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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

From wombats to koalas: Does knowledge 'transfer' for young readers?

"Chatty Chick chats in church" in a poem used by reading tutors. Last year, the second grader I was tutoring was shocked at Chatty Chick's rudeness. This year, the first grader asked what "church" is?

Wombats are native to Australia. Photo: Penny/Pixabay

Learning phonics is only the first step in learning to read, Natalie Wexler has emphasized. As more schools shift to explicit teaching of phonics, in line with the "science of reading," they're also looking for "content-rich" curricula to build students' knowledge of science, history and other topics, she writes in Forbes.

Does such curricula build reading comprehension?

“If Mrs. Smith’s third grade spends a year studying wombats,” reading researcher Tim Shanahan has written, “the kids may be superstars when reading on that topic, but what about other texts? Wombat knowledge isn’t likely to improve comprehension of texts on the U.S. Civil War, 2020 elections, or relativity.”

Standardized reading tests don't show improvement, writes Wexler, because they "rely on passages on random topics that aren’t tied to anything kids have learned in school." Children with educated parents show higher comprehension because their parents have developed their knowledge and vocabulary at home. Doing that at school takes time.

"Still, there is some evidence that combining literacy instruction with subjects like social studies and science can boost standardized test scores in the early grades after only a year or less," she writes.

Matthew Carrano is curator of Dinosauria at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. Photo: Smithsonian

In a longer-term study of MORE (Model of Reading Engagement), "first- and second-graders got a science curriculum designed to gradually build their 'schemas' — mental frameworks that enable people to understand the information they’re taking in." For example, if we have a schema for "dogs," we can recognize that a Great Dane and a chihuahua are both dogs.

In first grade, the question addressed by the curriculum was “How do animals survive in their habitat?” In second grade, it was “How do paleontologists study dinosaurs?” The general schema these units were designed to lead up to was “scientific study of the natural world.”

After two years, researchers found children in the MORE group outperformed the control group in their ability to understand a reading passage about paleontologists using fossils to study ammonites and another about archaeologists studying human fossils to research ancient Pompeii. However, there was no difference when students read a “far-transfer” passage about genealogists studying people’s ancestors.

To build vocabulary students should spend two or three weeks on books about a single topic, writes Wexler. "Vocabulary words that are taught directly should be drawn from texts in the curriculum," read aloud by the teacher. "Once they’ve heard a word a few times in meaningful contexts and, ideally, used it in class discussion, they’re more likely to understand it in texts they read independently."

Again, knowledge is the key. "If students learn about, say, lions and tigers, they’ll also be acquiring general concepts and networks of words that apply to felines they haven’t learned about — say, lynxes," Wexler writes. "If they then read about lynxes, they’ll pretty much automatically have an understanding of what a lynx is."

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