Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.16.16A Second Excerpt on Building Background Knowledge from Reading Reconsidered

Reading ReconsidredColleen, Erica and I were so excited to find ourselves in the pages of the thought-provoking journal EducationNext this morning.  We chatted about Reading Reconsidered with Marty West for 15 minutes or so on his podcast and the magazine ran a short excerpt from chapter three of the book where we discuss the connection between background knowledge and reading.  

Several people have since asked follow-up questions about the excerpt, some of which we tried to talk about in the book so I thought I’d share, as a follow up, the NEXT 4000 or so words from chapter 3.  [Shhhhh. Don’t tell my publishers] Again if you want to read the segment that appears before what’s below it’s here.

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The importance of background knowledge raises a chicken-or-egg type of problem for teachers. Students lack content knowledge in part because they don’t read nonfiction well, and they don’t read nonfiction well because they lack content knowledge. If we need background knowledge to build background knowledge, where and how do we start?

In the next module, we’ll begin to answer the question by defining one of the key ideas in this chapter: absorption rate.

Module 3.2 Absorption Rate

When students read, it’s not just the fact that they comprehend the text at different levels that matters. If part of reading’s long-term benefit is its capacity to build students’ knowledge base, differences in how much knowledge they acquire from reading also has decisive long-term consequences. Absorption rate is a term we use to describe how quickly students assimilate new knowledge as they read. We use the term because absorption rate is not necessarily uniform. It can be different among the various students reading a given text, and it can be different for a single student as he or she engages different texts.

Two students reading the earlier sentence about the kangaroo rat might have understood it equally—the desert-dwelling rat hides from the hot sun—but one imagines the hiding creature to be a giant half-kangaroo half-rat and the other a tiny rat that can jump. One perhaps understands that the rat hides because it must adapt to its living conditions; the other just knows that it hides. The first has a useful idea to which she can connect other examples of adaptation in other texts. The other does not. One of a teacher’s key tasks when reading nonfiction in particular, then, is to strategically manage absorption rate and take steps to ensure that the absorption rate is as high as possible for as many students as possible. Doing so is critical to students’ long-term success.

So we support the idea that students should read more nonfiction, as long as they also continue to also read plenty of great fiction (as we discussed extensively in chapter 1). But as important as reading more nonfiction is reading nonfiction more effectively—in a way that unlocks knowledge and increases engagement and appreciation. Fortunately, part of the solution involves the synergy between reading nonfiction and fiction.

One simple change to increase absorption rate is to change what we read when. For example, teachers are often encouraged to teach nonfiction in isolation. In English or reading classes, that might mean a separate, stand-alone unit on nonfiction in which students read a series of articles, one after the other, studying their text features and structural elements. What do captions do? What are subheadings? The problem with this approach is that they cause students to encounter nonfiction texts devoid of context. One day it’s an article about the naked mole rat, and the next it’s another article with similar structural features, but this time about the American Revolution. The result is a situation where absorption rate is likely to be lowest—engagement too, possibly.

If a person gathers more knowledge on a given topic when he or she knows more about it, then students will absorb more when they read their third article about topics related to desert ecosystems, for example. So it can often be useful to have students read multiple texts on a topic so that their reading will result in a crescendo of knowledge absorption. Or, even better, to have them read an article that gives context to or elaborates on ideas from a novel in which they are deeply engaged. If you are reading My Brother Sam Is Dead and encounter an article on the armaments used in the Revolution, you have more context to help you absorb the information—how heavy the rifles were, for example. And you have more motivation too. The article helps you understand Tim, whom presumably students have come to care about. We call this idea embedding nonfiction, and we will come back to it in a moment.

First, though, let’s define two more important and relatively simple terms: primary and secondary texts.

In many reading classes, we focus on a primary text. We don’t mean primary text in the sense that it necessarily needs to be primary source material—like the Bible or the Declaration of Independence or any other original, historical document. Here, when we say primary text, we mean primary in the sense that the text is chosen as the principal reading material for a particular class. It is often a book-length text, usually a novel, on which a teacher focuses the majority of instruction. It might be a whole-class text or a series of guided reading texts, read over the course of several weeks, say, building familiarity and an ongoing relationship between students and an engaging and important story.

