Articles on Classical Education » The Missing Link in Reading Comprehension and Academic Achievement

The Missing Link in Reading Comprehension and Academic Achievement

by Jason Caros, June 2014

Reading comprehension and overall academic achievement can be greatly improved, and learning gaps closed, by systematically increasing the amount of academic content knowledge students learn beginning in the elementary grades.

The Sisyphean task

In ancient Greek mythology a king named Sisyphus was cursed by the gods to roll a giant boulder up a hill, but just as he reached the top the boulder would roll back down. Poor Sisyphus would have to repeat the labor throughout eternity. I sometimes wonder if educators are engaged in a Sisyphean task when it comes to their approach to improving student reading comprehension.

Teachers have been hard at work for decades aiming to improve student reading using the latest research in literacy, cutting edge teaching resources, and barrels of educational funding. What has been the result? According to the gold standard of educational assessments, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), elementary student reading scores have seen moderate increases since the 1970s, and this has been due, in large measure, to a growing understanding about the best early instruction in how to read. Unfortunately, reading scores for middle school students have improved only slightly, and scores for students in high school have remained relatively unchanged for over 40 years.

NAEP Long Term Trend in Reading

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long-Term Reading Assessments.


Why is it that high school scores have not budged since the 1970s? Furthermore, why are the scores so low? When reading tests are given at the high school level, at such a critical point in children’s lives, prior to graduation, large numbers of students perform poorly. On the 2013 NAEP examination, only 32% of high school seniors rated “proficient” in reading. In places like Florida and Texas, states that have pioneered high stakes assessments, about 55% of high school students earned satisfactory marks in 2014.[i] Some critics of testing question the merits of national tests such as NAEP, or state tests like FCAT and STAAR, when describing the lack of progress of high school students over the last few decades. Others suggest student apathy is partly to blame. While there may be some truth to these ideas, there is another tangible reason we can point to. One of the factors in sub-par reading performances is the growth of informational text and cognitive complexity in the reading passages from the fifth to high school exams. Studies of textbooks and other teaching resources have revealed much of the reading elementary students engage in at school is fiction (and not very challenging fiction at that). These studies affirm how the transition to more informational text requiring increased amounts of academic knowledge often makes comprehension of non-fiction texts very difficult for middle and high schoolers.[ii]

For years, teachers and administrators have been working very hard at moving the literacy boulder up the hill, using the best available research and resources, but they have not achieved the desired results. The fault has not been with these educators, but rather with the conventional wisdom that has guided the way they have approached literacy instruction. Until they think differently about literacy and act accordingly, student reading ability and overall academic success will not improve much.

In 2006, Stanford University’s Koret Task Force, charged by then Florida Governor Jeb Bush to review Florida’s K-12 educational system, determined that Florida’s dynamic reading initiative, known at the time as Just Read, Florida!:

has done much to enhance reading instruction, first in the elementary grades and then at the middle school level. It now requires that any students in grades 6 through 12 who have phonological problems enroll in an intensive reading course. As it continues to implement these policies, it should both seek student mastery of phonological skills (through 12th grade, if needed) and the acquisition of appropriate knowledge at each grade level, an aim that is not currently emphasized in the “Just Read, Florida!” guidelines but is an essential element in enabling students to read at grade level as they advance to middle school and high school. [iii] (emphasis added)

In The Koret Task Force’s report can be found the root cause and solution to the reading comprehension crisis, and departments of education and school districts across the nation should take notice. The bottom line is the missing link in reading comprehension and academic achievement can be found in a proper emphasis on academic content or background knowledge encouraged by The Koret Task Force and leading researchers who have written comprehensive studies on this topic such as E.D. Hirsch, Robert Marzano, and Daniel Willingham.[iv]

What is reading comprehension?

The National Reading Panel has identified key elements of effective reading instruction that include letter recognition, phonemic awareness, phonics,[v] fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Schools that have truly focused on all these elements have seen positive results; however, some educators have viewed the ability to read as a matter of teaching students to decode fluently, and once children have this “skill” down they can understand words by using formal comprehension strategies. The reality is, good readers are effective decoders, they are fluent, and they have a broad vocabulary and background knowledge. Being a fluent decoder does not mean one will become a skilled reader because reading comprehension depends upon “knowledge of words and the world.” [vi] Students need broad and rich knowledge bases to recognize and understand the meaning of words and ideas they read throughout their years in school and beyond.

Experts estimate one needs to understand at least 90% of words in a passage to infer the meaning of the other 10%. When word knowledge falls below 90% in a given passage, comprehension falls greatly.[vii] Interestingly, 90% of the reading difficulties of adolescents are due to problems with comprehension, only about 10% are due to accuracy, decoding, or word level difficulties (e.g. dyslexia).[viii] Many of our students just do not have enough broad academic knowledge in history, in the social sciences, literature, in the natural sciences, and in other content areas to read well, and formal reading strategies can only take them so far down the road to comprehension. Content knowledge, and vocabulary acquired through learning about content, is what enables comprehension ability to increase. In fact, no amount of reading “comprehension skills” instruction can compensate for lack of knowledge.[ix] Let us put this assertion to the test.


