Topics: Wit & Wisdom

Supporting Equitable English Language Arts Instruction Through Knowledge-Building Text Sets

Great Minds

by Great Minds

March 2, 2022
Supporting Equitable English Language Arts Instruction Through Knowledge-Building Text Sets

every child is capable of greatness.

Posted in: Aha! Blog > Wit & Wisdom Blog > Wit & Wisdom > Supporting Equitable English Language Arts Instruction Through Knowledge-Building Text Sets

Every child deserves access to rigorous grade-level content. Too often, early literacy instruction focuses only on word recognition and not on reading comprehension. Consequently, students do not frequently have the opportunity to build knowledge through the texts they read.

By providing students with rich text sets beginning at the earliest grades, allowing them to read to learn while learning to read, every child can build the knowledge they need to grow and succeed alongside their peers. 

Why is Word Recognition Without Language Comprehension in Early Grades Limiting?

We’ve often heard that students learn to read and then read to learn. The transformation from learning to read and then reading to learn supposedly happens between Grades 2 and 3. But what if the line between those two skills is not that clear cut?  

Scarborough’s Rope is a visual depiction of everything students need to become successful readers. This image shows all the strands of reading students need to develop over time to be not only automatic readers but readers who can make meaning of the text they read. 


Scarboroughs Rope

(Image courtesy Dr. Hollis Scarborough, 2001)

In Grades K–2, students are learning to read. Students engage in a lot of word recognition instruction in the early grades—building phonological awareness, decoding skills, and sight recognition of familiar words. All these skills help students become increasingly automatic in their reading.  

But what good does it do for students to be automatic readers if they don’t understand what they read? Building language comprehension is critical to literacy success, even in the early grades. In early elementary grades, students must learn to read and read to learn at the same time. As students move into Grade 3 and beyond, language comprehension becomes the primary focus of instruction. 

Building language comprehension is what makes students increasingly strategic readers. At all grade levels, students benefit from receiving literacy instruction that builds their knowledge of content areas and language structures, enhances their vocabulary, and helps them improve their verbal reasoning. 

As one might predict, individuals form knowledge at different rates and in different ways. Each student, therefore, enters school with a different body of knowledge. The variety of primary languages, cultural practices, family structures, and life experiences that shape what students know and how they learn about the world contribute to the way students engage in learning. To ensure students can access the texts and build knowledge, high-quality English language arts curricula, like Wit & Wisdom®, should provide a wide base of support to all learners, engaging students in a collaborative topic of study that helps them make meaning through the texts they read and the tasks they complete.  

Learn how this ties into the UDL principles which can be applied to all subjects, including math, science, and English language arts.

How do Knowledge-Building Text Sets Support Equitable Instruction?

The writers of Wit & Wisdom carefully selected texts that would build students’ knowledge of a topic over time. The texts are sequenced throughout a module in a way that supports students comprehending new ideas, acquiring new vocabulary, and asking strong questions that help them add to their knowledge of the world.  

For example, at the end of Grade 2, students study how food nourishes their body. We can assume that some students might begin this module knowing a lot about this topic. Some students might have had a conversation with a nutritionist, grown a vegetable garden, or visited the local farmers’ market regularly. A student with Type 1 diabetes may have learned a lot about which foods are best for energy, while another who lives on a farm may have in-depth knowledge of how food is produced. Other students may lack these kinds of experiences that would prepare them for the extended study of food and digestion. Yet all students will need to increase their knowledge of food and nutrition to be successful with their End-of-Module Task: 

Good Enough to Eat – “© 1999 Lizzy Rockwell”

Although the two texts students rely on for evidence in their End-of-Module Task are information dense, language rich, and require background knowledge about food and nutrition, the way the text sets are organized in the module helps students develop their ability to access these texts. 

Core Texts How do these texts build students’ knowledge in the module? 

The Digestive System – “© 2008 Scholastic, Inc.” and “© Teacher Created Materials, Inc.”

Students start by learning the basics of digestion with their first two informational texts, learning how food moves through the body and provides it with energy. Through these texts, students acquire academic vocabulary and extended practice with using text features to guide them in reading informational texts. Students build useful content-specific vocabulary such as digest, starches, and stomach that they will use throughout the module.

Bone Button Borscht – “© 1996 Aubrey Davis and Duyan Petricic”


Stone Soup – “© 1974 Marcia Brown”

Then students read literary texts that explore how food can bring people together and nourish a community while they also practice opinion writing for the first time. Students build useful academic vocabulary such as cooperate, benefit, and community.


The Vegetables We Eat – “© 2007 Gail Gibbons”

Students learn about different types of vegetables and how they are grown, processed, and moved to grocery stores and farm stands. Students learn content vocabulary such as root, tuber, and harvested.
GoodEnoughToEat Students learn more about how they can choose nourishing foods by reading about how different foods nourish their bodies. Students continue to build useful vocabulary with words such as nutrients, vitamin, and mineral.

