Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension
A recent article “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years” in The Atlantic addressed the critical role that background knowledge plays in the ability to comprehend. The article subtitle was “Schools usually focus on teaching comprehension skills instead of general knowledge – even though education researchers know better.”
The piece suggests that educators have treated comprehension as a set of skills, when in fact comprehension depends primarily on what readers already know. The article refers to a panel of literacy experts convened by officials who oversee the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As a member of the panel, Daniel Willingham, explained:
“Whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills. That’s because writers leave out a lot of information that they assume readers will know. If they put all the information in, their writing would be tedious. But if readers can’t supply the missing information, they will have a hard time making sense of the text.”
Willingham and like-minded literacy experts posit that the best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next. Willingham has been making this point for a long time. I first read a piece he wrote about this in 2006 “How Knowledge Helps” around the same time I read E.D. Hirsch’s book “The Knowledge Deficit”, in which Hirsch claims that the solution to improving reading comprehension is to teach a core set of content topics over the grades.
In another 2006 Willingham article, “The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies”, Willingham made the case that, even though decades of research shows that teaching reading comprehension strategies is effective, he considered them a “bag of tricks that can indirectly improve comprehension” and called for less explicit instruction of comprehension strategies. He wrote a later article in 2014 “Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught?” that begins with this:
“In this commentary, we suggest that reading comprehension strategy instruction does not actually improve general-purpose comprehension skills. Rather, this strategy represents a bag of tricks that are useful and worth teaching, but are quickly learned and require minimal practice.”
Having spent many years successfully teaching comprehension strategies, especially to struggling readers, Willingham’s 2006 piece took me aback. Since then, I have gained a better understanding of the complex factors that contribute to reading comprehension and have a greater appreciation for the role that background knowledge plays. However, I still believe that teaching general knowledge is not THE solution to reading comprehension deficits as Willingham and The Atlantic article claim.
Part of the issue has to do with how much inference is typically required during reading. As Willingham notes, writers leave out a lot of information that they assume readers will know. Here are some examples (from Oakhill and Cain, 2016):
Bobby was busy with his bucket and spade. The sandcastle was nearly complete. Then a huge wave crashed onto the shore. On seeing that his day’s work has been ruined Bobby started to cry.
- Inference: Bobby was making a sandcastle.
- Background knowledge needed: a bucket and spade is used to make things out of sand at the beach
- Inference: The sandcastle was ruined by the wave
- Background knowledge needed: incoming tides cause waves to come onto the beach and flatten sand sculptures
Johnny carried a jug of water. He tripped on a step. Mom gave him a mop.
- Inference: Johnny spilled the water when he tripped.
- Background knowledge needed: experience with spills and the mess they make
These are very simple examples, but they show why reading comprehension is a dynamic interaction between the reader and the text. It is a process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning and most texts cannot be understood without contributions from readers, including background and “world” knowledge.
Clearly, readers must have sufficient background knowledge in order to construct meaning through inferences, especially when reading academic, subject area text. But they ALSO need a set of meta-cognitive strategies to process and organize the information they are reading. That’s where explicit instruction of strategies comes in.
Tim Shanahan referenced The Atlantic article in a recent blog post although his position about the importance of background knowledge was more measured:
“Research has long shown the importance of knowledge in comprehension. If a reader knows much about a topic, his/her reading comprehension rises. Studies of what American kids (and adults) know about science, geography, economics, technology, and history suggest that Professor Willingham has a point. Our kids simply don’t know enough. (There are great inequities in knowledge distribution, just as there is great inequality in reading attainment.)”
Shanahan points out that, in addition to devoting a significant amount of time to reading and writing instruction, it is important to provide time for reading about content to build background knowledge.
Based on experience, I think the kind of “workbook” activities that were commonly used in the 1970’s through the 1990’s to teach discreet comprehension “skills” (such as choosing the correct answer from four options for the main idea or a conclusion drawn) were not effective. Students did not apply these skills that they were practicing in isolation to real reading. That’s why a long time ago I focused on training content teachers of all subjects to embed strategy instruction and guided practice into content learning using real content reading (see The Key Comprehension Routine). Time and again I have seen very successful results, which is why I can’t accept Willingham’s conclusion that background knowledge is the main solution and comprehension strategy instruction should be minimal.
Oakhill, J. & Cain, K. (2016). Supporting reading comprehension development: From research to practice. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 42 (2).