Use your “skills” to understand the text

Directions: Use your reading comprehension skills to understand the passage and answer the questions below.


Corandic: Corandic is an emurient grof with many fribs; it granks from corite, which garkers excarp by glarcking the corite and starping it in tranker-clarped storbs. The tarances starp a chark, which is expanged with wortes, branking a storp. This storp is garped through several other corusees, finally frasting a pragety, blickant crankle: coranda.

Coranda is a cargurt, grinkling corandic and borigten. The corandic is nacerated from the borigen by means of loracity. This garkers finally thrap a glick, bracht, glupous grapant, corandic, which granks in many starps.


Questions (Main Idea and Supporting Details):

What is corandic?

What does corandic grank from?

How do garkers excarp the tarances from the corite?

What does the slorp finally frast?

What is coranda? [x]


You probably answered the questions correctly, but still do not understand what you read, right? Your experience reading Corandic is similar to what many students experience on a daily basis. They are given assignments to read and respond to but because they do not have the background knowledge to understand the text they are almost clueless. Like you in this exercise, students can often figure out answers because they have been trained to do so. In other words, they have been taught a reading process but do not have enough content knowledge to really understand what they are reading, as good readers would be able to do. They can answer some questions, but comprehend little about what they have been assigned to read and learn.

The following is a history passage students in upper elementary grades could be asked to read. Consider what readers need to know to understand it:

Farmers in ancient Egypt thought of the year as having three seasons: flood time, seeding, and harvest. Each year the Nile River would flood. This was good news for farmers because Egypt is mostly desert, and not enough rain falls to grow crops. The annual flood would last for a few weeks, and then the water level would drop, leaving a layer of fertile, black mud. This mud fertilized the soil, and the flood water was stored in a series of canals. A special government department was in charge of making sure the canals were kept in good repair.[xi]

What background knowledge is assumed here? Students that have had opportunities in elementary school to learn some basic history and science related to Egypt, landforms, farming, seasons, and waterways have a distinct advantage over students that have to make sense of concepts they did not have a chance to learn in Science and History. Again, no reading skill is going to make up for a lack of background knowledge. Students without necessary domain knowledge may sound out the words just fine, but really struggle to comprehend the passage.

Going beyond definitions

There is a good deal of talk among educators about teaching explicit vocabulary strategies, however, the need for background knowledge extends beyond mere definitions. Reading comprehension depends upon combining ideas in a passage, and combining ideas from a passage with prior knowledge (not just comprehending each idea on its own). Inferences people make when they read are based upon situation models particular to each experience; they are derived by relating what has been read to information already known about the domain of the passage.[xii] For instance, when you read the statement, “We won, Williams sacrificed and knocked in two runs in the bottom of the ninth,”[xiii] you probably understand the phrase since it pertains to an American pastime. More than vocabulary knowledge is needed to understand it; the reader needs some background knowledge about baseball. The specific background knowledge is known as domain knowledge. Domain knowledge helps readers make sense of word combinations and allows them to choose among multiple word meanings.[xiv] Read the line about baseball to someone from Great Britain and he may understand each word individually but have no idea what the sentence is about on the whole. This happens even though the Brit obviously speaks English. Here is an example most Americans would find difficult:

England’s openers labored 34 balls before scoring their first boundary as Strauss cracked two fours through the leg side. Cook made a patient start before laboring past his skipper.

No amount of reading strategies are going to help people lacking background knowledge related to the game of cricket.[xv] One more for fun… Read the sentence below and try to figure out the meaning before going on to the next sentence:

The difficulty of your set could be increased if you do a jam followed by a peach.

The sentence above is rather simple if you know about competitive gymnastics. This sentence actually means “The point values you can earn on your gymnastics routine can be greater if you include, in sequence, two particular skills on the uneven parallel bars: the "jam," which leaves the gymnast sitting on the high bar; and the "peach," where the gymnast moves from the high bar to the low bar.”[xvi]

Examples like the ones above can be repeated ad infinitum in any subject area because the reality is - background knowledge is the key ingredient to making a good reader. The successful reading of one passage does not equate to performance in another. Reading comprehension is not a repeatable skill like sounding out words or typing letters: if it was, test creators would not need to include so many passages on reading assessments.

