Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Equity in the Classroom: Building Background Knowledge

       The bell rings to begin fourth period and seven students slowly trickle into the reading intervention classroom in Anywhere, USA.  Their hands are shoved into their pockets.  They've brought no supplies. Despite the look of complacency on most of the students' faces,  the teacher begins with a warm smile and cheerful disposition and welcomes the new students to the first day of class.  "That doesn't mean we are going to actually read in here, does it?"  asks a student who is slumped so far down in his desk, his face is barely visible:  "I hate reading."  And so begins another teacher's mission to assist those who struggle find books they love while simultaneously building literacy skills and background knowledge.  This scenario depicts the daily battle that many teachers of mainstream classes and intervention classes alike must overcome in schools across America.  Luckily, we have many fantastic educators who are up for the challenge.
      At a 2012 conference on reading that I attended, Kelly Gallagher plainly stated: "You have to know stuff to be able to read stuff."  In other words, students must possess background knowledge  in order to be able to comprehend and analyze material on related topics.  Background knowledge can be developed in many ways, but the best source of background knowledge, of course, comes from first-hand experiences and wide reading.  Is it any wonder, then, that study after study reveals that students who come from families who struggle financially often possess less background knowledge than their grade level peers?  When parents are working two grueling jobs and struggling just to put food on the table, can we fault them for failing to find the money or time to bring their children to pricey museums and week-long ski trips?  Can we even fault them for not having the energy to sit down and read with their children at the end of a sixteen-hour work day? 
         The reality is that many students across the nation will come to us with limited background knowledge, thus complicating their ability to understand what they read.  Since we cannot take students on daily field trips across the globe, we must instead find ways inside our classrooms to increase students' world experiences.  In their article "Building And Activating Background Knowledge,"  Douglas Fischer and Nancy Frey remind us that "comprehension strategies cannot compensate for missing background information."  In other word, using best practices to explicitly teach students solid reading strategies will do no good if we don't couple our instruction with helping kids develop background knowledge.  I think this message bears repeating. 

You can be the best teacher on the planet, using best practices daily, and if you do not help students to build background knowledge, some will never succeed.

 So how do great teachers help build background knowledge so all can succeed?

Ways to Build Background

1)  Explicitly Teach Vocabulary --  Heather Haggerty reminds us that "Background knowledge plays a key role in a student's ability to learn new information, and vocabulary is a key component to accessing background knowledge.  The words students have to describe their experiences with a  concept will give teachers great insight into what students actually know before the lesson starts."

Studies have shown that little time is actually spent in older grades explicitly teaching vocabulary.  Although many teachers instruct students on how to look up words in a dictionary and how to use context clues, little time is spent formally teaching new words to older students.  However, the research is clear:  if teachers take the time to pre-teach academic words in all content areas, those students with limited background knowledge will be more equipped to tackle texts containing these words than if no time is spent explicitly teaching words.  In order for vocabulary instruction to be effective teachers should provide students with repeated exposures to the same words, allowing students to create connections between the new concept and their prior knowledge whenever possible.  Using the words in discussion, demonstrating which contexts the words should be used and providing a visual picture of the new words are all strategies that will help students to own the new word.   Additionally, short video clips, labeling photographs, and word webs are additional ways to study words while building background simultaneously.

2)  Choose Reading Material Wisely -- With the Common Core pushing teachers to build skills in literacy across the content areas, it is important that teachers choose carefully the texts they will use with their students.   Since we are thankfully no longer an educational system that values regurgitation of random facts above the acquisition of those skills that would enable students to independently navigate difficult texts, choosing texts that will help students to better prepared to make sense of the world in which they live is key.  Although beginning with a high interest topic on celebrities or pop culture might be a place to begin instruction of a difficult learning target, eventually the texts and tasks teachers choose should help students should help to build background.  Prior to reading Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, for example, teachers could expose students to texts about post-Civil War America and school segregation.  Not only can these texts serve as a vehicle to teach new literacy strategies, but teachers and students can also breathe a sigh of relief that engaging texts can replace the forty-five minute lecture that did little but cause students to tune out and  teachers' voices to go hoarse.

3) Avoid Boxed Reading Materials Programs  In her article, "Seven Ways to Kill RTI,"  Brandi Noll reminds educators that research supports the idea that " commercially produced programs sporadically improve isolated skills such as alphabetics — students’ ability to read words in isolation — but most fail to improve real reading."  This should be good news for educators, since these programs are costly yet unnecessary.  The sad truth, however, is that many systems choose to forgo quality professional development for the easy packaged program.  To add fuel to the fire is the fact that these packaged programs were created without any knowledge of the specific students who will be receiving the intervention.   It is the highly qualified teacher taking the time to know his or her students on a deep level who is able to help students build background knowledge, brush up on reading strategies, and ultimately come to enjoy reading.  Instead of packaged programs, why not ask students to complete interest surveys or anticipation guides as a way to find out what they already know about, what they want to know about, and what they need to know about to be successful with the texts they'll be encountering?  Allowing student choice leads to increased motivation leads to increased background knowledge leads to increased learning.  Find me a child that is intrinsically motivated by the worksheets and quick reads of which many pre-packaged programs are comprised, and I will show you a parent who enjoys who enjoys watching his child strike out at a baseball game.

4) Teach Thematically --  If you browse many of the existing units that claim to be Common Core aligned, one of the first similarities you will probably notice is that they all begin with an essential question.  In a 2012 Conference, Jeffrey Wilhelm suggests starting any instructional unit a thematic question.   This question increases student motivation because students are better able to see a purpose for their reading and exploring of texts.  Wilhelm identifies a good inquiry-based question as one that is enduring, engaging, at the heart of a discipline, and in need of uncovering.  In other words, the question shouldn't be one that is easily answered.  It shouldn't have one correct answer.  It should be debatable.  What makes a good friend?   Is perfection an obtainable goal?    Is war a necessary evil?   Teaching thematically with an inquiry-based question guiding the work helps to build background knowledge because students are able to make connections between the readings.  They may start with little background knowledge on a particular subject and through the unit accumulate a wealth of knowledge that will enable them to be able to read more texts on similar topics with ease.

5) Allow Time For Turn and Talk  --  When building background knowledge, it is important that students have time to discuss and share their ideas with others.  Giving students a few minutes to discuss in pairs or small groups allows them to explore new ideas, share new insights, and make sense of information before being asked to share their thoughts in a whole group setting.  Additionally, by embedding "turn and talk" practices into a classroom routine, the teacher is ensuring that all students have an opportunity to discuss key information as opposed to only a select few students who may choose to participate in a larger group setting.  When time is tight, the "turn and talk" is usually the lesson component that is the first to be cut.  Unfortunately, it is the most needed component to ensure that all can succeed.

         Thankfully, building background does not mean formal lectures given by teachers with little student interaction.   I am sure you have heard before that teachers should never be doing more work than their students.  Turn and talk requires students to take ownership of their own learning.   Giving students opportunities to discuss new vocabulary terms and the texts they read about timely topics on a thematically based unit will work wonders for all. 

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