluency does give some measure of the speed of their individual word recognition and is usually linked to strength in decoding. Less fluent readers are often in need of some decoding practice as well as fluency instruction.
Who decides which knowledge is important?
This is an important consideration. In the context of Australian education, this knowledge is generally specified by the Australian curriculum or the state derivative that guides our teaching and learning. However, there is still scope for teachers and schools to make decisions about what they teach. Teaching time is finite and, as much as we want our students to know everything, we do not have time to teach everything. In these situations the decision making is localised in the school—teachers and teaching teams make choices about what is important in their contexts for their children.
Did you do any research on whether students discussing the text with their peers can reduce students’ misconceptions or just simply help them comprehend the text?
In the case of this critical review research, no. However, there is significant research into the effects of a peer discussion on comprehension and ways in which teachers might facilitate such discussion in their classrooms. A good overview is presented in a chapter of Visible Learning Guide to Student Achievement by Ian Wilkinson and Kathryn Nelson, which is accessible at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342988153_Role_of_discussion_in_reading_comprehension.
When using a less cohesive, more difficult text in a whole-group context, what supports do you recommend for students who are less skilled to help them more successfully comprehend and learn from the text?
There are a number of ways to work with a less cohesive text. One is to make the text more cohesive—if the goal is for students to learn from the text (for example, with an informational text) then this might be worthwhile. However, one of the purposes of using more complex texts is to help students develop skills to tackle those types of texts on their own in the future. You may wish to consider reading the text aloud, with students following along, and add the odd “director’s commentary” at various points to explain what is happening at different stages. Some teachers I have worked with have marked up a text for some students, essentially creating a running commentary in a sidebar that explains what is happening. One of the best things you can do with an unaltered text is to frequently ask students, “What is going on here?” Having students pause and consider what is happening in a text can help reduce the load of holding on to a complicated thread over time, particularly if a student has a misconception that they are building on over time.
Is one implication of this research that we should move away from using skills-based reading instruction (skills like sequencing and making inferences) and toward more knowledge-based reading instruction, as in helping students develop background or prerequisite knowledge (which may include language)?
Good question. I think an implication of this research is that there is value in thinking carefully about the texts we choose to teach and for what reason. There is also some merit in deliberately building knowledge over time as one aspect of building a student’s reading comprehension skills. However, there is still some benefit to be gained from teaching some of the skills you refer to up to a point. Amy Elleman’s meta-analysis showed that inference training of students provided benefit for comprehension; however, there was no additional benefit beyond 18 hours of instruction. In Australia, inference (and related) instruction would take up the vast majority of time in a reading block for early readers, which would greatly exceed the limits suggested by Elleman. Therefore, some initial teaching and practice of reading skills is beneficial, but most classrooms would benefit from adjusting the amount of time they spend instructing these skills to afford more time for deliberate knowledge- and vocabulary-building instruction.
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