Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: The Evidence Grows

by Robert Pondiscio
July 6th, 2009

 Dan Willingham’s latest over at Britannica Blog (“What Makes a Good Fourth-Grade Reader? Knowledge.”) highlights a new study showing that integrating material from other subjects in reading instruction boosts comprehension.  Ten-year olds in Hong Kong rose to 2nd among 44 nations on the 2006 PIRLS international reading test.  Researchers looked at dozens of variables, Willingham notes, ”to determine which instructional factors were associated with student reading achievement.”  They found the most important factor in reading achievement was the frequency with which the teacher used materials from other subjects in reading instruction.

“The results are impressive in their clarity, and important because they dovetail so well with theories of reading comprehension, described here. Once students can decode, background knowledge is crucial to reading comprehension. Ensuring that students have wide-ranging knowledge of the world ideally begins at birth, through a rich home environment. Schools must do everything possible to support and expand that knowledge base, and integrating material from other subjects into the reading curriculum is an important step in the right direction.

Willingham has said it before, but too few people get it:  Teaching content IS teaching reading:


Willingham is en fuego this week.  USA Today catches up with Dan’s latest book, Why Don’t Students Like School?  If you follow the Core Knowledge Blog, the interview by Greg Toppo plays like a Dan Willingham greatest hits album– our brains are not designed for thinking, good teachers find the sweet spot of mental challenge, “learning styles” are hooey–but it’s heartening to see Dan’s wisdom get the full national treatment, where it will be an epiphany to countless parents and more than a few teachers, too.

Richard Whitmire highlights the USA Today piece and get the headline just right:  “If you don’t know Daniel Willingham, you should.”

1 Comment »

  1. “The Matthew Effect” to those who are given much content, they are also given reading comprhension, and educational values, and an educated future, applies to all aspects of education.

    Robert Balfanz’s study of 23 middle schools in Philly concluded.”Within each school, students either significantly closed their achievement gaps or fell further behind.” When students attended class at a rate of 95%, had excellent behavior, and put forth “greater-than-average effort in class, “a remarkable 77% closed their achievement gaps.” On the other hand, sixth graders who failed math or English, who had an attendance rate of 80% or less, or had a poor behavior grade, had only a 10 to 20% chance of graduating on time.

    Simliarly, the Chcago School Constortium just documented the reasons why teachers leave high poverty school to lower poverty schools after they tire of the disorder and disrespect, meaning that the Matthew Effect gives more of the best teachers to the schools that are given fewer crises. Simlarly, there’s longstanding pattern where principals with politcal leverage get to enforce their schools rules and transfer out their greatest problems. That incarnation of the Matthew Effect has been pumped up on steriods since charters have proliferaated.

    High performing schools would never choose to repeal the Matthew effect by voluntarily narrowing their curriculum and replacing electives with content-restricted artificial test prep.

    Even with the usual suspects trotted out by “reformers” arguing for their pet instructional theories, they rely on the Matthew Effect. in D.C. Shaw Middle School, for instance, where they recruited nation-wide for teachers to implement their intensely classroom-driven approach, they offer all of the services that the Bolder Broader Approach could dream of.

    We should remember back when we were kids. Did we learn to read through scripted instruction monitored by continuos assessment? Or did we read on the laps of our parents who also helped introduce us to a world of fascinating stuff i.e. content?

    If we want to help kids who haven’t had our advantages at a young age, we need to give up on shortcuts and listen to Willingham who takes our common sense and explains it scientifically.

    Comment by john thompson — July 7, 2009 @ 10:50 am

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