Background Knowledge

The Efficacy of Digital Media Resources in Improving Children’s Ability to Use Informational Text: An Evaluation of Molly of Denali From PBS KIDS

Kennedy, J. L., Christensen, C. G., Maxon, T. S., Gerard, S. N., Garcia, E. B., Kook, J. F., Hupert, N., Vahey, P., & Pasnik, S. (2022). The Efficacy of Digital Media Resources in Improving Children’s Ability to Use Informational Text: An Evaluation of Molly of Denali From PBS KIDS. American Educational Research Journal.

Informational text — resources whose purpose is to inform — is essential to daily life and fundamental to literacy. Unfortunately, young children typically have limited exposure to informational text. Two 9-week randomized controlled trials with 263 first-grade children from low-income communities examined whether free educational videos and digital games from the PBS KIDS show “Molly of Denali” supported children’s ability to use informational text to answer real-world questions. Study 1 found significant positive intervention impacts on child outcomes; Study 2 replicated these findings. Combined analyses demonstrated primary impact on children’s ability to identify and use structural and graphical features of informational text. Results are discussed in the context of the scalability of educational media to support informational text learning.

Related news story: Can a TV Show Really Help Kids Develop Reading Skills? What a New Study Says

The Science of Reading Comprehension Instruction

Duke, N.K., Ward, A.E., & Pearson, P.D. (2021). The Science of Reading Comprehension Instruction. The Reading Teacher, 74(6), 663– 672.

Decades of research offer important understandings about the nature of comprehension and its development. Drawing on both classic and contemporary research, the authors identify some key understandings about reading comprehension processes and instruction, including these: Comprehension instruction should begin early, teaching word-reading and bridging skills (including graphophonological semantic cognitive flexibility, morphological awareness, and reading fluency) supports reading comprehension development, reading comprehension is not automatic even when fluency is strong, teaching text structures and features fosters reading comprehension development, comprehension processes vary by what and why we are reading, comprehension strategy instruction improves comprehension, vocabulary and knowledge building support reading comprehension development, supporting engagement with text (volume reading, discussion and analysis of text, and writing) fosters comprehension development, and instructional practices that kindle reading motivation improve comprehension. The authors present a visual depiction of this model, emphasizing the layered nature of impactful comprehension instruction.

Building Content Knowledge to Boost Comprehension in the Primary Grades

Cabell, S.Q., & Hwang, H.J. (2020). Building content knowledge to boost comprehension in the primary grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(1), 99-107.

The potential of background knowledge to support linguistic and reading comprehension has been a relatively neglected topic in the science of reading. The authors clarify why knowledge building in English language arts instruction (i.e., content‐rich instruction) can support language and content knowledge, leading to better linguistic and reading comprehension, based on theoretical arguments and empirical studies. The authors review the evidence on this claim, paying special attention to experimental trials conducted in K–2 settings. The authors also share preliminary findings from a novel intervention study testing the example of a widely used content‐rich English language arts curriculum. While a growing literature base demonstrates evidence of promise, additional rigorous trials are needed to examine the effectiveness of this integrative approach to teaching reading for understanding.

Improving reading comprehension, science domain knowledge, and reading engagement through a first-grade content literacy intervention

Kim, J., Burkhauser, M., Mesite, L., Asher, C., Relyea, J., Fitzgerald, J. & Elmore, J. (2020). Improving reading comprehension, science domain knowledge, and reading engagement through a first-grade content literacy intervention. Journal of Educational Psychology. 113. 10.1037/edu0000465. 

In this study, classroom teachers taught first-grade children about science knowledge while they conducted literacy instruction. Grounding literacy instruction in science content is called content literacy instruction. The aim of content literacy instruction is to help young children acquire conceptually related vocabulary while learning science (and history) content. Results indicate that content literacy instruction can improve first-graders’ science domain knowledge (as measured by vocabulary knowledge depth, listening comprehension, and argumentative writing) and reading comprehension outcomes. Furthermore, there were no negative or adverse effects on first graders’ reading engagement or basic literacy skills. The study suggests that content literacy instruction can improve the rigor, quality, and effectiveness of whole class literacy instruction in the early elementary grades.

