Science of Reading Research:

Building Knowledge is Critical to Literacy Success

A teacher leads group discussion of a middle school book.

Phonics are the First Step to Literacy Success. 
But Building Knowledge is Critical, too.

What does research on knowledge say about learning to read and write?

Reading a set of texts on a topic
...builds knowledge.
...builds vocabulary.
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With more knowledge and vocabulary,
students read more complex texts.
As students read more complex texts, they have ideas to write about and the knowledge and vocabulary to write about those ideas.

Students become better writers. And they can grapple with increasingly complex texts.

Why the science of reading calls for support beyond foundational skills

Research tells us that the best way for kids to learn to read begins with a phonics-based program. But what else does the science of reading research reveal? How can we set the stage for every student to achieve literacy success?

While building strong foundational reading skills is important, if students only practice decoding without using their new reading skills to acquire knowledge, they are more likely to struggle with reading in upper elementary school and beyond when its reading's main purpose is to acquire knowledge. So when should a student's knowledge journey begin?

The research is clear: a student's knowledge journey should begin in kindergarten. They must begin reading to learn as they are learning to read so they are prepared to pull meaning from unstructured texts. As the graphic on the left illustrates, as students build knowledge and vocabulary, they're better prepared to grapple with more complex texts.

With high-quality materials at the center of your English language arts block, you’re taking the first step to shift towards a comprehensive approach that focuses on building and supporting every student on the path to literacy success.

"Students with more knowledge have a better chance of understanding whatever text they encounter. They're able to retrieve more information about the topic from long-term memory, leaving more space in working memory for comprehension. They're also better able to absorb and retain information, because knowledge—like Velcro—sticks best to other related knowledge."

—Natalie Wexler,
author of The Knowledge Gap

How Knowledge Helps Students Become Skilled Readers and Writers

When students learn new information, their brains look for ways to connect what they’ve just learned with what they already know. The more background knowledge students have, the broader their foundation for building new knowledge.


Collage of knowledge building Geodes and Wit & Wisdom core texts.
Cover of Knowledge Building Primer

Through Geodes® books and the texts students read with Wit & Wisdom®, students build deep knowledge of the world and critical literacy skills for academic success. Students dive deep into each topic, and through the Geodes books and complex texts above you can see they explore America, Then and Now by building layers of knowledge of the how life in the United States has changed over time from the American Revolution through the next two centuries. Through this scaffolded approach students develop new vocabulary, build background knowledge, and learn language structures which all comes together to help them improve their reading comprehension. They access authentic literature and receive explicit writing instruction tied to the rich content they explore.

Read the research in our primer to learn how knowledge building supports students' reading and writing.









How does helping all students build knowledge advance equity?


Three Essential Components of Research-Based Literacy Instruction

Scarsborough's rope provides the outline of how students can become skilled readers. Learn how Wit & Wisdom, Geodes, and foundational skills programs work harmoniously (PDF, 346kb) together to support this evidence-based literacy instruction which stresses the importance of building knowledge as soon as students begin reading.

Wit & Wisdom logo

Language Comprehension

With Wit & Wisdom, students read, write, and talk about information-rich core texts in order to build their content knowledge, vocabulary, and understanding of spoken and written language conventions.

Foundational Skills Program

Word Recognition

With a foundational skills program, students build word recognition skills like phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of familiar words.

Geodes logo

Knowledge-Building Foundational Skills Practice

With Geodes, students practice and apply foundational reading skills to information rich books that systematically build knowledge about their world.

Skilled Reading

By the end of grade 2, students can read a variety of multisyllabic words, words with common prefixes and suffixes along with the first 200 high frequency words. In their independent reading, students demonstrate their comprehension of a broad range of texts by applying their decoding skills and knowledge in fluent reading.

How Science of Reading Research Should Drive ELA Instruction For All Students

As students grow their literacy skills it's important to continue to apply the research to help them develop higher order thinking skills and build strong reading comprehension.

Knowledge Connects Wisdom

Collage - Wit & Wisdom - Geodes

Knowledge Maps

Read the synopsis of John Hopkin's Universities Knowledge Map for Wit & Wisdom and Geodes to see the knowledge students will build.


Research Spotlight

Hear about the relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension from experts in the field.

Melissa and Lori Love Literacy

Podcast Playlist

Listen to the Melissa & Lori Love Literacy Podcast to dive deeper into the importance of building knowledge.