Reading: Bringing the Background Up Front
My son jumped into the car when I picked him up from school and asked, “Dad, who’s your favorite superhero?”*
With an (only mildly) exaggerated sigh, I replied, “You asked me that this morning.”
“Do you want to hear mine?”
“I thought it was Batman.”
“He’s my favorite superhero who doesn’t have superpowers. Flash is my favorite with superpowers who’s a boy and Wonder Woman for a girl.”
He is nothing if not an informed ten-year-old. We recently found a book for him, DC Comics Ultimate Character Guide, and we are not surprised he’s digging it, reading up on Mister Freeze on the way to his baseball game or boning up on his Green Arrow villains’ bases of operation.
I was thinking about my boy’s ardor for folks-in-capes as I read Daniel Willingham’s recent book, Raising Kids Who Read (Jossey-Bass, 2015). Dr. Willingham writes in this book that one of the most crucial ingredients to “being a ‘good reader’ is ‘knowing a little bit about a lot of stuff’”(p. 18). He posits that background knowledge is imperative for reading comprehension; that, in fact, the sum total of the former correlates directly to success with the latter (18). Why? Because writers omit information that they assume readers will know, so the more understanding of the topic at hand, the easier it will be to “fill in any holes” left by the author and thus make connections to the reading. When we make these connections we make meaning, and when we make meaning we increase the possibility of comprehending the words on the page.
The best strategy to develop this background knowledge, Dr. Willingham reports, is by reading—books and magazines, mostly. Other media—television, the internet, movies—shoot a little spark, but it's books that provide the bigger bang. (While the internet has much to read, kids generally use the computer for less academic pursuits.) And the more we read, the more knowledge we gain, the more connections we make, the more positive our response to the reading is, the more we read—a positive feedback loop of learning. In the case of my boy, that loop runs through Gotham City, around the planet Krypton, and down to Atlantis.
How do we facilitate the reading of books and magazines?
1. Play to Their Interests While Paying Heed to Skill
Books at an appropriate level will give children the appropriate challenge, neither frustrating them nor allowing them to feel a false sense of ability. Tapping into their interests will ensure they begin the book and, perhaps better still, stick with it.
2. Provide Lots of Choices
Knowing their interests allows us to litter the table with options. Being able to speak even quasi-cogently about the books' ingredients, especially with enthusiasm, informs students and gives them entry into the story. There are magazines for almost any interest (video gaming, surfing, knitting, baking, celebrities) and they can feel more welcoming for less-confident readers because magazines are slimmer and include more visual stimuli.
3. Don't Forget Graphic Novels or Magazines
Do not disparage comic books—for lots of students, especially students with learning differences and English-language learners, they can be an entrée to the pleasures of stories and, at the same time, they do not take the place of "more serious reading" (Krashen, 1996). The vocabulary in graphic novels, like their non-illustrated peers, often transcends conversational language which can assist in furthering comprehension of future texts.
4. Take a Trip to the Library
If your students do not already have one, have them sign up for a library card. This "credit card for our imagination" offers opportunities that many children and young adults do not realize are available to them. In truth, it is not even imperative to check anything out: the environment is conducive enough for fomenting reading efforts (Celano, 2001).
5. Model 'The Right Reading' in the Classroom
Children emulate the grown-ups in their lives—if we want our students to develop their background knowledge by reading books and magazines, those are what we should read in our rooms. This will sound like scolding, but if we are carrying our phones at all times and using our downtime to read them, why would our students do different?
No matter where your child is on the background-knowledge-continuum, it is never too late to get going. As Willingham says, "You can always learn. The bad news is that there is not a shortcut. Vocabulary and knowledge of the world accrete slowly, over the course of years. If there is an easy way to hurry it, scientists haven't found it" (161).
Dr. Willingham tells us we need background knowledge in order to understand more of what they read. What we need to do in order to get more of it will prove heavier lifting for teacher and student alike, but that is for what a classroom is expressly designed.
* Naturally, I chose Aquaman: I want to speak to whales and ride around the ocean astride a pair of dolphins, enlisting the assistance of giant squids in the fight against crime.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.