A powerful, rigorous, and engaging primary text is one of the key drivers of successful literacy instruction, but it is also useful to think about the additional shorter texts that relate to the primary text in some way. These secondary texts could give context, provide background, show a contrast, or develop a useful idea that helps students better engage the primary text. Nonfiction, we argue, is ideal as a secondary text.

For example, Dave Javsicas, seventh-grade reading teacher at Troy Prep, was teaching Lord of the Flies as a primary text. Early into their work with the novel, Dave presented his students with a scientific article that detailed the climate and layers of a tropical rainforest. In addition to gaining background knowledge that would help them access the dense descriptions of setting throughout Lord of the Flies, he also had the opportunity to ask, “How do you think it felt to be living in a place like this in your woolen school uniform, after having lived in England all your life? How might this contribute to character mood and interactions?” After reading a few hundred words clearly describing the jungle setting, Dave’s class was already set up to engage Golding’s dystopia in a far more meaningful way than they would have been without such context.

In the next module, we’ll look at ways to strategically embed a variety of secondary nonfiction texts to help students get the most out of both them and their primary text.

Module 3.3 Embedding Texts to Increase Absorption Rate and Build Background Knowledge

Embedding nonfiction is the process of pairing secondary nonfiction texts (often NNNF) with a primary text in an intentional and strategic way. When it comes to embedding texts, there are two main categories: inside-the-bull’s-eye secondary texts containing content necessary to support basic understanding of the primary text; outside-the-bull’s-eye texts causing students to look at the primary text in a new and unexpected or more rigorous way. They deepen and expand rather than support meaning.

Inside the Bull’s-Eye

Text pairings that fall inside the bull’s-eye can maximize synergy and best harness the Matthew Effect. If you know a little at the start, you pick up the signs and symbols and hints in a book faster than if you know nothing. The more you know about the Nazis—especially the difference between a Nazi and a mere “enemy soldier”—the more you read the scene in the first chapter of Number the Stars, where Annemarie and Ellen encounter two occupying Nazi soldiers, differently than a student who knows little.

By the time an unknowing student has been told how malevolent the soldiers are, much of the richness and tension of the scene will have already passed him by. And a student who is never told this—whose knowledge of Nazis is left to chance—misses the power of the scene almost entirely. When students start from a base of knowledge, their inferences allow them to engage the text with much greater depth—to learn from what they read as efficiently as possible. They’re more attentive, both to the emotions of the characters and to the factual information presented in the fictional text. They connect the dots.

Reading secondary nonfiction texts in combination with a primary text almost certainly increases the absorption rate of students reading that text. So, as many teachers have recognized, it can be immensely valuable to start Number the Stars with an article about what Nazi soldiers were like.

On the flip side, the secondary text is also framed by the primary text. When texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up, and that’s the best part. Colleen discovered this during a unit on Lily’s Crossing, a novel set in New York during World War II that examines both “European” issues of the war (Nazism, appeasement, and persecution) and “domestic” issues of the war (rationing, shortages, migration, and immigration).

To contextualize Lily’s Crossing, Colleen decided to use sections of articles a history teacher had shared with her earlier in the year—adapted to correspond to key issues in the book—as secondary text. But instead of reading all the nonfiction first, as she’d originally planned, Colleen decided to read the novel for several days before pausing to read the nonfiction.

After four class periods and twenty-three pages of Lily’s Crossing, Colleen interrupted the novel to read a secondary nonfiction text she’d prepared on the topic of rationing during wartime. The result was both powerful and revealing. The nonfiction text helped her students understand and absorb more of the novel. She was able to pose questions about the historical concept (“What does rationing mean?”) and also its application to the novel (“How did rationing affect the characters in our novel?”). Her students better connected the background material to the story; the primary text started to come alive and make sense: there were things they could not buy because no one was allowed to. The fact that the students had started the novel—and knew something about the setting in which they would be applying what they learned from the secondary text—made that learning stick more. Colleen’s students already knew Lily, so what she was living through seemed more real to them—it mattered to them.

The inferential leaps the novel required were still there, but the lengths were more achievable. Because of their nonfiction reading, the book was a richer experience and students could infer independently without Colleen’s support; she didn’t need to fill in the knowledge gaps.

