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.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A "Background Knowledge" TREAT for You!—Pass It On

I just returned from Seattle and Portland where I spoke with teachers about how too much of our instructional time is spent teaching kids to use comprehension strategies. And that, if we’re truly interested in improving reading comprehension, we need to redirect some of our attention to other comprehension-related areas, such as background knowledge, oral language and vocabulary, and reading-writing connections, as these aspects of reading instruction also impact children’s ability to understand what they read.

During a break, Marina, one of my new Oregonian friends, told me about a podcast that she had recently listened to (and has since listened to at least four times). This American Radio Works podcast is an interview with Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, who teaches at the University of Virginia and is the author of numerous American Educator articles and the book Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. In this podcast, Willingham shares the same concern that I expressed in my seminar—we’re overdoing strategy instruction and need to find ways to equip students with background knowledge that will help them to fill in the gaps the author left and make sense of what they read.

More than anything I encourage you to make the time to listen to this 13- minute podcast. You won’t be sorry. And as you plan your lessons for the week and throughout the year, consider Willingham’s wise words. Look for ways you can include more content-area texts in your literacy block. Recognize that when you’re teaching science and social studies you’re also teaching reading comprehension by providing kids with the information they need to understand.

Pass it on… (And thank you Marina.)


  1. Sharon, I'm a mom of three who loves to read blogs about education and, in particular, reading. My oldest is 5 and amazes me everyday with the leaps and bounds in reading that children her age can make. I've been enjoying your blog, and I found the podcast very informative. I would love to hear some of your ideas for how parents can expand the background knowledge of their children. (As I comment to my daughter's teachers, we're a team in her education.) We read aloud zealously, talk to our kids as we go through the day and try to provide them with a range of experiences. I'd love to see your thoughts on this for parents.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  2. hi lauren, your daughter's a very lucky little girl! here's what i'll do: let me spotlight your question in the "ask sharon...column." This way i can give myself the time to reflect on your very important question and then respond within the next week. thanks for writing.

  3. That's wonderful! Thanks for taking the time to address this. I'll look forward to the column.

  4. Just clicked "one day shipping" on Amazon prime! :) Thanks for the new resource, my friend, and thanks to your Oregonian friend, Marina! I'm passing it along too!!

  5. what would we ever do without amazon prime!

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  7. Hear! Hear! Wonderful post, Sharon. Thanks so much for sharing the podcast too--enjoyed listening and sent it on to the teachers in my school. I think they'll find it useful in balancing the bigger literacy picture. It seems vocabulary work and background knowledge building still don't get the attention they deserve. Were the teachers you worked with in Seattle and Portland receptive? These ideas connect with the article I posted on my Facebook literacy wall (from "The American Prospect")--such important, thought-provoking issues. By the way, I am loving your blog. Thanks so much for all your efforts!

  8. Thanks Janiel. And yes, the Seattle and Portland teachers were right with me—and a whole lot of fun too!