Bringing background knowledge into focus

Duke et. al. argue that disciplinary and world knowledge is one of 10 essential elements of effective reading comprehension instruction. Students’ relevant background knowledge influences their success in comprehending texts, and their reading comprehension can be enhanced through study of disciplines such as science and social studies. “Reading, writing, and language are best developed when they are put to work as tools to help students acquire knowledge and inquiry skill in a specific domain.”

CaptureAccording to Hansel and Pondiscio, students’ dearth of background knowledge is a major factor contributing to disappointing reading test scores and the growing achievement gap between the rich and the poor: “Test after test shows relatively little growth and large gaps…but the root of the problem is not our children’s poverty—it’s the poverty of our ideas, of our high-stakes accountability policies and of our curricula.”

In 2013, a national survey ascertained the following average daily instructional times devoted to each of the core subjects:


  • Reading/language arts: 89 minutes
  • Math: 54 minutes
  • Science: 19 minutes
  • Social studies: 16 minutes


  • Reading/language arts: 83 minutes
  • Math: 61 minutes
  • Science/social studies: 45 minutes

Hansel and Pondiscio note that schools serving low-income students tend to devote even less time to science and social studies instruction. These unbalanced time stamps are likely the results of high-stakes testing in language arts and mathematics.

Although an emphasis on literacy in isolation may result in quick reading gains early on, gaps in comprehension become apparent in later grades. Hansel and Pondiscio advocate for accountability policies that “incentivize schools to patiently invest in building students’ knowledge and vocabulary.”

Otherwise, according to Duke et. al., “the possibility exists that by emphasizing generic reading instruction at the expense of disciplinary learning, we may be, as the saying goes, cutting off our noses to spite our faces.”



Duke, N., Pearson, D., Strachan, S., & Billman, A. (2011). Essential elements of fostering and teaching reading comprehension. What research has to say about reading instruction, 51-93.

Hansel, L. & Pondiscio, R. (2016). To boost reading, stop blaming teachers and start building knowledge. Education Week. Retrieved from

Robelen, E. (2013). Math, science instruction probed in national survey of teachers. Education Week. Retrieved from



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s