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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Beyond decoding: Teaching knowledge, vocabulary builds comprehension

In Portage, Michigan, fourth graders are reading about hurricanes -- including words such as "atmosphere" -- in their English Language Arts class, writes Sarah Schwartz in Education Week. Fifth graders in Evanston, Illinois read about the clash between pioneers moving West and the Nez Perce tribe.

Students don't build reading comprehension through the eternal search for the main character, research has found. They need to build knowledge and vocabulary to understand the world and make sense of what they read.

A growing number of districts are using “knowledge-building curricula" that "feature tightly constructed sequences of text" thematically related to a science or social studies topic, she writes "While students still practice comprehension strategies — such as summarizing or inferring — the curriculum prioritizes deeply understanding the content, rather than isolated skill exercises."

“Science of reading” advocates have championed knowledge building as the critical next step after students learn decoding, she writes.

Typically, units are organized around topics rather than general themes, writes Schartz. Readings and read-alouds "help students build a schema, or a mental model that allows them to apply what they’ve already learned to understand something new." Teachers explicitly teach vocabulary. Finally, "writing and discussion prompts connect directly to the text and give students an opportunity to analyze what they’ve learned."

Portage's knowledge-building curriculum is more challenging than earlier programs, said Courtney Huff, a district literacy coach.

And in 5th grade, students study human rights by exploring young women’s experiences in the Middle East under Taliban influence. They read The Breadwinner, a novel about an 11-year-old girl in Kabul, but also memoirs and first-person accounts from real children living in Afghanistan and a book about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani women’s rights advocate who won the Nobel Peace Prize as a teenager. Incorporating knowledge from throughout the unit, students write about such sweeping questions as: “How do beliefs, ethics, and values influence behavior?” And: “When should you take a stand against injustice?”

The Knowledge Matters Campaign has unveiled a curriculum review tool to help districts choose "high-quality, content-rich literacy instruction," writes Barbara Davidson on The 74. Eight K-8 ELA programs are recommended.

Louisiana is piloting a new reading test that's linked to the state's curriculum. It measures students on content and texts that they’ve already been exposed to in class, not passages that are completely unfamiliar to them," writes Libby Stanford in Education Week. The pilot was inspired by research showing that "reading comprehension is heavily dependent on student knowledge."

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