You may think the examples used in this paper are sensible, but ask if there is any scientific research to support them? The answer is yes. Multiple studies in cognitive science have shown people understand what they read much better if they already have some background knowledge about the subject. There is a direct correlation between knowledge of topics and reading comprehension scores, school grades, and other measures of reading skill.[xvii] In one eye-opening study researchers tested middle school students who were either good or poor readers, according to a standardized reading test. Half were good readers and half were poor readers. In each group half knew a lot about baseball and half knew only a little. The students read a passage written at a fifth grade reading level that described a half-inning of a baseball game. Periodically the students had to stop and replicate on a game board what had happened and describe what they read. Many educators might be surprised by the result. The researchers discovered knowledge of baseball had a significant effect on performance. The “good readers” who did not know a lot about baseball got 18.8 correct out of 40 possible, whereas the “poor readers” who knew a lot about baseball got 27.5 correct out of 40 possible.[xviii]

Looking things up and reading

Students are often assigned to go look up definitions like the one below, but the task is often difficult for students. Why? Read this definition of the word planet:

Any of the non-luminous bodies that revolve around the sun. The term planet is sometimes used to include the asteroids, but excludes the other members of the solar system, comets and meteoroids. By extension, any similar body discovered revolving around another star would be called a planet.[xix]

It has been popular in recent years to disparage and deemphasize the importance of knowledge because we live in an information age. Have you heard anyone say something like this before: There is just too much to try to learn so we shouldn’t focus so much on learning content. Facts are not really important these days. We should instead emphasize skills that enable us to learn what we need, right? Wrong. Building a broad knowledge base is essential to the reading process and overall learning. In order to understand a simple definition readers need some contextual knowledge. Think about the definition of planet above. If you told a middle school student to look this up, would he understand the meaning? Never mind figuring out where to look it up. Would he have previous knowledge of asteroids? How about comets and meteoroids? Are comets and meteoroids types of planets? What does revolving around another star mean? Would the student know the sun is a star? How about a luminous body? A solar system?[xx] You already need to know something about the subject, in this case a bit about astronomy, to look up and make sense of the definition.[xxi]

There is an interesting paradox observed in the cognitive sciences:“it takes knowledge to gain knowledge.” The more you know, the more analogies and points of contact you have; background knowledge provides building blocks for faster and more complex thinking. In a research area from the cognitive sciences known as expert-novice studies, a famous experiment conducted by W.G. Chase and Herbert Simon called “Perception in Chess” effectively illustrated the paradox. Expert and novice chess players were shown a series of brand new chess moves. In the study the experts and beginners looked at the chess board for a short time. The masters could reproduce the moves with great accuracy while the novices could not reproduce them for more than a few pieces. The differences could not be explained by stronger memory because in randomized positions the effect disappeared with masters only reproducing a few pieces on the board. Conventional thinking might have suggested the experts would have learned little since they already knew so much, and the novice players would have learned a lot since they knew very little to begin with. The opposite turned out to be true.[xxii] The difficulty faced by novices is the human mind can only take in a few new items at a time before information begins to fade from short term memory.[xxiii] When experts review something in their field of knowledge they only need to pay attention to small numbers of items for integration into their prior knowledge. Think about reading the definition of planet in light of the “Perception in Chess” findings. Background knowledge is critical. The chess master who quickly learns new chess moves but who knows little about astronomy would experience the same trouble with a new astronomy concept just as the novice student in class learning a newer concept.

Facts, creativity, and reading

Teaching students with a focus on improving student knowledge might suggest they will be learning many facts. What about critical thinking? Isn’t this what we really want students to be able to do well? Research from the last 30 years in the cognitive sciences has shown the types of skills teachers want for students, such as analyzing, interpreting, etc., require extensive background knowledge. Factual knowledge must precede skill. Additionally, critical thinking in one subject (chess or biology) does not equate to critical thinking in another subject (history or mathematics). Thinking processes are intertwined with knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.[xxiv]

Here in the U.S. we pride ourselves on focusing on creativity and critical thinking as compared to instruction in other places such as Japan or India, where, it is said, they focus more on memorization and “rote learning.” In various education articles, and on popular classroom posters, the following Albert Einstein quotation appears: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” This quote, while true in a sense, would be fallacious if used to devalue learning academic background knowledge because that very knowledge is the prerequisite for imagination, or at least the kind that leads to problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity. Facts without the skills to use them are of little value. On the other hand, thinking effectively requires factual knowledge.[xxv]

There is an applicable anecdote on the topic of facts versus creativity in Thomas Friedman’s award-winning book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. In a chapter entitled “The Quiet Crisis” Friedman recounted a discussion with software giant and education reformer Bill Gates:

When I asked Bill Gates about the supposed American education advantage in education that stresses creativity, not rote learning, he was utterly dismissive. In his view, those who think the more rote learning systems of China and Japan can't turn out innovators that can compete with Americans are sadly mistaken. Said Gates, "I have never met the guy who doesn't know how to multiply who created software... Who has the most creative video games in the world? Japan... I never met those rote people... Some of my best software developers are Japanese. You need to understand things in order to invent beyond them. One cannot stress enough: Young Chinese, Indians, and Poles are not chasing us to the bottom. They are racing us to the top…[xxvi] (emphasis added).

