Lack of comprehension? Or lack of background knowledge?

comprehension, background knowledge, mentoring in the middle
Like many of you, I work with small groups of students in Reading, helping to get them to comprehend materials at grade level.  One of the groups that is grabbing my attention is made up of five students who have struggled with comprehension on any form of assessment they've been given.

As I've gotten to know them better as readers, I'm starting to think that the issue isn't actually that they don't comprehend what they're reading.  It's more that they bring such limited background knowledge to the table that it makes understanding what they read a daunting task.

I came across this article recently, in the New York Times called "How to Get Your Mind to Read."  In this opinion column by Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, Willingham discusses how not having background knowledge makes it harder to read, and ultimately to think critically.  He refers to an experiment done with third graders.  Some were identified as good readers and some as poor.  They were asked to read a passage about soccer.  The poor readers who knew about soccer were THREE times more likely to score better on the test than the good readers who didn't know much about the sport.

So, what does that tell us?  Background knowledge makes a difference!  And that's why we need to continue to challenge students to read good-fit books.  Every new book they enter into reveals a little something new to them, which makes the next book or passage that much easier to comprehend.
There are many factors that affect the extent to which students will learn new concepts: their interest level, our skills as a teacher, and how challenging the reading is.  But there's no question that what students already know is a huge plus in helping them understand what they don't know.
The more reading students do, the more background knowledge they build.  To ensure that they get reading time, we need to carve out precious minutes during the day for them to read. 
The challenge with these students is that they're often pulled into small groups during the time when everyone else is reading their own good-fit books.  How do we create time for both?  Sometimes it's a book, other times it can be a short passage.
There are wonderful resources out there, in addition to books, that allow kids to build background.  Newsela, Scholastic's Scope and Action magazines, Time for Kids, and Tween Tribune, and my new favorite Commonlit are just a few that provide high-interest articles at the reading level students need.


Let's keep reflecting and finding ways to help all our students become critical thinkers!





  

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