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

A student thinks with his eyes closed
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Start here

For an accessible primer that covers the basics, read 9 Things Science Tells Us About How Kids Learn to Read and Think Critically by The 74 and the Knowledge Matters Campaign (2016). Go deeper into what cognitive science has discovered about the importance of knowledge by checking out “Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later” in the third section.

This ten minute video from leading cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham gives an excellent overview: Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading (2009).

Knowledge isn’t just important to reading comprehension, it’s also essential to critical thinking, as Jill Barshay details in Why Content Knowledge is Crucial to Effective Critical Thinking (2019).

Natalie Wexler details the implications for reading curriculum in Building Knowledge: What an Elementary Curriculum Should Do (2020), as well as the implications for less privileged children.

Holly Korbey takes us inside Baltimore City Schools to understand what knowledge-building curriculum looks like in action in Is It Time to Drop ‘Finding the Main Idea’ and Teach Reading in a New Way? (2020).

Recent studies with kindergarteners offer strong evidence for knowledge-building curriculum, as Natalie Wexler reports in New Data Shows Building Knowledge Can Boost Reading Comprehension (2021).

Deeper learning

Why do schools deprioritize knowledge-building? In Building Knowledge: The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for All Children (2006), E.D. Hirsch, Jr. traces the roots of the problem and makes a powerful case for content-rich curriculum, especially for less privileged children.

Knowledge-building curriculum needs to be thoughtfully designed for coherence within and across grades. Barbara Davidson and David Liben detail the hallmarks of these curricula in What a Knowledge-Building Approach Looks Like in the Classroom (2019).

Read alouds are a staple of high-quality curriculum, because students’ listening comprehension exceeds their reading comprehension through age 13, and regular read alouds support knowledge and vocabulary acquisition for all children. Andrew Bieliller explains in Oral Comprehension Sets the Ceiling on Reading Comprehension (2003).

Writing instruction can build and deepen knowledge. In The Connections Between Writing, Knowledge Acquisition, and Reading Comprehension (2019), Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler explain how careful curriculum design can accomplish this goal, while modulating the heavy cognitive burden imposed by writing.

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. History = Literacy (2022) by Jonathan Bassett explains how an elementary-level history curriculum can boost the knowledge and vocabulary that enable students to understand complex text in general.

Master class

Hugh Catts discusses the benefits of integrating content instruction with comprehension strategies and argues for better reading comprehension assessments in his tour de force article Rethinking How to Promote Reading Comprehension (2021).

Discovery-learning approaches are conventional and popular in the United States, yet three prominent cognitive psychologists offer voluminous evidence for more explicit instruction, paired with questioning and discussion, for learners new to a topic, in Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction, by Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner, and John Sweller (2012).

Schools of education tend to promote beliefs that conflict with scientific findings about how people learn, including the idea that building students’ knowledge is relatively unimportant. Natalie Wexler traces the history of the existing divide between schools of education and the rest of academia in Why So Many Kids Struggle to Learn (2021).

Barak Rosenshine pulls from several branches of research to summarize ten principles that support knowledge acquisition in Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know (2012).

Cognitive load theory, which describes the key role of knowledge in enabling learners to understand and retain new information, has been called “the single most important thing for teachers to know,” yet it’s seldom explained to the field. Cognitive scientists John Sweller, Jeroen J.G. van Merrienboer, and Fred Pass unpack the concept in Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later (2019).