This example is not meant to suggest American educators should move toward rote learning, but as another illustration of how important content knowledge is to education. It is important to highlight the word “rote” used in Friedman’s excerpt. There is a difference between “memorization” and “rote learning.” Students and adults memorize things all the time. Memorizing is an essential part of learning as all humans call on long-term memory every minute of their waking hours. Rote learning is memorizing something you do not understand. The use of the phrase “rote learning” in the discussion was really more of a reference to the strong emphasis in learning academic knowledge and memorizing content as a stepping stone to more conceptual knowledge. The “rote methods” used in other parts of the world, and in traditional schools in this nation, have been frowned upon by many modern educators, but even here young students learn some important things by rote; times tables are usually learned by rote to their benefit.

Summing up, there is no such thing as generalized reading ability. Reading comprehension is domain specific; it requires broad knowledge of words and the world.[xxvii] If students are going to become successful readers and academically successful overall, they will need solid and broad knowledge bases. Knowledge is essential to reading comprehension and thinking.[xxviii]

Teaching content is teaching reading

Research from the last few decades shows how reading and thinking well require wide background knowledge, and not just any background knowledge. They require broad academic knowledge that is meaningful – when it is conceptual and when facts are related to one another. Sometimes knowledge acquisition can be incidental,[xxix] and even surface level knowledge can be helpful,[xxx] but helping students become higher-level readers cannot happen unless there is a systematic effort to teach more content in the early grades where students must learn to read in all content areas.[xxxi] The reality is this is just not happening in elementary schools where two of the four core subject areas are often severely neglected and the fine arts are sometimes eliminated. In first grade classrooms across the nation only 2% of class time is dedicated to Social Studies (history, civics, geography and economics) and 4% to Science. In third grade, students are taught Social Studies 5% of the time and Science is also taught 5% of the time. Compare the percentages to Reading/Language Arts which is taught 62% of the time in first grade and 47% of the time in 3rd grade.[xxxii] One of the ramifications of neglecting academic background knowledge in elementary schools, beyond mere reading comprehension difficulties, relates to a proper hierarchy of learning. Instruction in the various content areas at the elementary grades involves essential foundational or building block learning many students do not receive. The reason students go to school for many years is that it takes a long time to build up the vast knowledge and vocabulary needed to become effective readers and thinkers. Cognitive science affirms learning is slow and cumulative. All learning is built upon previous learning.

To use an example from Civics/Government, students need to acquire the civic skills and dispositions commensurate with a responsible citizenry, but they must first absorb fundamental civic knowledge early in their early years. If neglected in the elementary grades, civic education begins at the middle school level in a remedial manner when students are not as open to instruction, often times preventing students from completing the step-by-step process that should culminate in high school with students engaging in more advanced discourse and activity. Many students are, in fact, graduating with middle school level education in certain subjects. This lack of instruction and learning contributes to the general civic ignorance and apathy prevalent in our culture today. It is readily apparent many Americans have no clue about fundamental historical knowledge or the founding principles of our nation, and the same could be said about ignorance relating to important scientific information, and knowledge pertaining to great works of literature and those in the fine arts.[xxxiii]

There is a base of knowledge taken for granted in the language community, and proficiency in reading depends on processing the broad knowledge shared by other educated people within the community. Providing students with foundational background knowledge prepares them for more advanced learning in the secondary grades, and helps them become strong readers in a variety of ways. It provides necessary vocabulary and contextual knowledge that enriches their frames of reference.[xxxiv] It helps students bridge logical gaps, understand allusions and other symbolic language in readings, and it makes clear ambiguous content in texts writers might assume readers will understand. It also allows for chunking of content, which increases room in working memory, and makes it easier to tie ideas together.[xxxv]

How do readers deal with allusions in texts? Without broad background knowledge readers will find it difficult to make sense of the many historical and literary allusions that appear in readings. A few examples of famous allusions follow. What does it mean to be a scrooge, or a prodigal son? Why wouldn’t you want a Trojan Horse as a gift? Why would it be bad for someone to meet his Waterloo? What does it mean to wash your hands of something? Why are draconian measures extreme? If someone is fiddling while Rome burns is that a good thing? What does it mean to be sold down the river, or to call someone a Benedict Arnold? If someone or something is as old as Methuselah is that very young or very old? What does the world is a stage mean?

How do readers make sense of ambiguity in language? With background knowledge. Read this example: The hunter said “There’s a grouse across that field maybe 100 yards away.” His friend said, “well, shoot.” The sentence does not mean “fire your gun.” Background knowledge = shotguns aren’t accurate at 100 yards. A grouse that has flown from cover is gone. “Well, shoot” means “too bad we missed it.” [xxxvi]

The ‘Matthew Effect’ on students living in poverty

The Matthew Effect is a term used in the social sciences to describe the phenomenon whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is an allusion to a biblical passage from Matthew 25:29 which reads:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

In the field of education The Matthew Effect was popularized by Keith Stanovich, a psychologist who has conducted extensive research in reading and language disabilities.[xxxvii] The idea behind the effect is the rich readers get richer and the poor readers get poorer as time goes on. There is a cumulative advantage phenomenon that takes place with good readers. An economics example involving compounding capital helps illustrate this effect. Richer readers gain increasingly rich vocabulary due to compounding just as wealthy investors can financially increase their savings faster than the poor:

✓ Person “A” invests $10 in a bank at 5% interest

✓ Person “B” invests $100 in a bank at 5% interest

✓ The $90 difference grows to $146 in 10 years

✓ Vocabulary growth is similarly affected [xxxviii]

The gap widens between the rich investor and the other by economic forces. When dealing with “intellectual capital” the advantage is greater and the gap widens even more. Students that have good amounts of background knowledge in given subject areas are likely to learn new information readily and quite well. The converse is also true.[xxxix] When young students lack solid vocabularies and do not acquire broad background knowledge they suffer as they progress through the grades where they encounter more and more complex and rich informational text in a variety of subjects.

