Beyond the Word Wall: Building Knowledge Transfer Over Time to Accelerate Student Learning

February 26, 2024 — Ethan Scherer, Director, READS Lab at Harvard University

Each time a young child acquires a new word or concept, they are building their blueprint to learn about the world. Yet, it is impossible for teachers to cover everything—every word—their students need to know. And, thankfully, they don’t have to. Teachers can steadily and systematically build word connections over time to help students transfer explicitly taught knowledge to new topics—in the classroom and beyond. We call this “teaching for transfer.”¹

In essence, teaching for transfer means helping your students organize, access, and apply knowledge across a wide variety of texts they’ll encounter during their educational careers.

Our team’s recent study of the Model of Reading Engagement (MORE) provided insight into how teaching for transfer can cause lasting improvements in academic achievement. Students who received three years of MORE lessons, which are embedded within science and social studies time for six weeks per school year, outperformed control students on end-of-grade state standardized tests in both reading comprehension and math. In fact, the difference in reading for MORE students was equal to more than nine and a half weeks’ worth of literacy learning. And the results persisted. Why? MORE focuses on teaching for transfer.

Building Knowledge Over Time

We found three key components that shape this curriculum and that we believe are driving the gains. While our study is specific to MORE, it provides insights relevant for any educator using a knowledge-building curriculum.

  • Building Vocabulary Networks for Long-Term Growth

Rather than vocabulary lists, transferable knowledge is rooted in vocabulary networks. Such networks are connected by key ideas. Students are taught to master the meaning and parts of words as well as the “company that they keep.”² These focus words taught in a lesson can be purposefully chosen to relate to unit-specific content while also building a bridge to broader topics and words. For example, if students know and thoroughly understand the word “system,” they can better understand a variety of concepts, such as the skeletal system, ecosystems, and market systems.

  • Using Schemas to Understand the Unfamiliar

The very act of learning is to engage with the unfamiliar. Schemas, which are mental models, allow us to organize knowledge efficiently around topics. Schemas help students to spot connections between seemingly unrelated topics. For example, when MORE students developed a schema about paleontologists studying dinosaur fossils, they were better able to read about topics that were seemingly different, such as archeologists studying the ancient city of Pompeii. By studying one type of scientist, students acquire a robust set of words and concepts that can be applied to similar topics. 

Curricula that put schemas at the fore promote transfer by making connections and bigger patterns explicit and visible to students. They include activities that visually map and group related vocabulary together and give students the opportunity to predict and build larger schemas as they mature. 

  • Revisiting Concepts Through Spiral Curriculum

In a spiral curriculum, students encounter and revisit fundamental ideas at various levels of complexity over time.³ Instruction initially focuses on student mastery of simpler concepts, which are then revisited with increasing complexity in later units. By explicitly linking to prior learning across years and topics, spiral curricula can both strengthen students’ knowledge of foundational topics and expand it into new ones. Both the e Next Generation Science Standards and National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies are built upon this concept.

Individual teachers have incorporated aspects of “transfer” for years, inspired by their students’ excitement when engaging with high-interest topics like dinosaurs. But systematic c knowledge-building curricula feature an important difference: such learning is not a one-off, but an intentional building of background knowledge.

Our research also found that because developing transfer takes time, we need to view transfer along a continuum rather than as something a student can or cannot do. The “transfer yardstick” can help determine how well students understand passages that differ by various degrees from the original content or context: near, mid, and far. After participating in the MORE knowledge-building curriculum for three years, students in our study made gains in “far transfer,” including on standardized reading and math tests.

Now, with instructional practices that focus on teaching for transfer, we can better aid students in acquiring the knowledge they need to become proficient readers to empower them to navigate the wider world.

¹ Kim, J. S., & Burkhauser, M. A. (2022). Teaching for transfer can help young children read for understanding. Phi Delta Kappan, 103(8), 20-24.

² Firth, J.R. (1957). Papers in linguistics. 1934-1951. London: Oxford University Press

³ Bruner, J. S. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.