Synergy Runs Both Ways

But something else happened that surprised Colleen even more. She found that while the background article was helping her students better read the novel, having started the novel was in turn helping her students absorb more of the secondary nonfiction passage. Students got more out of the secondary text when they could apply it to people they were interested in and felt a connection to—even if they were fictional characters. Students realized that these events really affected the lives of people during World War II—they weren’t just mundane, isolated facts in an article. They were parts of the experience of a “real” person like Lily. Reading some of the fiction first, then reading nonfiction, greatly increased their absorption rate of the nonfiction article.

Not only were the two texts on World War II (the novel and the article) mutually beneficial, but there was also synergy specifically in the difference of the genres. The connection to characters from the novel made the facts in the secondary text real; the facts from the nonfiction helped students understand the situations the characters encountered in the primary text. Reading across genres on the same topic created additional value.

Colleen’s insight provides a guide to more systematically leveraging the Matthew Effect in classrooms. Because texts can work in synergy to increase their mutual absorption rates, reading multiple texts on a given topic is a worthwhile investment. If you paired two articles on frogs, say, or the American Revolution, students’ absorption rate would increase for both texts—simply by virtue of the additional knowledge and context they brought to each. They would, on net, know more than if you read one article about frogs and one about the American Revolution, and this suggests that an inclination to cover a wide breadth can keep us from getting the most out of our reading.

When we teach nonfiction as a unit, we often choose articles and texts with the specific goal of covering different genres, styles, formats, or text features. Our choices have less to do with topic than format. If we do consider topics, we typically choose texts assuming that we are helping our students fill in knowledge gaps by covering as many things as we can, but this results in nonfiction that constantly appears out of context and, frankly, begs the question of why people read it at all. For Colleen’s students, the answer to why you would read an article about rationing was answered by its effectiveness in helping them unlock more about Lily’s life. Embedding, pairing nonfiction with related fiction, brings both to life. To be abundantly clear, this is not an argument against reading widely; it is essential for students to be exposed to a broad range of texts. It is, however, a cautionary note—if students read too thinly, they are less likely to remember what they’ve read—and a reminder of the immense opportunity the texts we are already reading provide to increase students’ absorption rate.

Embedding Outside the Bull’s-Eye

Embedding outside the bull’s-eye takes a similar approach, pairing nonfiction with a primary text, but it seeks to help students better analyze texts by modeling for them how to apply an analytical framework to a given text or multiple texts. As an additional benefit, outside-the-bull’s-eye texts help you increase the breadth of nonfiction topics to which students are exposed, helping them better understand the world generally.

Not too long ago, Colleen was planning lessons on S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Instead of planning embedded texts to provide context and background, Colleen instead set out to use paired texts to cast the story in a new and more challenging light.

Her reflection began with a sense of limitation. The story itself was already pretty familiar to her students. There wasn’t a ton of background knowledge to fill in on a book about teenagers and social cliques. In many cases, that familiarity is exactly why teachers choose the story. From a knowledge-deficit perspective, The Outsiders is not an ideal primary text. But Colleen began to reflect on how a college class might frame the familiar aspects of the book.

She hit on a couple of promising ideas for broadening the context and giving a potentially light read a bit more heft. Two hidden themes of the novel were the power of class and caste, and the influence of male bonding. For the former, she considered articles on class and caste systems in cultures around the world. She could, she realized, have students talk about whether the characters in the book are part of a caste and how it affected their lives. Or she could ask students how the characters themselves might see it. Ultimately, though, she ended up going in another direction.

Colleen found an article from Smithsonian magazine describing research into male elephants—specifically, how younger male elephants learn their social behaviors by watching and modeling slightly older peers. This of course is a constant element in the story of The Outsiders, though students likely would not realize it without a bit of prompting. The article, Colleen realized, could do that. She read the article and asked questions that caused students to understand the author’s interest in the hierarchy of male elephants in the wild. She then asked her classes to apply terms like hierarchy to The Outsiders as well—to find evidence that the social structures of the Greasers and Socs weren’t necessarily unique to humans, but were actually similar to those of the rest of the animal kingdom.

