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Building Background Knowledge in Science Improves Reading Comprehension

A new study finds promising results from a literacy program in elementary schools
Boy playing with dinosaurs in library

If there is something that most people agree about learning, it is the need to improve children’s reading comprehension — the million-dollar question of course is how to do it. A new study, led by James Kim at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, offers some innovative solutions.

Educators have long used phonics instruction to teach children reading skills. Previous research shows that when it comes to understanding complex texts though, prior knowledge is also really helpful. Kim’s longitudinal study took existing literacy research on knowledge-building a step further by testing out a content literacy intervention in elementary schools. The 12-month program was designed to build up kids’ background knowledge in science and social studies, with a view to giving them a leg up on reading comprehension as they transitioned from first to second grade and onward.

Almost 3,000 students in 30 schools participated in the study which used a curriculum, developed by Kim and colleagues, called the Model of Reading Engagement (MORE).

The role of schemas in developing students’ knowledge and reading comprehension

There are other knowledge-building curricula around, but Kim says what sets MORE apart is assisting kids to develop a schema which he describes as “a mental framework that helps [students] organize, acquire, and apply knowledge.”

After the teachers in the study participated in the necessary professional development and training, the general schema they taught their students was: how scientists study past events. In first grade, the kids learned about how animals survive, and they studied Arctic animals. In second grade science, the students explored how dinosaurs became extinct and how paleontologists study dinosaur fossils.

The children also learned about the idea of key concepts and how they would come across these concepts again when they read about any study of animals. When the teachers introduced new material in second grade, they connected it back to the students’ existing schemas, and the children learned how to use their knowledge from first grade to tackle more challenging but related science work. (A planned social studies unit was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Key findings:
  • Expanding children’s background knowledge improves reading comprehension.

“Background knowledge matters for helping kids transfer their knowledge to new comprehension tasks,” says Kim. The schools in the study were “able to stimulate transfer over a two-year period and that’s a big, big deal,” he explains.

The teachers used what is known as a “spiral” curriculum which progresses from simple to more complex concepts over time and steadily builds up students’ knowledge to improve reading comprehension.  

At the end of second grade, the students were given a science reading comprehension test called a “transfer test” to find out the extent to which they could use what they had previously learned and transfer their knowledge to read about unfamiliar but related topics. The results showed that the students who followed the MORE curriculum performed better in near and mid-transfer passages – texts that were closer to the students’ previous science work – but not significantly better on a far-transfer passage that was about a different topic than the one the kids had studied.

  • The MORE kids were also assessed on their general reading comprehension, with passages related to science, history, and literature, and performed better than those who did not participate in the program.

Five key takeaways:

  1. Summer learning loss is reduced. There was less learning loss for the treatment group than the control group. Curriculum and instruction were aligned during the school year and then students were required to read informational books over the summer which were tied into a schema and thematically related.
  2. Print books are important. Digital books were not used by students during the school year lessons. “I think there is good evidence that we comprehend less on screens than on paper,” says Kim.
  3. Different types of learners benefit. “When we look at the impact of MORE for all of these different groups of kids — the struggling readers, the less struggling readers, white students, students of color — the impact is the same for all the subgroups,” Kim explains. “It’s as if a rising tide lifts all boats.”
  4. Equitable outcomes are improved. Seventy percent of the learners included in the MORE study are Black and Hispanic and the majority are from low and middle socioeconomic backgrounds. According to Kim, “many children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not get sufficient amount of instruction in science and social studies.” The reason is that “the time devoted to the subjects is often cut because there's an overemphasis on reading and math” which are the subjects that are tested and for which schools are held accountable, he explains. “Because these schools are under these accountability pressures, they don’t often focus on science and social studies instruction, which is what is critical to building kids’ background knowledge,” Kim says.
  5. Testing should be revised. When it comes to standardized reading tests, Kim believes there has to be a “much more fine-grained approach” in order to recognize “what kids can actually read and understand,” with a view to going back and re-teaching what kids didn’t learn well and also reinforcing learning. Testing experts and some parents worry about teachers “teaching to the test,” but Kim says that the evaluations in his study were designed so that teachers could not do that and instead had to focus on developing general schemas and deeper conceptual learning. The MORE method “gives you a much better signal of how well teachers taught and how all students learned,” he explains. 
Future work

Kim and his team are working to make their curriculum more widely available to teachers and districts this year. The researchers are also continuing to follow the reading progress of the children in their study and are finding promising results. After second grade, students in the MORE schools continued to implement lessons in third grade. At the end of third grade, MORE students continued to outperform control students on general reading comprehension tests.

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