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 Common Core 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.


  1. Thank you for pointing out the absurdity of forcing "students to rely exclusively on the text." To begin with, that's an impossible demand - it's exactly like asking someone to not think about an elephant.

    If it were possible, however, it most certainly would level the playing field - we'd all be illiterate.

  2. Here is my take- First, I have not seen anything in CCS that explicitly say NOT to supplement with background knowledge. Second, as PROFESSIONALS, teachers know how to teach their students. I know that some articles, yes my students will need background knowledge, and this other article, they won't. However, will they ever have to read something and not have much background knowledge about it? Yep. Therefore, as a professional, I know I need to teach ,y students how to make sense of a reading if they do not have much background knowledge of that topic. Furthermore, as a professional, I have also started having my students read an Article of the Week (from Kelly Gallagher) to build their background knowledge of current events.

    I really think that just because the CCS don't say something, that does NOT mean we ignore it. We are TEACHERS. We KNOW HOW to TEACH. Even if we are not told to do something. Playing into this notion that we won't do something because the freaking standards don't say it- that is just giving in to the stereotype that teachers are worthless and not professionals.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this and share your thinking. I wrote this because the authors of the CCSS have explicitly stated that students should read a text cold and struggle with the meaning. These statements are in the guidance they provide to teachers and has been made law in some states. Like you i want to support the professionalism of teachers and I am confident they will do the right thing.

    2. You, Heather, may not have seen anything in CCSS that explicitly says not to teach background materials, but as Russ says, the authors of the CCSS have repeatedly talked about "close reading" in crazy ways. Among other things, some of the authors started a Gates-funded non-profit that is supposed to develop lesson plans. Their close-reading lesson plans are pretty bad and do include instructions not to offer any background (http://literacyinleafstrewn.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-common-cores-supposed-emphasis-on.html). Worse, in my opinion, I have seen nothing in any Common Core materials that offers guidance on how to make sure students are actually reading more than the brief passages in the lesson plans.


  3. Thank you for pointing out the absurdity of this CCSS dictum. Since reading requires the interaction of the reader with the text, it cannot be comprehended without the schemata required. As a teacher of English language learners, forced to align instruction with standards designed for monolingual English-speaking students who are assumed to have enrolled in kindergarten, the CCSS consigns ELLs to "the back of the bus" in myriad ways, and ensures that the "achievement gap" will only widen as the tests aligned with the new standards are implemented. Obviously, the writers of the CCSS have little knowledge of literacy development or of the intrinsic
    challenges of acquiring second language literacy. The ethnocentrism that informs the CCSS is just one more aspect of its lack of a sound pedagogical research base.

  4. As a social studies methods professor, I see these “close reading” activities invading the history classroom daily. The most unfortunate aspect of close reading from a history teacher’s standpoint, is that the strategy treats each piece of text as an isolated chunk of information devoid of context or connection. How does one read the “Gettysburg Address” or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” without background knowledge or any attempt to weave in historical context? The notion that the author of any piece writes in a contextual vacuum is asinine, yet that’s how close reading activities treat each and every piece of text I’ve seen.

    Further, the literature on reading comprehension clearly states that prior knowledge is central to a students’ ability to comprehend text. Contextual clues are not always found within any single piece of text, but are often located in similar or related texts that students might come across at other points in time. To discourage students from making those connections is nothing less than throwing up a roadblock to comprehension. That may level the playing field, but only because it makes each student equally helpless in their attempts to understand an isolated and contextually devoid piece of text.

  5. Because of state and national mandates and the absurdity of "the testing" our children are having to endure, teachers are being forced to prepare students for all kinds of situations. These situations do not have to follow sound practice. The point of the test is to prove or disprove achievement.
    Most teachers know the proper reading methods they just don't always get to use them. All to often non educators are deciding policy that is impacting the instruction and education of our children.
    Thank you for your timely and well written article.

  6. Thank you for this post, Russ! We listen to oral communication IN CONTEXT, so why shouldn't we read written communication IN CONTEXT? I hope the so called new "common" "core" "standards" won't become common, core, or standards if they're going to proceed as you've so convincingly stated! Let's keep on fighting such malarkey!