Who is struggling the most, and what can be done about it?

The 2013 NAEP results in reading indicate a general lack of proficiency among all students, as previously illustrated, but the results also reveal a startling achievement gap found among White, African American and Hispanic students. On the twelfth grade reading assessment, 47% of White students were proficient, 23% of Hispanic students were proficient, and 16% of African American students were proficient (the gap is also seen in SAT results for college bound students).[xl] One can assume a general lack of academic background knowledge for all three groups, but the learning gap evident in NAEP scores is alarming considering this knowledge impacts more than simply school learning; academic knowledge is also closely linked to occupation and overall income.[xli] Reading is a gateway to knowledge and overall academic success so educators are compelled to meet the challenge of improving literacy for all students. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated multiple times, quality education is the civil rights issue of our generation and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair, and just society.

The good news is research lends credence to the belief that schools can make a difference. In the 1966 Coleman Report, the largest educational study in U.S. history, researchers concluded the home is the decisive influence on academic outcomes, and schools do almost nothing to improve the economic chances of disadvantaged children. The exceptions cited were situations where students were in extremely good schools. Subsequent reevaluations of the Coleman Report confirmed earlier findings, and reports such as A Nation at Risk contributed to the idea that public education was not only not helping students the way it should have been, but also failing students across the country. In a more recent work entitled What Works in Schools, Translating Research Into Action, Robert Marzano cited analysis of research conducted over a 35-year period demonstrating highly effective schools produce results that almost entirely overcome the effects of students’ backgrounds. Marzano’s study showed there are indeed schools around the country making a difference and beating the odds by following research on “what works.” Marzano’s salient argument concerning why these schools were so successful was related to curriculum. He specifically said the meta-analysis of 35 years of educational research indicated “a guaranteed and viable curriculum” is the school level factor with the most impact on student achievement.[xlii] In a related work entitled Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Research on What Works in Schools, Marzano asserted:

…given the relationship between academic background knowledge and academic achievement, one can make the case that it should be at the top of any list of interventions intended to enhance student achievement. If not addressed by schools, academic background can create great advantages for some students and great disadvantages for others.[xliii]

Building academic background knowledge should be at the top of interventions intended to enhance student achievement? That is a powerful statement about what works in schools. In Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Marzano cited the well-researched connection to, and the direct correlation between, a student’s level of background knowledge and that student’s academic achievement.[xliv] Other researchers have noted the correlation between academic achievement and general knowledge as being (.81), a very high correlation. Remember what the Coleman Report said about the influence of family background? Well, the correlation between academic achievement and socioeconomic status (.42) is only about half the correlation between academic achievement and general knowledge.[xlv] Disadvantaged family background does not have to be a millstone around students’ necks. Highly effective schools can overcome the effects of students’ backgrounds, and building students’ background knowledge starting in the early grades is one of the essential ways to do this.

Poverty and The Fourth Grade Slump

Students’ lack of background knowledge, and the deficit in language associated with it, is the cause of a phenomenon many children from underprivileged homes experience known as the fourth-grade slump. There is a large disparity in vocabulary levels and general background knowledge between children raised in poverty and children from more affluent backgrounds. By age three children from more privileged families have heard approximately 30 million more words than children from underprivileged homes. According to Betty Hart and Todd Risley, this phenomenon helps account for the major differences in rates of vocabulary growth and success in reading. The researchers have pointed out the correlation between vocabulary size of three year olds and reading test scores of third and fourth graders; vocabulary levels at age three predict achievement for eight and nine year olds.[xlvi] In an important book called The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind, Jeanne Chall and others observed how children from low-income families generally read at grade level until third grade and suddenly fall behind in fourth grade; they continue to fall further behind with each grade level. This phenomenon does not occur because children suddenly take steps backward; it happens because students in the early grades mainly learn how to decode texts and read narrative passages. But in grade four when students are given more informational and complex content to read in class and on tests, their knowledge deficits and limited comprehension of language that began with the 30 million word gap, begins to impact their success in school in significant ways.[xlvii] The large word gap that exists before these students enter school, and the lack of instruction in building background knowledge for them in the early grades, helps account for their large learning gaps in fourth grade achievement scores.[xlviii]

There is no reason why large learning gaps need to persist. Educators have it within their abilities to close the gaps, and some schools are already achieving success.[xlix] The way to improve reading comprehension and overall academic achievement for all students, poor and non-poor, Black, Hispanic, and White, is to build up, beginning in the early years of schooling, the academic background knowledge they need to understand what they read and to lay the groundwork for success in subjects such as civics, history, literature, science, the fine arts, and even mathematics.

