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March 21, 2023
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Setting the Conditions for Building Knowledge

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Four ways a content-rich learning environment can support literacy.
Instructional Strategies
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This is the last in a series of articles on how educators can support literacy by bringing knowledge-building into their classrooms (read the first, second, and third posts). Our group of 14 scholars has distilled a rich body of research into 10 practical recommendations for educators. In this post, we discuss recommendations 7-10 on setting the conditions for building knowledge.
Most young children are motivated to learn to read. While it may not immediately rival video games or television, reading can become a source of real joy and power as children learn to crack the code, find relevance in what they’re reading, and see that texts help them grow and share their knowledge.
Our final four recommendations describe the conditions that foster this kind of development—how educators can purposefully nurture reading and writing motivation and engagement by grounding instruction in the sorts of texts that build knowledge and providing a coherent, content-rich learning environment that will equip students to become lifelong learners.

7. Engage and Excite

Knowledge can be highly motivating for students. Pairing hands-on activities and/or real-world scenarios with sustained reading from multiple texts leads to positive attitudes toward reading, fosters curiosity, and increases reading comprehension and subject matter knowledge both at the elementary and middle-school level.
When discussions are centered around interesting topics, elementary school students can better develop specific language skills. For example, students who prepare for and participate in small-group discussions centered on high-interest, knowledge-rich topics, such as immigration or animal rights, grow their social studies content knowledge as well as vocabulary, morphological, and syntactic knowledge. Reading a variety of interesting texts in social studies can also increase students’ self-efficacy for reading, another dimension of reading motivation. In fact, reading achievement and motivation to read have a reciprocal relationship: Among 3rd- and 4th-grade students, reading achievement and intrinsic motivation to read each boosted the other. The motivation of  English Learners has also been boosted by knowledge-rich interactions with texts.
In addition, when texts connect with and extend students’ content knowledge, students read more books and spend more time reading. Prior knowledge and motivation to read within a topic or domain are both important contributors to reading comprehension in the late elementary grades. Further, research with college students has shown that the more students know about a topic, the more motivated they become to learn about it.

Building, applying, and sharing knowledge with others has a positive effect on reading comprehension.

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When students are motivated to read, they are more likely to engage and interact with a text. Research shows that motivation is malleable—what we do as educators matters. Research has identified many factors that can support motivation: providing opportunities for collaboration, fostering a sense of belonging, offering tasks that are perceived as challenging but attainable, establishing the relevance of the learning, and connecting learning to hands-on or real-world activities.  Research points to several examples of how building, applying, and sharing knowledge with others—where engagement and motivation are key design principles—has a positive effect on reading comprehension:
  • In Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI), children in grades 3 to 5 build knowledge through reading texts about a science topic and engaging in related science investigations. Children share their knowledge by giving presentations or writing books, with positive effects. Use of CORI with 6th and 7th graders of multilingual backgrounds in history education has also been found to be effective (e.g., United States History for Engaged Reading). 
  • In Project PLACE (Project-Approach to Literacy and Civic Engagement), 2nd-grade students build knowledge by reading and listening to texts about a social studies topic and engaging in experiences such as map-making and interviewing. They then apply and share their knowledge by producing written works for their community, such as fliers, postcards, or letters to local leaders, all with positive effects
  • In the Model of Reading Engagement (MORE), 1st- and 2nd-grade students learn about topics in science or social studies (e.g., animal survival) that are anchored to a schema, which is a way to organize information in the mind. Topics are explored through informational texts that afford multiple exposures to target vocabulary within the conceptual theme, key concepts, and explicit connections to students’ prior knowledge.  MORE demonstrated improvement in science knowledge, listening comprehension, argumentative writing, and both short- and long-term reading comprehension.
The emphasis on writing in all of these effective approaches, and many others, is no accident. The opportunity to share knowledge with others can be very compelling for students. As explained in the previous article, writing supports knowledge building and reading development, and vice versa.

8. Curriculum Counts

Coherent, integrated instruction across reading, science, and social studies can simultaneously build knowledge and literacy. This integration can boost children’s understanding of the world and the words used to describe it and can provide the foundation upon which new knowledge is built.  A strong curriculum supports this work in multiple ways, including by:
  • Organizing instruction to build knowledge logically. Lessons are anchored in science and social studies topics and in which one topic builds upon and connects to the next. Students develop increasingly sophisticated discipline-specific skills, such as planning investigations in science and analyzing and evaluating historical artifacts.
  • Using conceptually coherent text sets. Topics are explored through an intentionally assembled set of texts, sequenced to incrementally build knowledge. Texts can span a range of genres and should expose students to repeated and related words and ideas. Conceptually coherent text sets can deepen knowledge and vocabulary across successive readings or read-alouds.
  • Engaging children in writing about the knowledge they are building. Many effective approaches, such as those described in the previous section, engage children in using the knowledge they are building to communicate with others in oral and written form. Teaching others about what one has learned often serves to solidify understanding of the content.

Students benefit when a curriculum connects what they are learning to what they already know.

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The bottom line is that children learn best when they engage with texts and experiences on related concepts and topics, rather than randomly jumping from topic to topic or broad themes. Students benefit when a curriculum connects what they are learning to what they already know. This notion that we connect the new to the known is among the most robust of findings in cognitive psychology and forms the backbone of carefully designed, responsive instruction.

