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Our favorite articles, videos, and webinars for understanding the importance of background knowledge to literacy and learning.

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Dipping a toe in for the first time? Start here.

9 Things Science Tells Us About How Kids Learn to Read and Think Critically, by The74 and the Knowledge Matters Campaign (n.d.)

An accessible overview, in the form of flashcards, that covers the basics, including: a definition of cognitive science; the importance of knowledge to reading comprehension; the role of comprehension strategies; and the imbalance in time spent on reading vs. science and social studies in elementary schools. (To go deeper into what cognitive science has discovered about the importance of knowledge, see “Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later” in the third section.)

Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading, by Daniel T. Willingham (2009)

For those who’d like to get reliable information via an entertaining ten-minute video, this presentation by a leading cognitive psychologist is the ticket. It covers much of the same ground as the flashcards above and has gotten almost 300,000 views on YouTube.

Building Knowledge: What an Elementary Curriculum Should Do, by Natalie Wexler (2020)

A more in-depth explanation of the relationship between knowledge and reading comprehension, this article explains why our failure to build knowledge in elementary school has the most serious impact on students from lower-income families—and why its effects show up most clearly in high school. It also discusses the importance of having teachers read aloud from texts grouped around topics, ideally in the context of a coherent curriculum. (For more on the need for a knowledge-building curriculum, see “Building Knowledge: The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for all Children” in the next section. For more on the importance of read-alouds, see “Oral Comprehension Sets the Ceiling on Reading Comprehension,” also in the next section.)

Is It Time to Drop ‘Finding the Main Idea’ and Teach Reading in a New Way?, by Holly Korbey (2020)

Focusing on Baltimore, this piece describes what it looks like when an urban school district adopts a knowledge-building elementary curriculum. It also summarizes studies suggesting that this kind of curriculum boosts reading comprehension. (To read more about implementation, see “What a Knowledge-Building Approach Looks Like in the Classroom” in the next section.)

New Data Shows Building Knowledge Can Boost Reading Comprehension, by Natalie Wexler (2021)

We have long had evidence that background knowledge is crucial to comprehension, but it’s been harder to show that building students’ knowledge causes an increase in reading comprehension as measured by standardized tests. This article describes two recent rigorous studies, done with kindergartners, that provide that kind of evidence.

Ready to plunge in?

Building Knowledge: The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for All Children, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (2006)

Hirsch presciently sounded the alarm on the absence of content in the elementary curriculum back in 1987 and has been continuing to do so ever since. In this article, he traces the origins of the problem to the 19th-century Romantic movement; explains the importance of building knowledge early, especially for less advantaged children; and considers what knowledge should be included in a content-rich curriculum.

Oral Comprehension Sets the Ceiling on Reading Comprehension, by Andrew Biemiller (2003)

This article stresses the importance of reading aloud to children from texts they can’t yet read themselves, noting that evidence shows listening comprehension exceeds reading comprehension on average through about age 13. Before students become fluent readers, read-alouds and discussion organized around specific topics are the most effective ways to build the kind of knowledge and vocabulary that enables comprehension of complex text.

What a Knowledge-Building Approach Looks Like in the Classroom, by Barbara Davidson and David Liben (2019)

Individual teachers can build academic knowledge to some extent, but this article explains why it’s important for schools and districts to adopt a coherent content-rich curriculum that extends across grade levels. Based on visits to classrooms in high-poverty schools across the country that are implementing such curricula, the article discusses common elements the authors observed and includes a chart comparing four curricula.

The Connections Between Writing, Knowledge Acquisition, and Reading Comprehension, by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler (2019)

Writing often gets overlooked in discussions of literacy, but it’s a crucial component. This article explains that the keys to unlocking the potential of writing to build and deepen knowledge—and boost reading comprehension—are (1) to modulate the heavy cognitive burden imposed by writing, and (2) to ground writing activities in the content of the curriculum so that they help build the knowledge we want students to acquire.

History = Literacy, by Jonathan Bassett (2022)

Elementary schools often neglect social studies, and especially history, partly because it’s considered more important to spend time on reading comprehension skills and strategies. This article explains how an elementary-level history curriculum can boost the knowledge and vocabulary that enable students to understand complex text in general.

Wanting to go even deeper?

Rethinking How to Promote Reading Comprehension, by Hugh W. Catts (2021)

Comprehension has often been lumped together with other aspects of literacy that are true skills—like decoding—when in fact, this piece argues, it’s multidimensional and highly dependent on knowledge. The author discusses the benefits of integrating content instruction with comprehension strategies and argues for reading tests that are grounded in topics covered in the curriculum.

Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction, by Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner, and John Sweller (2012)

How should we build the knowledge students need to acquire to be successful? The education system in the US and many other countries is premised on the belief that students learn best when they “discover” information through inquiry. But this article, written by three prominent cognitive psychologists, reviews the voluminous evidence showing that when learners are new to a topic, explicit instruction (including questioning and discussion) works best.

Why So Many Kids Struggle to Learn, by Natalie Wexler (2021)

During their training, prospective teachers absorb beliefs that conflict with scientific findings about how people learn, including the idea that building students’ knowledge is relatively unimportant. This article traces the history of the existing divide between schools of education and the rest of academia, and discusses recent efforts to bring teacher training in line with cognitive science.

Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know, by Barak Rosenshine (2012)

Evidence from several branches of research shows that, as the author writes, “Education involves helping a novice develop strong, readily accessible background knowledge.” The ten principles he discusses all support that goal. They include beginning a lesson with a brief review of previous learning and presenting new material in small increments, with practice after each step.

Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later, by John Sweller, Jeroen J.G. van Merrienboer, and Fred Paas (2019)

One education expert has called cognitive load theory, which describes the key role of knowledge in enabling learners to understand and retain new information, “the single most important thing for teachers to know.” Few educators are familiar with it, however. This article, co-authored by cognitive scientists who have been instrumental in developing the theory, explains the concept and traces its origins, recent major developments in the field, and possible future directions for research.