The knowledge to achieve

What specific knowledge do all students need? E.D. Hirsch, Robert Marzano, and others have created guides showing essential content students should learn by grade level and subject. There is certainly room for debate on the essential nature of this content, but generally speaking, the knowledge required for effective reading can be boiled down to the information writers assume readers know. A minimum target might be knowledge needed to read newspapers and books written for an educated general public on topics such as politics and science, and it should include the essential concepts of core subjects in schools.[l]

State standards should be revised to emphasize the importance of academic knowledge, systematized and coherent, especially but not limited to the elementary grades. Elementary and secondary level teachers must ensure a proper blend of formal literacy strategies and content instruction with the former emphasis declining over time.[li] Students should learn to read in the primary years and progressively read to learn, keeping in mind that young children can and should learn content before and while they learn to read.

Targeted professional development for elementary teachers should be provided in core areas such as civics and history, literature, and the sciences so teachers can effectively teach students how to read, and how to deliver essential content. Elementary students should have the opportunity to learn and enjoy the fine arts,[lii] and finally, students must be taught and then assessed, with formative and summative curriculum-based assessments, on general knowledge learned during the school year that leads to improved reading comprehension.

As previously noted, research from cognitive science reveals a powerful correlation between academic achievement and general knowledge (.81).[liii] If schools want to see meaningful increases in student achievement, educators must take up the focus of building student knowledge in more systematic fashion.

Getting students to like school[liv]

Most of our nation’s highest performers are on the lower end of the top of the achievement ladder compared to students in other industrialized nations,[lv] and among students from developed nations, American students are near the bottom in reading progress made between the ages of 9 and 14.[lvi] One thing that makes it difficult for today’s educators and students is they live in an anti-academic culture. In some places students that pursue academics actually feel peer pressure to avoid studies from students who dislike school. Students, perhaps more than ever, have many things competing for their time and interests; however, building student background knowledge beginning in the early grades would greatly increase the number of students that enjoy and want to succeed in school. Academic success typically breeds positive dispositions about learning and causes students to want to work through more challenging activities. In this regard, John Rawls’ “Aristotelian Principle” comes to mind. The principle expresses the idea that people take more pleasure in doing something as they become more proficient. With this idea in mind, an essential way to improve students’ high school experience is to prepare elementary students to be successful there. More students would achieve academic proficiency in the secondary grades if they gained broad vocabulary and content knowledge early on.

Knowledge really is power.[lvii] It appears from widespread research on academic achievement that the academically successful students with the stronger analytical skills and positive dispositions are the ones with greater academic background knowledge. Perhaps if Sisyphus of ancient Greek lore only had a bit more prior knowledge concerning the wrath of the gods he might have avoided his terrible fate. Fortunately, in the real world of reading and learning, educators now have knowledge of how all students may achieve academic success, and together they can push the literacy boulder up and over the hill once and for all.

Reading comprehension and overall academic achievement can be greatly improved, and learning gaps closed, by systematically increasing the amount of academic content knowledge students learn beginning in the elementary grades.


Jason Caros is headmaster at Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville, Texas He can be reached at [email protected].


[i] Florida uses the FCAT testing program, where a score of three is considered “passing.” STAAR is the latest testing program in Texas. A “passing” score is referred to as Level II Satisfactory. This year and last year were considered part of Phase I of a three-phase implementation for STAAR. Phase one represents a temporary lowering of the scoring expectations leading up to the final phase, or step, where the highest grading standards will be put into place. In other words, more students earned satisfactory marks this year because of the lower bar. Next year, Phase II begins. If this year’s tenth graders were scored at the Phase II standards, only 54% would have achieved “Satisfactory” scores. Tenth grade is the final year Florida and Texas test high school students in reading, except for those children that have to make-up or re-take exams.

[ii] Studies since the mid-1980s have consistently shown basal readers include very little informational text. Flood and Lapp (1986) looked at eight basals finding that narrative selections accounted for more than 66 percent of the pages. Smith (1991), looked at content of three basals for grades one, three, and five, found that 15 to 20 percent was nonfiction content. In 2002 Moss and Newton examined how many selections from international trade books were included in six popular basal readers published from 1995 to 1997. Informational literature is relatively sparse, approximately15% in second grade, 17% in fourth grade, and 20% in sixth grade. Cited in "How We Neglect Knowledge and Why," by Susan Newman, American Educator Spring (2006): 24-27. In recent years textbook publishers have made efforts to include more non-fiction in basals. A major problem remains. The non-fiction text is not necessarily aligned to the grade level standards in Science or Social Studies.

