Background Knowledge: The Compass Pointing to Reading Comprehension

Warning: The following statement may be rather shocking, especially to long-standing teachers of reading. Brace yourself.

“We don’t teach reading comprehension; it’s a result.”

Sharon Vaughn

Sharon Vaughn made this claim during her keynote address at the International Dyslexia Association’s Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago. These sentiments were echoed by several presenters at the conference, from Mark Seidenberg to Nancy Eberhardt and Margie Gills. In contrast to the way reading comprehension is often presumed to be directly taught through specific strategy instruction in most classrooms across the U.S., structured language and literacy’s stance on how reading comprehension works is founded upon the Simple View of Reading first proposed in 1986 by University of Texas researchers Philip Gough and Bill Tunmer. According to this model, readers must be able to decode the print and possess sufficient oral language comprehension in order to extract meaning from a text.

Reading Comprehension = Decoding + Language Comprehension

To quote one of our favorite teachers of syntax, Mr. William Van Cleave, “Simple doesn’t mean simplistic.” The Simple View of Reading may be eloquently distilled into foundational terms, but that doesn’t imply that the process of reading is easy or simplistic. Reading, and the process of acquiring literacy, is not a natural or simple process, but a complex restructuring of the brain to engineer novel pathways for the unnatural task of literacy to to be achieved.

Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope visually captures the complexity implied in the Simple View of Reading through its multiple strands making up each component of reading comprehension. As we focus on the language comprehension piece, we see that it is made up of many prerequisites, such as background knowledge, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, literacy knowledge, and verbal reasoning abilities.

Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope

The premise of many of the presenters at DyslexiaCon19 was that reading comprehension is not a skill but an end result. It’s not something that can be directly taught, unlike the foundational components of decoding like phonological awareness or phonics. Reading comprehension will happen when each strand of the reading rope is strong and intertwined.

Look at that rope. There are a lot of strands, each one presenting its own unique complexities. Perhaps the strand least emphasized in our current educational moment is the background knowledge strand. With the recent release of Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap, there’s been a lot of conversation within the world of literacy about the necessity of background knowledge in order for reading comprehension to occur. As Sharon Vaughn puts it, readers need Word Knowledge and World Knowledge to comprehend what they’re reading.

A landmark study by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie in 1988 showed that possessing background knowledge about the topic was a greater predictor of successfully comprehending a text than word reading skills. In the study, children who were poor readers but had background knowledge about the topic better understood the text than stronger decoders who didn’t have background knowledge. This fact is both astounding and common sensical. Prior knowledge creates schemata upon which the act of reading can build. Without some prior knowledge, the message conveyed through the symbolic world of print is often lost. But with background knowledge, even if deciphering the code is a challenge, one at least has a compass in hand to guide them in the right direction.

Background Knowledge is like a compass, guiding readers to comprehension.

This is why reading comprehension is not a linear process; we comprehend different texts at various degrees of competence based upon our unique prior knowledge we bring to the text. So in some ways, teachers are never truly teaching reading comprehension but rather assessing it, or more accurately, perhaps, assessing the sum product of a student’s decoding abilities, background knowledge, vocabulary, and syntactical understanding. Reading comprehension is a result, not a skill in isolation to practice. Background knowledge is the neglected key to unlock comprehension for so many students.

Perhaps this is a simplistic illustration, but I’ll never forget the first time I experienced a true fall scene; the leaves of every tree adorned themselves in multifarious hues—aflame in crimson, gilded in gold, or alit in amber. The visual beauty was heightened by the crisp freshness permeating the autumn afternoon and the satisfying staccato of crunchy leaves that accompanied my every step. Weeks later, I noticed a calendar hanging on an office wall depicting a beautiful autumnal landscape. The photograph took my breath away because I had experienced it. Of course, I had seen many similar photos before of lovely fall scenery and could appreciate the beauty of it, but until I had lived it, no picture had connected so viscerally.

It’s similar for readers.

To truly take in, experience, and engage with a text, readers need to have some background knowledge of the topic. Otherwise, it’s like asking a person with visual impairment to sketch a sunset. They may capture the general gradient, but the subtleties of hues, lines, and textures are lost and with it the whole message of the sunset. What we bring to a text in terms of prior knowledge in many ways determines how we understand what we read because a major component of reading is inferring that which authors do not explicitly make clear, assuming readers can fill in the gaps. Asking students to comprehend a text they have no prior knowledge of is like asking them to make a sketch of a sunset with blinders over their eyes.

Can you sketch a sunset with blinders over your eyes?

Reading strategies can be helpful, but as Natalie Wexler points out, all reading comprehension strategies “rely on activating prior knowledge—which means they only work if a reader has enough background knowledge to understand the text in the first place” (2019).

Much of what teachers do when purportedly teaching reading comprehension is have students read and then answer questions about the text. This is assuming the students actually understood what they read in the first place. To truly understand, students, once they’ve mastered the foundations of decoding, need the vocabulary and prior knowledge before any other reading strategy can assist them. In addition, they need to understand the subtle syntactical and grammatical structures indicating meaning and creating cohesion in a text. Yet, sadly, direct instruction in background-building content areas like social studies and science is often neglected in order to make room for huge literacy blocks, which are often not structured around the science of reading in the first place.

This is a social justice issue. We know that children who come from homes with lower socioeconomic statuses already enter kindergarten with a huge language deficit—in vocabulary, syntax, and, of course, background knowledge. Teaching reading comprehension strategies while forsaking background-building content and strong vocabulary development is like planting seeds in rocky soil. You can hope something may spring up, but chances are there is not enough soil for the seed to take root and grow. Our children—all children—deserve to have the soil of their minds cultivated through instruction that explicitly fosters the development of all the necessary strands of the complex and almost miraculous process of reading comprehension.

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