Category Archives: background knowledge

The “Big Ideas” of Reading Comprehension and How Decodable and Leveled Texts Fit In (Or Don’t)

One of my favorite sessions from DyslexiaCon19 was Nancy Chapel Eberhardt and Margie B. Gillis’s session entitled Analyzing the Comprehension Demands of Text for Beginning Readers. Their message resonated with Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap and provided much needed perspective in how educators approach text processing (in contrast to product).

There’s an assumption among many educators that decodable texts aren’t valuable in terms of comprehension, and while the controlled orthography in decodables certainly does limit the plot and vocabulary, that doesn’t mean decodables are devoid of opportunities to deepen comprehension while strengthening decoding. Eberhardt and Gillis demonstrated this beautifully.

They discussed three “big ideas” in comprehension that contribute to text processing and their related cue questions for teachersto consider before teaching with any text (decodable or authentic texts):

  1. Background Knowledge
  2. Text Cohesion
  3. Inferential Thinking

Background knowledge is the fund of information garnered from real life, videos, stories, informative text, and reading oneself that each reader brings uniquely to a text. As explored in depth in The Knowledge Gap and a related post, background knowledge is essential for students to glean meaning from what they are reading. As educators preparing to present students with any kind of text, we must analyze the words and phrases that are essential to understand the text.

That’s where Eberhardt and Gillis’s third “big idea” of inferential thinking comes into play. Inferential thinking is the informational “gap-filling” readers have to do in order to figure out something by combining partial information in the text with prior background knowledge. It’s essential to understand a text and reach higher order cognitive skills by making a mental model based on the text and one’s prior knowledge.

It’s easy to assume students may be able to read a text based on (often contestable and misleading) readability formulas, but we must consider the knowledge the author assumes readers will already bring to the text in order to comprehend it. Readability measures text complexity in terms of word length, syntactical structures, etc. And while that certainly impacts comprehension, so much more goes into comprehension than mere formulaic features. Teachers must take the time to consider what vocabulary and conceptual knowledge is essential for students before they enter the particular text.

To harken back to Natalie Wexler, this calls for a much greater scale of change not just in individual teacher practices, but at the schoolwide, districtwide, statewide, and even nationwide level in how and what is taught. Progressive education in the United States has left students with a knowledge deficit that results in considerable comprehension challenges, struggles that could be avoided if we bring real content into schools through explicit and systematic instruction in history, geography, civics, science, and the arts. Ideally, teachers should be teaching content in units spanning several weeks on the same topic so that students have time to develop the necessary background knowledge and vocabulary acuity in order to be able to step into deeper thinking about those topics. But I digress…

The second “big idea” from Eberhardt and Gillis is text cohesion, which is the method by which one sentence is related to another through sentence structure and word choice. Good writers use cohesive ties, such as conjunctions, to show how not only the syntax flows from one phrase or clause to another but also how the ideas from one sentence to another are related.

Sadly, omitting cohesive ties for the sake of readability eliminates these relationships and thus robs students of opportunities to develop awareness and understanding of cohesion in text. This not only negatively impacts students’ ability to comprehend texts but also stymies their facility with generating text as writers themselves.

Leveled readers—authentic texts that are often predictable but not controlled—are purportedly designed to help struggling readers eventually be able to attain grade-level texts by providing books “at their level.” However, they are not aligned in any way to decodability (what the students have been explicitly taught about the sound-symbol relationship). The irony of leveled reading is that it traps students in below-grade level texts which are devoid of rich language and cohesive ties—the very aspects of language that build meaning and offer instructional fodder. Taking away such structures for the sake of readability doesn’t allow students to learn how certain words, like conjunctions, function and how they demonstrate complex relationships among ideas in a sentence, paragraph, or text.

Charles Haynes’s cohesion strategy to aid writers can be applied to reading comprehension.

Eberhardt and Gillis join Charles Haynes in advocating for the use of micro-discourses not only to develop emerging writing skills but also to develop understanding of text cohesion. Micro-discourses are small chunks of text—perhaps a paragraph or just a sentence or two—to develop the ability to think about what we’re reading. The idea is to focus on less in order to get more out of it. In contrast, the goal of readability, in many instances, is to push students into longer texts, thinking the volume of reading reflects the depth of comprehension. But volume does not equal comprehension.

Cognitive preparation is essential to help students access the meaning of more complex texts; the masterful implementation of micro-discourses enables students to get this practice. That is where true teaching comes in. As educators, our job is to teach students, not hand them a book written at a sub-par level that has eliminated the very complexity that makes text meaningful and expect students to develop into effective comprehenders. If the purpose of any given lesson is comprehension, taking out cohesion is not helpful.

But what of decodable text? Aren’t the same criticisms valid? No, because unlike leveled literacy instruction (LLI), the purpose of using controlled texts is to systematically target one isolated aspect of reading: decoding. Decoding is the strand of the reading rope that requires direct, explicit, systematic instruction of skills. By presenting students with texts that only contain the phonics concepts they’ve learned, it sets students up for successful decoding which, in turn, prepares them to move forward onto more complex phonics concepts and ultimately frees up the student to have the cognitive space to comprehend more complex texts. Decodable texts are merely a stepping stone on a student’s journey towards attaining comprehension.

The trouble with LLI and other balanced literacy approaches is that they confuse the need for direct skills instruction in decoding with direct skills instruction for comprehension. As Natalie Wexler so poignantly address in The Knowledge Gap, misconceptions in how to teach reading have led many to falsely assume decoding was the aspect of reading that happened naturally while comprehension requires explicit instruction in a set of strategies. Nothing could be more backwards. The reading brain doesn’t start with meaning and then figures out what word the letter makes up; no, it starts with looking at the orthography to analyze the phonology in order to read the word. Only then are semantics activated. Students need to be able to decode before they can access meaning. Decodables give students the targeted practice essential for building the neuronal pathways that get students on the road to reading.

With that said, Eberhardt and Gillis expertly demonstrated that even decodables offer opportunities to develop background knowledge, inferential thinking, and awareness of text cohesion—if teachers know what they’re looking for. So there’s no reason to wait to discuss comprehension until a student has mastered the code; even in controlled texts, teachers can begin to help students understand text cohesion, vocabulary, and syntax.

This is where essential instructional emphasis needs to focus. As Sharon Vaughn said, “We don’t teach reading comprehension; it’s a result.” The way we reach our goal in helping students achieve comprehension is to lay a strong foundation in all the component pieces that will equip students to comprehend. Eberhardt and Gillis proposed that instructional emphasis to support developing readers’ text comprehension should focus on content and vocabulary (for background knowledge), syntax and grammar (for text cohesion), and building background knowledge (for inferential thinking).

How would this alter the way you or your school district current approaches comprehension?

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.