Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Does Background Knowledge Matter to Reading Comprehension?



Ready for an experiment? Read and summarize the following:

Having crumbled to 214 all out, with Jonathan Trott's 84 not out the glue across an otherwise brittle English innings, the tourists were back in the contest when Paul Collingwood's brace had the hosts wobbling at 100 for five at the turn of the 21st over.

How’d it go? Chances are if you were not raised in England, India, Pakistan or Australia, you had difficulty understanding this report on a cricket match. What is the problem? Obviously, as a resident of a country where cricket is a minor sport at best, you do not have the background knowledge to comprehend a text that any 5th grader in England would have no trouble with.

So we know that background knowledge does matter. In order to comprehend a text, we connect what we already know with what the text says. The greater the reader's background knowledge the greater the reader’s potential for comprehension and the more likely the reader will find the text interesting. I think about this as an application of  Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.” We need to provide students with readings that are challenging, but not beyond their ability to comprehend with assistance. As I demonstrated with the cricket passage, any of us can be struggling readers if we are asked to read outside the zone.

Why do I bring this up? The authors of the Core Content State Standards (CCSS) seem to be explicitly discouraging the activation and building of prior knowledge for readers.  Indeed the original version of the publisher’s guidelines for the CCSS, explicitly stated it was inappropriate to discuss student background knowledge, have students make predictions about what they would read, or provide purposes for reading a particular text. CCSS author David Coleman’s video demonstration of how to do this type of “close reading” using the Gettysburg Address redoubled the rejection of building context for reading. Coleman posits that the students should simply read the text and struggle with making sense of it.

According to Timothy Shanahan (2013), well known literacy expert, Coleman and the other authors backed off this position in a revised version of the publisher’s guidelines, but many states and school districts had already adopted these guidelines as mandates for instruction.

If indeed the authors have backed off these erroneous and misguided instructional guidelines, it is not apparent in the exemplar lesson plans they are distributing (achievethecore.org). I went to one of these exemplars developed for a seventh grade language arts class. Here are the explicit directions to the teacher of a seventh grade class that is reading Jacques soliloquy on “The Seven Ages of Man” from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Other than giving the brief definitions offered to words students would
likely not be able to define from context (underlined in the text), avoid
giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset of
the lesson while students are reading the text silently. This close reading
approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging
background knowledge and levels the playing field for all students as they
seek to comprehend Jacques’ soliloquy.

What??? “Avoid giving any background context”??? “Force students to rely exclusively on the text”??? “Levels the playing field”??? Each of these statements is absurd.

Leaving aside the appropriateness of having seventh grade students read this passage from Shakespeare (the Lexile level of the passage is 1230, which even the CCSS says is high school level reading), we are not to contextualize this text at all? Would it help the reader to know that Jacques is a character in a play? Would it help readers to know that Jacques is a melancholy, brooding philosopher auditioning to be the Duke’s fool? Would it help the reader to know that Jacques’ insight is at best clich├ęd and at worst just plain wrong? Does it matter that Shakespeare follows Jacques disputation on old age as “sans everything”, with the duke’s aged servant entering ready to continue faithful service? Does this context not prepare the reader to comprehend?

We should force students to rely exclusively on the text? No reader relies exclusively on any text. We are all guided by what we bring to any text, whether it is our vocabulary, our prior knowledge or the reading strategies we have developed along the way. No text stands in a vacuum, no matter how accessible or how obscure.

Finally, and most absurdly, this approach “levels the playing field?” This is an argument for ignorance is bliss. Let’s give kids texts that are impossibly difficult to read, so that they all have great difficulty reading and comprehending and then not give them any prior help so that the playing field is level. I would propose that the best way to level any reading playing field is to make sure that all students have access to the background that will help them understand and read with interest.

Let me say that I have no problem with the “close reading” concept of several readings of a text, of text dependent questions and of students writing after reading a text. These things all seem to be good educational practice. Research would also support the building and activation of prior knowledge as a key aspect of a rich comprehension of text and “close reading” is likely to be more successful if we ignore the “just have them read it” guidelines from the CCSS and do what we know works for students.