Why Blog

I’m passionate about finding ways to simplify comprehension instruction and learning. I’m concerned that we are defining comprehension too narrowly as an accumulation of five or six meta-cognitive strategies when cultivating comprehension involves so much more than that. We need to help children acquire accurate fluent reading skills and strategies; build background knowledge; develop their oral language and vocabulary; make reading-writing connections, and acquire a repertoire of meta-cognitive strategies to use as and if needed.

So I invite you to join me in blogging about this ever-so-important topic. I look forward to hearing your ideas, teaching strategies, book recommendations, classroom stories, etc., basically anything that will inspire a healthy conversation among colleagues.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Background Knowledge—You Have to Have It to Use It

Nothing is as important to children’s reading comprehension as the knowledge and experience they bring to texts. You’ve heard this before. In college courses, in seminars, in professional literature. Background knowledge RULES. We know from our own experience that it’s difficult to understand a text whose topic we know little about, a medical journal or financial report, for example. Yet, despite our understanding of how important background knowledge is to reading comprehension, I doubt that most of us feel it in our bones. I see it when I work with teachers and ask them to bring to a meeting their favorite books. Invariably, most teachers bring along fiction titles. I see it in summer reading lists my grandchildren bring home. I even see it on children’s literature blogs. We love stories and we should. But we also need to squeeze out room for informational texts so that our kids can begin to acquire the background knowledge they’ll later need to understand more complex texts. 

One surefire way to help build background knowledge is to read more informational texts aloud to students. Make a commitment to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. Or follow the rule of thumb I give to students who resist either one genre or the other—for every two fiction (or nonfiction) books you read, you have to read a nonfiction (or fiction) title. Once you wet your appetite for nonfiction, they’ll be no turning back.

Then there’s the matter of what books to read. I like to select read aloud titles based on topics that excite students or those that relate to content-area topics they'll be studying. You might also decide to pair two books on the same topic. That way you can compare the information presented in each and the text features and access features used, and you’ll be sure to give kids the opportunity to hear the same content-area vocabulary repeated throughout out both readings. Frogs! from Time for Kid’s and Frogs! from National Geographic are excellent titles to read and compare if your kids are studying life-cycles. What are some of your favorite nonfiction titles?


  1. Check out the CYBILS website (www.cybils.com) for great new nonfiction titles. I have been a panelist for nonfiction picture books the last three years and every year there have been tons of really outstanding nonfiction nominees!

  2. I did check it out as you suggested and it's wonderful. a ton of wonderful books we should all know. thanks. i intend to include it as a blog entry in the near future to make sure everyone hears about it. thanks.

  3. Sharon,
    I enjoyed your post, and am glad to see your new blog. As educators we often think about the background knowledge children bring to a text, but I'm not sure we always think about how to BUILD background for our readers. Building background knowledge can open the door to new texts in addition to other obvious benefits for students. I can't help but think about how important this thinking is for our second language learners.


  4. Are you familiar with Janice Kristo and Rosemary Bamford's Nonfiction in Focus: A Comprehensive Framework for Helping Students Become Independent Readers and Writers of Nonfiction, K-6? It's my all-time favorite resource for building background knowledge so kids can later access it. I hope you get the chance to check it out. It's a Scholastic Theory and Practice title.

  5. I just stumbled on your blog so I apologize if you've mentioned this before but have you heard of The Comprehension Toolkit by Stephanie Harvey? I love, love, love this resource, just wish I had enough time to teach the lessons the way they do! I just started a blog for parents of younger students: http://cuddlenread.blogspot.com. I'm working more on developing phonemic awareness. Check it out if you have time. I look forward to following yours!

  6. yes, of course, the comprehension tool kit is a wonderful resource for teachers. your blog is very cool as well. you may want to check out the resource shelley harwayne wrote for scholastic called guess who's learning to read. she has loads of suggestions and book titles your blog readers might love to know about.