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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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Guest
Mar 03, 2023

When one of our kids was in early grade school, I notice Magic School Bus was on TV. I set the DVR to record it, and never mentioned it to him. Without my realizing he had done it, he watched the whole series twice. He learned more science from that show than he did in 5+ years of elementary science class.

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Guest
Mar 03, 2023

I'm all for adding science back in to the elementary school curriculum. Science was booted here when full inclusion and nclb began. The whole class instructional time is spent instead on language acquisition for those that are below grade level. Similar reduction was done for social studies, spelling, and arithmetic.

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Guest
Mar 03, 2023

Once upon a time, Core Knowledge curriculum taught history. Magic Tree House is also fine, as was the Magic School bus. Schools don't do that because when you reach content, you immediately reveal who reads and who doesn't, who retains what they e read and who doesn't, who learns more and who doesn't, who comes from a home invested in learning, and who doesn't. All of those revelations are verboten.


Even on your own, trying to give this content to kids is rough. Have you tried to find these books in your local library systems? While MTH is still there, the MSB books and other beloved nonfiction picture book authors are gone. Out of print. Old copies sold off. Even…

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Guest
Mar 02, 2023

A perspective from 8 years ago by an entrepreneur on how schools make kids hate reading. And that includes the how they judge kids who read.


“Shakespeare did not intend for his work to be used to torture minors.”


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9ZzRTj-GGs&feature=youtu.be&t=389

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Guest
Mar 02, 2023

Or... here's an idea.... why not let them just have at the entire Magic Treehouse series as soon as they can read? There's a ton of background knowledge and vocabulary, supplementary non-fiction books, and enough plot/character that the kids get hooked and use it as a jumping off point. Alternatively, START with a field trip to a museum/zoo/historic site... get the tour, build the scaffold in an engaging environment, and THEN go back to the class to learn more. Also, the background knowledge issue is real. We tried to talk about Abraham and Moses in religious ed last night. No one knows Ur, Israel, Egypt, Pharaoh, or.... even that there weren't cars and electricity in biblical times. These are 3rd and 4th graders…


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