[iii] "Reforming Education in Florida: A Study Prepared by the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, 2006." Hoover Institution. Web. 01 Aug. 2009. <

[iv] Three essential books to read on this subject are Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, Marzano’s Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on what Works in Schools, and Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom.

[v] Instruction in explicit phonics is essential in the early elementary grades. Older struggling readers may also need a strong dose of phonics.

[vi] E.D. Hirsch. The Knowledge Deficit Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 3-16.

[vii] Ibid, 60.

[viii] "RTI in Secondary Schools: Key Literacy Strategies for Middle and High School Programs." Teleconference by Denise Gibbs. National Teleconference. 10 Sept. 2008.

[ix] AFT - Publications - American Educator - Spring 2006 - Knowledge: The Next Frontier in Reading Comprehension." AFT - American Federation of Teachers. Web. 01 Aug. 2009. <

[x] Thanks to Mitch Rosin from Wright Group/McGraw-Hill for sharing Corandic with me. [Answers: What is corandic? an emurient grof with many fribs; What does corandic grank from? Corite; How do garkers excarp the tarances from the corite? by glarcking the corite and starping it in tranker-clarped storbs; What does the slorp finally frast? a pragety, blickant crankle: coranda; What is coranda? a cargurt, grinkling corandic and borigten]

[xi] E.D. Hirsch. The Making of Americans Democracy and Our Schools. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 141.

E.D. Hirsch. The Knowledge Deficit Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 3-16.

[xii] In the cognitive sciences, theorists have suggested for some time that people use schemata to organize knowledge and provide a framework for future understanding. According to this model, people learn by sorting information into categories and making connections among categories. The building blocks for a student’s schema consist of knowledge about people, places, things, or events. As a student reads, she draws from existing schema to make inferences concerning the content being read. The connections made between what they already know and what is being inferred leads to “comprehension.”

[xiii] This example has been used by both E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham.

[xiv] Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, 17.

[xv] "TeacherTube Videos - Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading." TeacherTube - Teach the World | Teacher Videos | Lesson Plan Videos | Student Video Lessons | Online Teacher Made Videos | Web. 01 Aug. 2009. <

[xvi] "ReadingQuest | Background Knowledge Example." ReadingQuest | Reading Strategies for Social Studies. Web. 01 Aug. 2009. <

[xvii] G.J. Kosmoski. "Cultural Literacy and Academic Achievement." Journal of Experimental Education 58.4 (Summer 1990), 265-72.

[xviii] D.R. Reicht, and L. Leslie. "Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text." Journal of Educational Psychology 80 (1988): 16-20.

[xix] E.D. Hirsch. "'You Can Always Look it Up'... Or Can You?" American Educator (Spring 2009): 4-9.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] G.A. Miller, and P. Gildea. "How Children Learn Words." Scientific American September (1987): 94-99.

[xxii] William G. Chase, and Herbert A. Simon. "Perception in Chess." Cognitive Psychology 4 (1973): 55-81.

[xxiii] Daniel T. Willingham. Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom,(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 3-18.

[xxiv] Willingham, Why Students Don’t Like School, 19-39.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Thomas L. Friedman. The World Is Flat A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. (New York: Picador, 2007), 365.

[xxvii] Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit, 38-50.

[xxviii] In Willingham’s book, Why Student’s Don’t Like School, the cognitive scientist explains how our minds are not really designed for thinking, believe it or not, and that we are not really thinking most of the time. What we usually take for thinking is actually memory providing us with answers, or guiding us on courses of action we have taken before. While humans enjoy thinking, thinking is difficult. The conditions have to be right for people to want to engage in this activity. When students are working through problems with no sense they are making progress, chances are they will not stick with it. What does Willingham suggest teachers do to help students enjoy solving problems? One of the recommendations is to provide students with sufficient background knowledge. Read chapter one for more information on this specific topic.

[xxix] Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School, 38.

[xxx] Marzano, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, 17, 29-30.

[xxxi] Rafael Heller and Cynthia L. Greenleaf. Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement. (Washington D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2007) 7-25. See also - Rachel Billmeyer, and Mary Lee Barton. Teaching Reading in the Content Areas: If Not Me Then Who? 2nd Edition. (Alexandria: Association for Supervision & Curriculum, 2002) 17, 19-23.

[xxxii] "TeacherTube Videos - Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading." TeacherTube - Teach the World | Teacher Videos | Lesson Plan Videos | Student Video Lessons | Online Teacher Made Videos | Web. 01 Aug. 2009. < See also Florida specific data: in a statewide survey conducted in 2008 by the Florida Association of Social Studies Supervisors and the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship results showed the average elementary school teacher in Florida spends about 51 minutes a week, or 10 minutes a day, on all Social Studies. For more details about the survey visit

[xxxiii] Data taken from NAEP, various state level assessments such as FCAT, Advanced Placement, etc, show low achievement levels in Science and Social Studies.

