In the long-running reading wars, proponents of phonics have won.
States, schools of education, districts, and — ultimately, the hope is — teachers, are placing a greater emphasis on phonics. Meanwhile, the “three-cueing” method, which encourages students to guess words based on context, has been marginalized. It’s been a striking and swift change.
But there has been much less attention paid to another critical component of reading: background knowledge. A significant body of research suggests students are better able to comprehend what they read when they start with some understanding of the topic they’re reading about. This has led some academics, educators, and journalists to call for intentional efforts to build young children’s knowledge in important areas like science and social studies. Some school districts and teachers have begun integrating this into reading instruction.
Yet new state reading laws have almost entirely omitted attention to this issue, according to a recent review. In other words, building background knowledge is an idea supported by science that has not fully caught on to the science of reading movement. That suggests that while new reading laws might have real benefits, they may fall short of their potential to improve how children are taught to read.
“It’s an underutilized component,” said Dan Trujillo, an administrator and former teacher in the San Marcos Unified School District in California. “There’s a lot of research about that: The more a reader brings into a text, the more advanced their comprehension will be.”