Build knowledge to teach reading

Building background knowledge orally is the “secret sauce” of Core Knowledge’s reading program, writes Robert Pondiscio.

Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own.

. . . This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language.  They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment. . . .  If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

Also on Core Knowledge Blog: ‘Opinion is to Knowledge as Dessert is to Vegetables.’

Elementary reading books are short on non-fiction, but California’s new readers are a small step in the right direction, writes Dan Willingham on his blog. He agrees that background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension.

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  1. We’ve had good luck with choosing books at a few different levels for each topic. I read the harder ones and then have my child read the easier ones both for reading practice and to reinforce the ideas. In the beginning he read very simple books out loud to me. Now he sometimes read the books to himself, sometimes to me so that I can check his reading. He likes it when one of the ‘big words’ from my reading shows up as a ‘new bold print’ word in his books. We’ve been able to move from a series of simple ‘readers’ about science/geography topics to more interesting picture and text books for him to read, but on the first day of a new topic I usually read a book so that he knows proper pronunciation and has a decent framework for the information.

  2. Open Court Readers do that right now. For example, if a story is about the main character frequently spending money unwisely, questions that are given to prompt prior knowledge are “What is hard about saving money?” and then you have students do a think-pair-share.

    • Ponderosa says:

      The problem with “prompting” or “activating” prior knowledge is that the prior knowledge often isn’t there. And do we need to “prompt” relevant prior knowledge, or does it automatically issue forth? I think it’s often the latter.

      The real work of building reading ability lies in building up content knowledge. Everything else is just gimmickry.

      • “Think-pair-share” induces acute nausea, both for me and for my kids. Please, let the kids work ON THEIR OWN. Please

  3. E.D. Hirsch makes a very strong case for the importance of what he calls background knowledge — and its role in closing the achievement gap– in The Knowledge Deficit.

  4. Gee, its a good thing Robert Pondisco came along, I’d never thought of that on my own, or learned it in college 20 years ago.