These texts all contribute to the module’s 
knowledge puzzleWit & Wisdom teachers think of the module’s knowledge puzzle as the larger body of knowledge students will be able to reflect on and demonstrate through their work in the module. Each text contributes a piece to the larger puzzle, helping students craft a clear response to the Essential Question and their End-of-Module Task to culminate their course of study. 

As you prepare for module instruction, read both the core and supplementary text sets to better understand how students build knowledge and vocabulary through the texts they read. Looking for this “gold” in the text will help you prepare for making instructional decisions that support students with building the most critical knowledge throughout the module! 

Words of Wisdom: The Matthew Effect in Literacy 

You may have heard the saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” used in many contexts, but did you know it is also used frequently in the study of literacy? Commonly referred to as the Matthew Effect (derived from the Gospel of Matthew) in literacy instruction, this saying refers to the phenomenon in which students who already have a lot of academic knowledge and vocabulary learn faster and outpace students who enter school with less. A challenge for educators, then, is how to help all learners acquire knowledge and vocabulary at similar rates.  

Building rich knowledge is critical to students’ literacy success. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham put it: “The more you know, the easier it will be for you to learn new things” (2006). With more knowledge about a topic, students can make logical inferences and draw reasonable conclusions as they read. Students are better at categorizing new information, recalling important details, and remembering more about a new text if they already know something about the topic.  

Organizing text sets to “bootstrap” knowledge and vocabulary is one way educators can help students build, access, and use knowledge efficiently in the classroom (Adams 2010). Students benefit from the intentional sequencing of texts, which helps them build knowledge of a topic over the course of several weeks—engaging in deeper thinking over time as they develop expertise in topics such as how we use our five senses to explore the world around us (Kindergarten) or how identity was shaped by class structures in the Middle Ages (Grade 7).  


How do Text Sets Help Students Become Strong Readers, Writers, and Thinkers?

Students build knowledge through their repeated reading of texts. In Wit & Wisdom, texts are at the center of the instruction, and students are taught how to analyze and interpret the meaning of those texts through five Content Stages: WonderOrganizeRevealDistill, and Know. If you’re a Wit & Wisdom teacher, you’re already intimately familiar with these five stages, as they organize the lessons in a module.

"A lot of these skills and strategies, if they are used in service of helping kids understand content and complex texts, is just good teaching. You don't want to just dump a load of facts on kids and then not ask them to make connections between those facts... . All of those things that we think of as skills can be harnessed to content and used to get kids to develop those analytical abilities."
-Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap


Learn more from Natalie Wexler in Episode 10 of the podcast, Melissa and Lori Love Literacy: "Noticing the #KnowledgeGap."

It’s important not only that students move through all five Content Stages with a text but also that they know how to interact with the text during each stage. In Wit & Wisdom, students interact with texts by routinely using the same four Core Practices, described below, to help them analyze and interpret texts. The Core Practices are critical for engaging in multiple readings of a text as students learn how to make meaning with the knowledge they build throughout the module.  

The Core Practices put the texts at the center of learning but also ensure that students develop critical literacy skills that are transferrable across all texts. Building students’ capacity to use these Core Practices ensures that they have the tools they need to persist with complex texts and build knowledge at the same time. 

Core Practice Description 

Examples from Wit & Wisdom 


Students monitor their understanding of the text by recording questions they have about it. 

In Grade 1 Module 3 Lesson 2, students generate questions they have about their first core text, Feel the Wind by Arthur Dorros. Students use a Question Cube to help them select a question word to start their question. Working with a partner, students orally generate as many questions as possible and then select one question they most want to answer and write that question on a sticky note. 


While independently reading a text or section of text, students make notes with common annotation symbols and/or marginal notes. 

In Grade 3 Module 2 Lesson 16, students reread their core text, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca, in a small group. As students read, they use sticky notes to identify pages that help them understand the different points of view of different people who worked on the Apollo 11 mission. Students are guided to consider three questions as they reread the text: 

  • What event are you reading about? 
  • How do the illustrations in this passage deepen the reader’s understanding of the people’s point of view? 
  • How does the text describe what the people in this passage are thinking or feeling? 


Students summarize texts or sections of longer texts and reflect as they summarize to determine the main topic or central idea in what they are reading.

In Grade 5 Module 1 Lesson 19, students complete a Story Map to summarize the key elements of two chapters in their core text, Thunder Rolling in the Mountains by Scott Odell. With the longer works featured in the upper grades, students frequently pause to summarize portions of the text to ensure that they understand what’s happening as they read. 

