Thursday, January 4, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge

Whenever I ask a group of teachers to identify areas that seem to cause difficulty for struggling readers, lack of background knowledge is sure to be near the top of the list. This is not surprising since a rich background knowledge has shown to be one key to skilled comprehension. Respected reading theorists Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham have said, "the most important factor determining how much readers will comprehend...about a given topic is their level of knowledge about the topic."

Background knowledge matters a great deal, but I think it is a mistake to say children "lack background knowledge" as if it is some deficit they have. Students are full of experience and background knowledge about all sorts of things. For many children, however, the background knowledge they bring to any reading task may not match well with that task, so better to think of lack of background knowledge as task specific rather than some inherent deficit in the reader. In fact I could make everyone reading this blog feel like a struggling reader by asking that you read and summarize the following.

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

This passage, reporting on a cricket match in England causes most American readers trouble because of our lack of background knowledge. So. lack of background knowledge is situational, not inherent in the reader. As teachers we need to be able to identify stumbling blocks for our readers and prepare them to read comprehendingly by filling in background knowledge gaps that are exposed by a particular reading selection. Fortunately, we have quite a few tools available to help us fill those gaps.

Picture Books - About 20 years , my colleague, Peggy Burke, a life-long educator with two masters degrees, signed up for a Harvard University seminar on The Science of the Brain. I will never forget how Peggy prepared for the seminar. She said to me, "You know I really don't know much about the brain, so I got this comic book called, The Brain Illustrated, to get me up to speed." Peggy's instincts as an educator told her that when she was going into new learning territory, it was a good idea to get some rudimentary understanding of the topic and what better way to do it than with a book full of pictures and clear explanations?

One very good way to build student background knowledge for a topic is to read aloud to them from picture books. If the topic is metamorphosis, what better way to introduce it than with Gail Gibbons book, Monarch Butterflies? If the topic is the weather, why not start with Seymour Simon's book, Weather? Studying the American Constitution?  I would recommend a read aloud of Jeanne Fritz', Shh! We're Writing the Constitution.

As a bonus, on-topic read alouds can build interest and curiosity about a subject. And the research has clearly shown that engaged reading is more likely to be comprehending reading.

Videos - With the advent of You Tube and other online services, it has never been easier to share video clips in the classroom (provided, of course, you can get past your school district's firewall). Videos go a long way to helping students acquire the background information they need for reading comprehension. The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes, is a poem I like to introduce through video. The poem references a time when the horse drawn coach was the main mode of travel and when robbers (or highwayman) waylaid travelers to steal their money and jewelry. I find that viewing an animated conception of the poem helps students understand this world better. You can find the video I use here.

It is best, I think, to keep the videos brief and it is also important to have the students turn and talk about what they have seen with each other, as well as discussing it as a whole class.

Over the years, I have seen teachers show videos to students as a kind of reward. After struggling through Romeo and Juliet on the page, the students are treated to a video version of the play. I think this gets it all backwards. I believe the reading of the play would be greatly enhanced by showing the video first, so the students have some idea of what they are reading and have a better opportunity to visualize what exactly is going on. 

Talk - In any classroom there is sure to be a wide disparity of knowledge on a given subject. Some kids may know a great deal about a topic, others very little. It makes sense to tap into the knowledge of the entire class to activate and build background knowledge for the entire class. As the teacher, we can provide a structure to make this talk focused and productive. Two strategies that I have found useful for this are PReP and Anticipation Guides.

PReP (Pre-Reading Plan) was suggested by Judith Langer (1981). Implementation follows these steps.
  1. Teacher chooses a reading selection and identifies its central concept. The concept is stated in a simple declarative sentence and shared with the class.
  2. The class is divided into small groups and tasked with listing words are phrases that are connected to the central concept. The students then group these words and phrases into logical categories. The groups share their lists with the class.
  3. The teacher then leads a discussion by asking the students clarifying questions like, "What made you think of that association?" and "How is this association directly related to the concept?"
  4. Students then refine their list, eliminating terms that don't directly relate and adding new terms suggested through discussion.
  5. Students then read the passage with the list at hand and then revisit the list reflecting on how their activated background knowledge aided their understanding.

Anticipation Guides get students talking about what they anticipate they will be reading about and talking about the key concepts they will encounter in the reading. Implementing this strategy requires the following steps.
  1. The teacher chooses a passage for reading and identifies key concepts.
  2. The teacher develops simple declarative sentences to capture the key concepts and sets these up in an agree/disagree, yes/no, true/false format.
  3. The students read the statements and decide if each statement is true or false or agree/disagree, etc.
  4. The teacher then leads a discussion where students defend their positions by providing rationales for their choices.
  5. The students then read the passage to confirm or disconfirm the positions they have taken.
  6. Post-discussion focuses on new understandings that have been developed through the anticipation guide and reading activity.

As teachers we need to embrace student's differing experiential backgrounds, and even their lack of knowledge of things we think they should know, as an instructional challenge and not as a student learning deficit.