In the end, the embedded text ended up performing a function different from what we usually ask it to do: instead of trying to make the unfamiliar familiar, it made the familiar more rigorous. It forced students to see interactions in the novel as part of the systems of behavior common to all social beings. They read much of the book through that framework, studying its hierarchies and using scientific descriptions of them to explain in a new way what was familiar. While reading about elephants certainly built background knowledge, it also elevated the rigor of the lesson, as one of Colleen’s postreading questions revealed: “How are the social structures of the Greasers similar to those of the bull elephants? Be sure to include their typical interactions and a description of their actions before and after the ‘showdown.’” Not only that, but it probably gave her students a useful glimpse into the “why” behind scientific studies. Why would someone spend their days on the African savannah studying how elephants get along? Because it helps us see how people are like or unlike the rest of the natural world. And of course there was an additional benefit to Colleen’s choice of the elephants article: they could use their newfound understanding of hierarchies not only to understand the characters in The Outsiders but also to discuss almost any text, which in fact they did as the read other novels throughout the year.

Aiming Inside and Outside the Bull’s-Eye

Giving students historical context on the setting of a novel is productive and logical—it falls right inside the bull’s-eye; but remember, when choosing secondary texts, that you can complement that sort of embedding with texts that cause students to connect ideas that don’t obviously go together, and give them “aha” moments.

Nonfiction for A Single Shard

At a recent reading workshop, we asked participants to brainstorm ideas for nonfiction articles to embed in various novels. The results were pretty incredible. We were especially struck by the ideas teachers came up with for articles to embed in A Single Shard. It’s the story of an orphaned, homeless boy in thirteenth-century Korea, Tree-ear, who yearns to be an apprentice to a master potter, Min.

We think the ideas are useful and illustrate a range of outside-the-bull’s-eye nonfiction you can embed in one novel. The experience also illustrates the power of collaborating with colleagues to generate ideas for embedding. Here are four ideas for embedded nonfiction that participants shared with us:

  1. Rachel D’Addabo from Jubilee Public Schools pointed out that Tree-ear is obsessed with rice. It’s not just what he eats; it’s also a currency. Having it is a psychological factor. She suggested reading an article on the economics of rice and its importance in Korean culture to understand why it was so fundamental to the narrative.
  2. Lindsay Allan from Coney Island Prep suggested reading an article on the tree-ear mushroom. The mushroom, she noted, “survives because it’s rootless—a perfect analogy for the wandering homeless narrator. Reading about it would help students understand the connection and the symbolism.”
  3. Amanda Henry from De La Salle Middle School in St. Louis observed that Min battles with what appears to be depression throughout the book. She proposed reading an article on depression (its causes and manifestations), both to better understand Min as a character and to cause them to recognize cause and effect—the mood disorder that Min may have suffered from after losing his son.
  4. Amanda Phelan from Charlotte Mecklenberg School District in North Carolina suggested reading an article on homelessness, given that Tree-ear lives under a bridge throughout much of the novel. It would be fascinating to compare the causes and psychological effects of homelessness today with Tree-ear’s story.

In a recent lesson with his eighth-grade students at Rochester Prep, Patrick Pastore embedded inside-the-bull’s-eye nonfiction to support and expand his students’ understanding of the challlenging, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a short story written in 1890 by Ambrose Bierce that we discussed in chapter 2. The story, you will recall, is set in the Civil War, and its protagonist is a Southern planter who is about to be hanged for sabotage.

As they read, students learned the circumstances that led to the hanging—the protagonist was framed by a Northern spy. Understanding this relies on the reader’s ability to make inferences based on subtle cues in the text. Patrick therefore started with a short nonfiction text about the Civil War that students read independently. It framed key vocabulary—who the Federalists were, for example—and ensured a basic knowledge of its events. Before starting the short story, Patrick and his students reviewed questions about this secondary text that Patrick described to his students as “basic but important”:

  • According to the text, how did the Civil War bring the North and South together?
  • What was another name for Confederate army soldiers?
  • What was another name for Union army soldiers?
  • What did Southerners and Democrats believe about states’ rights? How did this change postwar?

Although Patrick’s students had studied the Civil War in history class, the nonfiction text helped them access and solidify knowledge that would be necessary simply to make sense of the short story, and Patrick used his questions to focus on key terms that he knew would become relevant in Bierce’s narrative.