Collecting Evidence 

The purposeful collecting of evidence serves as the bridge from reading to writing. Students collect evidence during reading when they question and annotate. The Core Practice formalizes the process, pinpointing the period when students collect evidence in response to a specific prompt, task, or question.  

In Grade 7 Module 2 Lesson 9, students collect evidence from chapters 7 and 8 of their core text, Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac, to show how the author develops the central idea that specific elements of Ned’s Navajo identity make him both want to join the US Marines and be well qualified to serve as a marine. Groups of students collaborate and discuss their potential evidence and then record their evidence on individual graphic organizers. 

Some of these Core Practices are natural fits with a specific Content Stage; for example, students always engage in Questioning during the Wonder stage. Annotation, however, is a Core Practice
students use across all Content Stages to help them understand what the text actually says. To learn more about the Core Practices, read the descriptions in the Wit & Wisdom Implementation Guide, a free resource for educators. 

Wit & Wisdom puts texts at the center of instruction so that students can engage with them authentically, asking their own questions to develop a body of foundational knowledge. Texts are sequenced to build knowledge over time, ensuring that every child acquires the vocabulary, content, and skills that will help them become stronger readers, writers, and thinkers. When equipped with a rich set of texts and the tools to drive inquiry, students can transfer the knowledge and skills they acquire to new settings—in school and beyond.

Adams, Marilyn Jager. “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenges of Complex Texts.” American Educator, Winter 2010–2011. 

Willingham, Daniel T. “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” American Educator, Spring 2006. 

Cervetti, Gina N., Jacqueline Barber, Rena Dorph, P. David Pearson, and Pete G. Goldschmidt. 2012. “The Impact of an Integrated Approach to Science and Literacy in Elementary School Classrooms.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 49, no. 5 (April): 631–658.

Cromley, J. G., and R. Azevedo. 2007. “Testing and refining the direct and inferential mediation model of reading comprehension.” Journal of Educational Psychology 99, no. 2 (May): 311–325.

Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. 2014. “Speaking and Listening in Content Area Learning.” The Reading Teacher 68, no. 1 (Aug): 64–69.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. 2003. “Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World.” American Educator 27, no. 1 (Spring): 10–29.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. 2006. “The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for all Children.” American Federation of Teachers, (Spring).

Kaefer, Tanya, Susan Neuman, and Ashley Pinkham. 2014. “Pre-Existing Background Knowledge Influences Socioeconomic Differences in Preschoolers’ Word Learning and Comprehension.” Reading Psychology 36, no. 3 (Aug): 203–231.

Logan, Jessica, Laura Justice, Melike Yumus, Johanna Chaparro-Moreno. 2019. “When Children Are Not Read to at Home: The Million Word Gap.” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 40, no. 5 (June): 383-386.

McEwan, Elaine K. 2005. Seven Strategies of Highly Effective Readers: Using Cognitive Research to Boost K-8 Achievement. Corwin Press.

Morrison, Vanessa, and Lisa Wheeler. “Revisiting Read Alouds: Instructional Strategies that Encourage Students’ Engagement with Text.” Reading Rockets. Accessed Jan 19, 2022.

Neuman, Susan, Tanya Kaefer, and Ashley Pinkham. 2014. “Building Background Knowledge.” International Literacy Association, 68, no. 2 (Sept): 145-148.
Priebe, Sarah K., Janice M. Keenan, and Amanda C. Miller. 2011. “How Prior Knowledge Affects Word Identification and Comprehension,” Reading and Writing 25 (Jul): 581–586, s11145-010-9260-0.

Ramirez Stukey, Marisa, Gina Fugnitto, Valerie Fraser, and Isabel Sawyer. “The Settled Science of Teaching Reading.” Center for the Collaborative Classroom. Accessed Jan 19, 2022. public.cdn.

Recht, Donna R., and Lauren Leslie. 1988. “Effect of Prior Knowledge on Good and Poor Readers’ Memory of Text.” Journal of Educational Psychology 80, no. 1 (March): 16–20,

Robertson, Kristina. 2007. “Connect Students’ Background Knowledge to Content in the ELL Classroom.” Reading Rockets. Accessed Jan 19, 2022.

Smith, Reid, Pamela Snow, Tanya Serry, and Lorraine Hammond. 2021. “The Role of Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension: A Critical Review.” Reading Psychology 42, no. 3 (Feb): 214–240.

Tyner, Adam, and Sarah Kabourek. 2020. “Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.” Thomas B. Fordham Institute (September).

Wexler, Natalie. 2019. The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Wexler, Natalie. 2019b. “Why We’re Teaching Reading Comprehension in A Way That Doesn’t Work.” Minding the Gap. Willingham, Daniel T. 2006. “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” The American Federation of Teachers (Spring).

Download the Article as a Free PDF

Topics: Wit & Wisdom