What is Missing in Reading Instruction?

  • by Kelly Harmon
  • March 10, 2022, 2:11 p.m.

When I began my teaching career in 1991, guided reading was a new practice that was being introduced in schools across the country. The focus of the guided reading groups was to help students develop metacognitive strategies they needed to process a text on their instructional reading level. In these groups, the teacher provided necessary scaffolds. It was up to the teacher to decide the type of scaffold the student might need. For example, a student might not have background knowledge related to the events or topic of the text. The teacher would then provide some background information to support comprehension.

A few years ago, after six hours of zoom sessions with the staff at Student Achievement Partners, I came to a realization that the metacognitive strategies were only a part of the process that students need to learn. For many students, inferencing comes easily when scaffolded by the teacher during small group reading time. But given a cold read, those same students did not always transfer the skill.

The key reasons for lack of transfer are that our students don’t have the background knowledge related to the topic of the new reading, nor do they have a scaffold to provide that knowledge as they process the text.

So what do we do when students lack background knowledge?

1. Assess Background Knowledge

The Qualitative Reading Inventory 4 (now in 7th edition) was the first assessment I used to monitor prior knowledge related to the passage to be read. Before reading, students are asked four questions about the concepts in the text and the answers are scored on a 0 to 3 level. A score of zero meant the student had no background knowledge and a score of three meant the students had extensive background knowledge that would help them comprehend the text. When working with even the most dyslexic of students, if they scored more than 50% on the concept knowledge assessment, their comprehension was always at 70% or better. It is impossible to make inferences without using some background knowledge.

On a daily basis, we can quickly assess background knowledge. Prior to reading or studying a new text or topic, activate any and all related background knowledge. Ask students 3-4 concept questions related to the topic. Give students those same questions after learning about the topic. The questions cue students to focus on specific information about the topic. The picture below is an example of questions to use to help students assess and build background knowledge before and after reading.

2. Teach students to make the connections to their background knowledge. Skilled readers always start with activating prior knowledge using questions like the following:

  • What do I know about the situation or topic?
  • Is my background knowledge related to what I’m reading?
  • How can my background knowledge help me make sense of what this author is trying to tell me?
  • How can my understanding of the words being used help me to understand this author's message?

Some students have what we call an "unearned advantage" in that they’ve had a lot of experiences and read a lot of books. They have been engaged in many learning experiences and have been read to extensively. These children have a lot of background knowledge about a lot of topics. Unfortunately many students have an "unearned disadvantage." They just haven’t had the opportunities that other students have had.

3. For each unit of study, create a real world-based theme or topic study. We must integrate science and social studies into reading, language arts, and math instruction. Throughout the unit, students will learn the skills and strategies while learning about the world.

For example, during a unit on argumentative writing, students can pick a social studies or science-related topic and create a public service announcement or "Ted-like" talk. They research the topic to explore all arguments, facts, details and examples related to the topic. The goal is for the learner to become an "expert" on this topic prior to giving their talk.

We should go back to thematic teaching. I’m not talking about teaching apples in September and bats in October. I’m talking about diving deep into topics such as the climate or why it’s necessary to reduce recycle and reuse. We need to create units of interest that will generate curiosity about a topic. Students will have multiple opportunities to use comprehension strategies and skills to process the text and videos on the topic.

So what topics will you introduce to your students? Let's make sure that learning about the world becomes as important as learning reading and writing skills.