Can Background Knowledge Solve America’s Reading Crisis?

By Tenaha O’Reilly

Think of a subject you know well. You’ve read and talked with friends about it — maybe it involves a favorite hobby or informs your work. If someone put a passage on that topic in front of you and asked you to answer questions on key themes and important details, your responses would likely be on point, right? Now think of a topic you know little about and run through the same scenario. Do you think you’d fare as well? Your answer is likely “no” — and the research says you’re probably right.

Yet, typically, our schools have fallen into that kind of trap. As Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It, writes in the Atlantic, “On a daily basis, teachers have their students practice skills and strategies like ‘finding the main idea’ or ‘making inferences.’” Texts are selected that match the given skill rather than because of the text’s content.

Considering how intuitive it seems to select texts for reading-skills instruction where students have some degree of background knowledge, it’s little wonder the strategy has created a buzz in the last year. In fact, the Knowledge Matters Campaign represents a coalition of leaders from various fields dedicated to making knowledge the linchpin to improve reading comprehension, critical thinking and other skills. Some of the knowledge movement has made its way into practice.

In recent work my colleagues and I have published in Psychological Science, we found evidence of a “knowledge threshold” suggesting that students may need a minimum amount of knowledge to comprehend text. In a separate paper, we found that students who had incorrect knowledge comprehended and learned less than students who acknowledged before reading that they did not know the related content. In short, our research suggests that having background knowledge may pave the way for comprehension and learning, while lacking it may be a real barrier. Thus, on the surface, the knowledge movement seems on point as a strategy to help solve the reading crisis.

In short, our research suggests that having background knowledge may pave the way for comprehension and learning, while lacking it may be a real barrier.

~ Tenaha O'Reilly, Principal Research Scientist at ETS

But is knowledge the answer to that search?

While research supports the notion that background knowledge plays a role in reading comprehension, it is by far not alone. Foundational skills such as decoding — getting the words off the page — also are critical.

Just as there is a knowledge threshold, our team also has found there is a decoding threshold. We looked at 10,000 students in grades 5–10 in one urban region and found low reading comprehension for those scoring below the threshold. In a longitudinal study of 30,000 students, we also found that scoring below the decoding threshold was associated with little to no growth in comprehension over time. Thus, if decoding problems are not addressed early on, student comprehension may not improve.

The recent tendency to overlook such basics as decoding in favor of knowledge is an example of how we tend to latch on to the latest fad. However, there is no single solution. The process of learning to read and comprehend is a complex progression. Reading and gleaning information from a text is learned and developed over a sustained period. It involves acquiring a range of critical skills honed through practice. When young readers struggle, they can get caught in a vicious cycle: They avoid reading because it’s difficult, and they fail to develop foundational skills because they aren’t reading.

Although knowledge and decoding are critical, America’s reading crisis is even more complex than that. Many of the problems relate to the larger contexts of one’s circumstances. Research shows an important relationship between the distribution of poor reading skills and deeper social and economic inequities in our society.

While skill- and knowledge-based efforts can be leveraged to improve reading and comprehension skills, we need clarity on the larger obstacles that struggling students face so we can be strategic with interventions. As a society, as researchers, parents, politicians and business leaders, we must work to confront this issue and strive to ensure that the actions taken are sized to the challenge we face.

Tenaha O’Reilly is a principal research scientist in the ETS Center for Global Assessment and Center for Research on Human Capital and Education. He holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Alberta and a bachelor of science honors degree from Acadia University. He is interested in leveraging the research in the learning sciences to improve reading comprehension, assessment, learning and policy.