[xxxiv] See note 10 about schema. Also, “a skills or strategy based approach to reading comprehension assumes a student possesses the necessary schema to uncover the meaning within text. Teachers can provide students with the raw materials to construct meaning from text through purposeful, systematic instruction. This instruction is built upon the organization of knowledge into pre-constructed schema sometimes known as “Big Ideas”, “Essential Questions,” or “Organizing Principles.” A curriculum designed and built to deliver academic knowledge, along with the analytical skills needed to process and extend this knowledge, is necessary to ensure students possess the cognitive tools for more advanced reading” (Robert Sheffield, Spring Board District Administrative Coach, The College Board).

[xxxv] Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School, 28.

[xxxvi] Willingham uses this example in “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading.”

[xxxvii] Keith E. Stanovich. Progress in Understanding Reading Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers. (New York: The Guilford, 2000), 184-188

[xxxviii] Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit, 14. This analogy actually shows how both groups makes gains but the rich make larger gains.

[xxxix] Robert J. Marzano. Building Background Knowledge For Academic Achievement Research On What Works In Schools. (Alexandria: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2004), 3.

[xl] The results of the 2013 SAT Critical Reading exams reveal large gaps among White, African American, and Hispanic students. On the SAT White students scored 96 points higher than African American students and 77 points higher than Hispanic students. SAT data can be found in “Total Group Profile Report” on the following College Board site:

[xli] Marzano, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, p. 31.

[xlii] Robert J. Marzano. What Works in Schools Translating Research into Action. (Alexandria: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2003), 22.

[xliii] Marzano, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, 4.

[xliv] Ibid, 1-4.

[xlv] D. Lubinski, and L.G. Humphreys. "Incorporating General Intelligence into Epidemiology and the Social Sciences." Intelligence 24 (1997): 154-202.

[xlvi] Betty Hart, and Todd R. Risley. "The Early Catastrophe." American Educator Spring (2003): 4, 6-9.

[xlvii] Jeanne S. Chall, Vicki A. Jacobs, and Luke E. Baldwin. The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990), 27-54,146-164.

[xlviii] Unfortunately, Hirsch’s recommended path is not the one many school districts have traveled. “Instead deficit thinking has sometimes been applied to these students that have fallen behind, assuming them to be in need of everything. Educators often fail to recognize their potential for success, and in turn, construct and allow for inadequate learning environments for their potential. Noting that they lack much of the prerequisite knowledge and skills needed for long-term school success, we collectively invest millions of dollars and professional hours into remediation that can only be characterized as low and slow. Our own thinking limits students from poverty to a greater degree than their background. Deficit thinking hinders teachers from developing and maintaining environments that provide the one thing that these students need the most: academic knowledge” (Robert Sheffield, Spring Board District Administrative Coach, The College Board).

[xlix] Karin Chenoweth. “It Can Be Done, It’s Being Done, and Here’s How.” Phi Delta Kappan 91 (2009): 38-43. Chenoweth describes schools in different parts of the country with high low-income and/or minority populations that have achieved academic success. One of the key factors for this success is, as she puts it, “helping students learn a great deal.”

[l] Ibid, 36-37.

[li] Daniel T. Willingham. "The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies.” American Educator 4 (Winter 2006/7), 39-45, 50. Willingham cites data from two meta analyses that show how students can learn strategy instruction relatively quickly and that longer programs do not add to the effectiveness of reading strategies.

[lii] Using FL Department of Education data, Dr. Steven Kelly from Florida State University created a report showing the following relationships between visual and performing arts enrollment and student achievement: for the general student population, the more music and arts classes taken, the higher the student achievement in all measures; for students on “free and reduced lunch,” an indicator of socioeconomic levels, the more music and arts classes taken, the higher the student achievement in all measures; for students divided by ethnicity, the more music and arts classes taken, the higher the student achievement in all measures; and the more arts classes taken, the less likely a student is to drop out of school. Dr. Kelly’s presentation can be found at

[liii] D. Lubinski, and L.G. Humphreys. "Incorporating General Intelligence into Epidemiology and the Social Sciences." Intelligence 24 (1997): 154-202.

[liv] Willingham’s entire book is about this topic and should be required reading for educators.

[lv] This argument is detailed in “2 Million Minutes.” American students are usually seen studying while watching television, or spending more time working or playing sports than on studies. Students from China and India; however, are in school even on weekends striving to get accepted into top engineering schools. Educators may also wish to review “The Google Generation,” a recent study conducted by the University College London, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, the somewhat controversial work by Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein. These studies have found young peoples’ information literacy has not improved with widening access to technology, and the latter argues the Google Generation are less literate and informed than previous generations. Instead of benefiting from the information superhighway youth are spending most of their time on sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube.

[lvi] See data from the National Center for Educational Statistics. Also, read the August 18th report from Secretary Arne Duncan on the release of the U.S. Students' Rankings on International Assessments of Student Achievement:

[lvii] The phrase “knowledge is power” is often associated with Francis Bacon. In this instance it is connected to Ralph Waldo Emerson: Skill to do comes of doing; knowledge comes by eyes always open, and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power (Society and Solitude).