Learning across boundaries:how parents and teachers are bridging children’s interests

Lori Takeuchi, Sarah Vaala, and June Ahn. Learning across boundaries:how parents and teachers are bridging children’s interests. Spring 2019. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Worksop. New York: New York.

When a young person discovers something that sparks an interest, opportunities to unlock even deeper levels of learning emerge as she becomes motivated to master her knowledge about a particular subject. This report presents findings from separate surveys of 1,550 U.S. parents and 600 pre-K–8 teachers on whether, to what extent, and how U.S. children ages 3–12 are linking their learning experiences across home, school, and community settings. The inquiry paid particular attention to the ways in which caregivers and teachers support and, in some cases, impede the development of young children’s interests and the learning associated with pursuing these interests. Focusing on differences across demographics, the developed environment, and socio-economic status while taking an equity perspective, findings highlight areas of weakness and strength in this ecosystem of connected learning, suggesting what we need to pay attention to if we are intent on facilitating seamless learning across boundaries.

How Much Knowledge Is Too Little? When a Lack of Knowledge Becomes a Barrier to Comprehension

Tenaha O’Reilly, Zuowei Wang, John Sabatini. How Much Knowledge Is Too Little? When a Lack of Knowledge Becomes a Barrier to Comprehension. Psychological Science, 2019; 095679761986227 DOI: 10.1177/0956797619862276

Previous research has shown that students who lack sufficient reading skills, including decoding and vocabulary, fare poorly relative to their peers. However, this study suggests that a knowledge threshold may also be an essential component of reading comprehension. A sample of students took a background-knowledge test before working on a reading-comprehension test on the topic of ecology. Results revealed a knowledge threshold: Below the threshold, the relationship between comprehension and knowledge was weak, but above the threshold, a strong and positive relation emerged. Further analyses indicated that certain topically relevant words (e.g., ecosystem, habitat) were more important to know than others when predicting the threshold, and these keywords could be identified using natural-language-processing techniques. The findings underscore the importance of having reached a basic knowledge level to be able to read and comprehend texts across different subjects:

Knowledge and Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking

Willingham, D. (May 2016). Knowledge and Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking. Knowledge Matters, Issue Brief #1.

A strong body of evidence shows that analysis requires deep knowledge of the topic, and therefore critical thinking can’t be reduced to a set of skills and strategies. In short, to “think like a scientist,” a student must know the facts, concepts, and procedures that a scientist knows. Background knowledge is absolutely integral to effectively deploying important cognitive processes. What this means for teachers: (1) facts should be meaningful; (2) knowledge acquisition can be incidental; and (3) knowledge learning should start early.


Beyond Comprehension: We Have Yet to Adopt a Common Core Curriculum That Builds Knowledge Grade by Grade, But We Need To

Hirsch, E.D., Jr. (2011). Beyond Comprehension: We Have Yet to Adopt a Common Core Curriculum That Builds Knowledge Grade by Grade — But We Need To. American Educator, Winter 2010-2011, American Federation of Teachers.

Most of today’s reading programs rest on faulty ideas about reading comprehension. The author argues that comprehension is not a general skill; it relies on having relevant vocabulary and knowledge. He explains the need for a fact-filled, knowledge-building curriculum. He suggests that states should adopt a common core curriculum that builds knowledge grade by grade in order to serve all children to the best of one's ability and to increase reading achievement.

Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge — of Words and the World

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge — of Words and the World. American Educator (2013) 27, 10-29.

Research indicates that the chief cause of the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups is a language gap. Much work on the subject of language and vocabulary neglects a fundamental element of word acquisition that is so basic as to be almost invisible: The relationship between language and the world knowledge to which language refers is extremely strong — there is evidence that by teaching solid content in reading classes we increase students’ reading comprehension more effectively than by any other method. A good, effective language-arts program that is focused on general knowledge and makes effective use of school time will not only raise reading achievement for all students, it will also narrow the reading gap — and the achievement gap — between groups.

"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl