The Knowledge Gap & Reading Comprehension

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The Key to Unlocking Comprehension and Closing the Knowledge Gap

I hope this blog post finds you all well and full of enthusiasm for another exciting year of teaching! Today, I am thrilled to introduce you to an enlightening new podcast called “Knowledge Matters” by Natalie Wexler, where she emphasizes the importance of building students’ knowledge in reading comprehension. In her book The Knowledge Gap and on her podcast, Wexler examines the causes of the achievement gap in our nation’s schools: the failure to systematically teach and build knowledge of the world around us.

As the science of reading confirms, there is more to becoming a proficient reader than just phonics. We need to foster students’ word-level decoding and language comprehension to build overall comprehension. We understand that reading comprehension is not merely a skill to be taught in isolation. It is a complex process that requires a solid foundation of knowledge. Wexler aptly states:

“If kids don’t have the vocabulary and knowledge to read the passage in the first place, they’re not going to be able to find the main idea.”

Natalie Wexler

To Improve Comprehension:

We need to dive deep and equip our students with a wealth of background knowledge. Here are a few key steps to consider:

  1. Building a Strong Foundation: Reading comprehension cannot flourish without a rich bank of prior knowledge. We must foster a love of learning and encourage curiosity in our students, providing them with diverse experiences and exposure to a wide range of texts.
  2. Prioritize content-rich curriculum: Providing students with a curriculum that is systematic and rich in content across various subject areas is crucial. Teachers should take a deep dive into a topic and spend several weeks on it. This helps broaden the students’ knowledge base and equips them with the necessary tools to comprehend complex texts.
  3. Language Comprehension and Word Recognition: Attention to phonics and comprehension do not need to be disparate approaches. Choose a curriculum and instructional approaches that address all strands of the reading rope. For example, chose a word in your target phonics pattern and discuss its multiple meanings and relation to your class read alouds. If your topic is Parts of the Year and your phonics pattern is vowel teams, discuss the multiple meanings and parts of speech of the word season.
  4. Connecting the Dots: Help students make connections between what they already know and what they encounter in their reading. Activate their prior knowledge, encouraging them to draw on their experiences to make sense of new information.
  5. Explicitly Teach Vocabulary: Introduce and explore new vocabulary words within a meaningful context. Teach students how to infer meaning from context clues and encourage them to utilize this skill independently. Consider teaching “Tier 2 words” that students may not use in their everyday language.
  6. Encourage Wide Reading: Offer students a variety of reading materials that span various topics and genres. These can include read alouds that include more advanced vocabulary and syntax. Then students can read more simple texts with the schema and vocabulary they gained from the read alouds and class discussions. By exposing them to different subjects, we help broaden their understanding of the world and enhance their comprehension abilities.

Reading Comprehension Strategies We Can Retire:

While it is essential to embrace effective instructional approaches, it is equally important to recognize and let go of outdated practices that hinder comprehension. Here are a few instructional approaches that we should no longer use:

  1. Overemphasis on skills isolated from content: Isolating reading skills from meaningful content can be counterproductive. Instead, integrate skill instruction within the context of rich, content-based instruction. This approach allows students to see the purpose and relevance of the skills they are learning.
  2. Overreliance on worksheets and generic comprehension questions: Simply filling out worksheets or answering generic comprehension questions can stifle critical thinking and fail to engage students. Instead, encourage open-ended discussions, debate, and analysis of texts to foster deeper comprehension.
  3. Ignoring the importance of background knowledge: Recognize that background knowledge is not a given for all students. Providing opportunities for all learners to build their background knowledge is crucial for equitable access to comprehension strategies and success in reading. Accessing our students’ background knowledge can be paramount in addressing the “knowledge gap.”

By taking the time to cultivate background knowledge and vocabulary, we equip our students with the necessary tools to comprehend complex texts effectively. Remember, reading comprehension cannot be taught solely through isolated strategies; it requires an integrated approach that combines strategy instruction with a focus on building knowledge.

I hope that you will consider listening to the Knowledge Gap podcast and brainstorming ways to support your students’ comprehension.

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