Then they began reading the short story. As they read, Patrick paused frequently to reinforce understanding of the text. In the first paragraph, students read the following sentence:

Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal Army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.

Patrick asked, “What do we know about the people who are about to kill him [main character]?” When a student responded, “Soldiers,” he probed further, “Soldiers of which army?” After the student replied, “The Federalists,” Patrick inquired, “Does this mean the soldier is from the North or the South?” Another student chimed in to say, “from the North,” and Patrick followed up with an inferential question: “So what do we now know about [the main character]?” A student correctly responded, “He’s most likely from the South.” Patrick pointed out that the questions he asked were about lines from the story that were easy to gloss over but that were, in fact, central to understanding the story.

Without the knowledge students had obtained through the inside-the-bull’s-eye nonfiction reading at the beginning of class, they might have been confused about or indeed simply not understood key aspects of the story, leaving them little chance to make the inferential leaps that Bierce required of his readers, especially because they were reading the story over one hundred years after it was written.

In another lesson, we observed Patrick embed an outside-the-bull’s-eye secondary nonfiction text with his sixth-grade students as they read the novel The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The novel itself, a mystery in which sixteen heirs are challenged to figure out the circumstances of the death of a newly deceased millionaire in order to win his fortune, did not pose a significant challenge for his students to comprehend. So Patrick embedded nonfiction that caused students to read the novel with a more rigorous lens. For homework, Patrick assigned an article from a psychology manual describing “histrionic personality disorder.” In class, Patrick asked his students several questions to ensure general understanding of the psychiatric disorder (for example, “What are the symptoms of histrionic personality disorder?” “How is it treated?”).

Then Patrick turned the conversation back to the novel: “What heir from our book would most likely be diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder?” The question was simple but significant. It wasn’t necessary for basic understanding of the novel, but it deepened students’ understanding of the characters (especially Sydelle Pulaski, the character they decided would most likely be diagnosed with the disorder) by providing a lens for character analysis. In order to answer the question, students had to provide multiple pieces of evidence about Sydelle’s actions and words to support their “diagnosis.” Was she just strange, or did she have a psychological condition? Never, perhaps, had sixth graders read so enthusiastically the pages of a dry psychology manual, absorbing as they did so the unique style and conventions of the sort of social science text they would be required to read again and again in college. Patrick broadened his students’ knowledge base dramatically and, what’s more, modeled for them new ways to think about analyzing characters in texts. Perhaps this was the first time they had considered that a person’s actions could be the result not so much of their being “strange” but of mental illness. This, like Colleen’s introduction of the idea of hierarchy, was a framework they could apply to text after text.


One Response to “A Second Excerpt on Building Background Knowledge from Reading Reconsidered”

  1. Kim Lewchanin
    March 17, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    Thank you for the great ideas. I especially like the “outside” the bull’s eye connection. I use Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to teach about cultural conflict to high school sophomores. After several years of struggling to get students engaged, we decided to have them read the book through the lens of an anthropologist. We discussed the various roles of anthropologists and had students keep a journal of field notes with specific headings such as summary tweet, significant passage, concept (each student was assigned a cultural concept such as religion, proverbs, rites of passage, hospitality, etc) to focus on, illustrations, reflections. We set the stage using Horace Miller’s “Nacirema” and the children’s book “Dr. Xargles Book of Earthlets” and then began reading Part I. Students were quick to notice ideas about their assigned concepts and by the end of Part I were each given a non-fiction article about that particular concept and its significance to the early Igbo culture. They were required to find one other non-fiction source to support this information. This was followed by a “museum exhibition” where student groups created a professional museum space to showcase their cultural concepts and their significance to the Pre-Colonial Igbo Culture. Afterwards students were more than ready to read Parts II and III as they were totally engaged in this often-confusing-but-significant book. At the conclusion of the book, students viewed James Cameron’s Avatar as a comparison text to TFA. Using a third source of choice (such as Wade Davis’ “Endangered Cultures” or MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech), students developed a universal truth found in all three texts. This universal truth was the basis for a synthesis essay using Avatar, TFA, and that third choice. It has been incredible to watch otherwise disengaged sophomores work their way from anthropologist to museum curator to author as they make meaning with various texts both fiction and non-fiction.

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