9. Use Texts as Tools

The types of material—and by this we mean books and articles, as well as other media like visual texts, audio recordings, and videos—that educators use can strongly influence knowledge building. For example, informational books can be a powerful tool to build knowledge, and a number of studies have shown that video can support learners, particularly multilingual learners, in developing stronger content vocabulary knowledge and understanding of informational texts.
No matter their form, texts should reflect a broad variety of cultural backgrounds. This includes texts with authors, illustrators, characters, or subjects who share students’ backgrounds, as well as those that introduce students to other backgrounds. Such texts function as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors,” which allow readers to see themselves, recognize others, or walk into unfamiliar worlds through the act of reading.
Types of knowledge-building texts include: 
  • Informative or explanatory texts, which convey information about the natural and social world. 
  • Persuasive texts, which often invoke knowledge in service of an argument and can offer compelling opportunities to scrutinize and critique the information conveyed.
  • Procedural texts, which provide instructions and tell us how to do something. 
  • Nonfiction narratives, which can build children’s knowledge of true events and experiences. 
  • Biography and autobiography, which convey knowledge about a person’s life (and even the historical context and circumstances of that life).
  • Literary texts, which are written more to convey experiences than to impart information, can build knowledge as well, such as about human nature, the profession in which a character works, or the historical context in which a character lived. 
How students engage with the texts they read can also impact how much knowledge they are able to build.  The opportunity to write about what one has read is particularly powerful. Research finds that balancing reading and writing supports growth in students’ vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing. And when children receive feedback on what they’ve written from others, whether peers or teachers, impacts are even stronger.

10. Safeguard Science and Social Studies

Content-rich English language arts (ELA) curricula crucially support knowledge-building through study of biographies, informational texts, historical fiction, and so on. Still, the use of such curricula is no substitute for dedicated instruction in science and social studies. Literacy curricula that include social studies or science content, even when well-sequenced and rich, do not address all science and social studies standards, are not focused on some of the skills that are required of historians and scientists, and may not be informed by science and social studies education research.

Science and social studies have often been crowded out of the K-5 curriculum, especially in places where remediation in reading and math is a priority. This is truly an issue of educational equity.

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The core subjects of science and social studies have, sadly, often been crowded out of the K-5 curriculum, especially in places where remediation in reading and math is a priority. This is truly an issue of educational equity; for example, when schools pull multilingual learners out of science and social studies lessons to deliver English language instruction, they risk depriving those students of content knowledge and a strong context in which to develop English language proficiency, including academic language.
The Council of Chief State School Officers recommends 45 minutes of daily social studies education for elementary students, while the National Science Teaching Association has called for 60 minutes of science instruction daily. These recommendations are in stark contrast to the 21 minutes of social studies and 24 minutes of science instruction that surveys tell us 4th-6th grade students currently receive each day. They are in even greater contrast to the reported average of 16 minutes for social studies and 18 minutes for science in K- 3. Unfortunately, research provides little guidance regarding how schools can meet these recommended minutes.
We suggest schools scrutinize their school day to see whether there is time being spent on common practices that research does not support. We also recommend that schools consider integration as a way to maximize instructional time. As noted throughout this series, integrating reading and writing appears to have benefits for both, and integrating literacy and content-area instruction can also be beneficial to both domains.
In this four-part series, we have looked to research to support reading success, highlighting 10 strategies for bringing knowledge-building into the classroom. We hope district administrators and classroom teachers will use this series as a springboard for substantive discussion about how these evidence-based practices can be deployed in their context now and in the future.

An Essential Reading List for Literacy Research

Scholars from the Scientific Advisory Committee share freely-accessible articles on knowledge-building and comprehension.

An Essential Reading List for Literacy Research

The Knowledge Matters Campaign promotes excellent instructional practices in schools and raises awareness of the importance of content knowledge to reading comprehension and critical thinking. The Campaign receives guidance from a distinguished group of 14 education researchers who constitute the Scientific Advisory Committee. While this group is not formally associated with the Campaign and does not directly endorse—as a group or as individuals—its work, they are committed to advancing educators' understanding of how children learn to read and write.

Marilyn Jager Adams
Visiting Scholar, Brown University

Ana Taboada Barber
Professor and Associate Dean, Research, Innovation and Partnerships, College of Education, University of Maryland

Sonia Cabell
Associate Professor of Education, Florida Center for Reading Research, Florida State University

Hugh Catts
Professor of Communication Science and Disorders, Florida State University

Anne E. Cunningham
Professor, Learning Sciences and Development, Berkeley School of Education, University of California, Berkeley

Nell Duke
Professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture and in combined Program in Education and Psychology, University of Michigan

Lily Wong Fillmore
Professor Emerita, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley

Claude Goldenberg
Nomellini & Olivier Professor of Education, Emeritus, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University

Danielle McNamara
Professor, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University

Kate Nation
Professor of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford

Susan Neuman
Professor, Early Childhood and Literacy Development, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University

Kathleen Rastle
Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London

David Steiner
Executive Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

Daniel Willingham
Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia

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