Why Knowledge Building Is Crucial to Literacy

By: | 11/08/2021
Category: Instruction
Students’ background knowledge is incredibly important when it comes to learning to read. In this explainer post, we cover several reasons why teaching literacy is intertwined with teaching knowledge.

It feels silly that I have to say this—gratuitous even—but here we go: When it comes to reading instruction, knowledge matters.

For decades, reading instruction has centered on drilling students in skills and strategies. Knowledge has at best been seen as a tangential benefit and at worst as a distraction, something completely unnecessary for learning to read. However, recent research tells us we can’t ignore what knowledge advocates have been screaming with increasing desperation for a very long time: If we want to create a nation of readers and critical thinkers, then our reading programs need to give students something to think about.

That’s not to say that there isn’t space for skills and strategies in reading instruction. Indeed, study after study after study has shown that explicit phonics instruction, for example, is essential. However, to paraphrase cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, once students have mastered decoding, their progression as readers relies heavily on vocabulary and background information. Students cannot move forward without continually growing their knowledge banks.

If we truly want to create a nation of readers and critical thinkers, then we need to give students resources for all the reasons I’ve listed above as well as the ones that follow.

What can teachers do to strike a solid balance between teaching knowledge and skills in the reading classroom?

Download a Guide for Evaluating Knowledge-Rich Reading Curriculum

Knowledge Begets Knowledge

An abundance of research tells us that knowledge leads to more knowledge and that the more you know, the easier it is to learn more. Indeed, we have a database of cognitive science that tells us that knowledge enables students to connect new information to what they already know. It also enables them to make inferences, use fewer working memory resources, and think deeply about complex topics.

Knowledge is not only cumulative—it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more. The rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes—the very ones that teachers target—operate.
—Daniel T. Willingham, How Knowledge Helps

Knowledge Makes the Most of Instruction Time

Knowledge-rich texts, when they are coherently and deliberately structured, help us make the most out of every instructional minute by actively building students’ knowledge of history, geography, science, arts, human nature, and so much more at the same time they’re learning reading skills.

Knowledge Leads to Comprehension

We’ve learned the hard way that drilling students in generic reading comprehension strategies does not improve reading. We’ve also learned that knowledge is unequivocally central to developing reading comprehension skills. Indeed, some experts have gone so far as to say that knowledge matters much more than explicit instruction in reading comprehension skills when it comes to reading comprehension. In “Building Background Knowledge” from The Reading Teacher, researchers Susan B. Neuman, Tanya Kaefer, and Ashley Pinkham, write: “We would venture to guess that students' understanding of text is unlikely to improve unless we begin to more deliberately teach background knowledge.”

Knowledge Is an Equity Issue

No two students enter the same classroom with the exact same set of knowledge, but they all need understanding of the world and what it means to be human to succeed in college and careers. A knowledge-dense and culturally responsive reading program can help educators address students’ knowledge differences while simultaneously engaging students through texts that reflect their experiences and offer opportunities to draw connections with experiences that are very different from their own.

“When we remember that literacy is a right and a superpower, it’s easier to also remember that reading instruction should inform and inspire.” @CurriculumAssoc Why does knowledge matter in literacy education?

Because this post is all about knowledge, I think it’s appropriate to conclude by offering knowledge in the form of a brief etymology lesson about the word “school.”

“School” began as the Greek word scholé, which translates to “leisure,” but not leisure in the lounging, vacation, napping sense. Rather, to the ancient Greeks, scholé signified contemplation and the unique pleasure that comes from learning.

I’m sharing this tidbit because scholé reminds us that learning is central to what it means to be human, and the acquisition of knowledge can—and should—be a joyful experience. All the debating around reading, the opinion-piece bickering, and back and forth between various academies has made it easy to lose sight of the magic of reading. When we remember that literacy is a right and a superpower, it’s easier to also remember that reading instruction should inform and inspire.

When we teach students to read, we are teaching them to love knowledge, be curious, and think deeply. We are teaching them the meaning of scholé.

Magnetic Reading uses a knowledge-rich curriculum, culturally and linguistically responsive texts and instruction, scaffolding, and actionable data to help students build their skills and develop a love for reading.

Download a Free Magnetic Reading Lesson
Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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