*For more insights about strong classroom instruction, head over to the Edthena blog!

Watch this #PLtogether Lounge Talk with Natalie Wexler about how a gap in background knowledge affects students’ reading comprehension, what she calls “The Knowledge Gap.”

You can find the transcript below:

– Welcome to another PL Together Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Athena the platform for video powered professional learning. Today we’re talking with Natalie Wexler. She is an education journalist who focuses on literacy and equity issues and her work has been featured in The New York Times the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. She’s also the author of “The Knowledge Gap” which we’re gonna talk to her about in just a few minutes. Natalie, thanks so much for joining us. Absolutely, well I mentioned your book, “The Knowledge Gap”. Let me first say the full title for folks that may not be familiar. It’s called “The Knowledge Gap, the Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System and How to Fix It.” So let’s start with what is the knowledge gap? What do you mean by that phrase?

– Well I’d say there are really two kinds of knowledge gaps that are related, but they both stem from the way we have been teaching reading and specifically reading comprehension in elementary school focusing primarily on comprehension skills like finding the main idea making inferences and using texts to teach those skills. And having kids practice the skills on level texts that have been determined to be at their individual reading level. And at the same time really marginalizing subjects like social studies and science to spend more time on the tested subjects, reading and math, which, you know seems to make sense. But evidence indicates that what really fuels reading comprehension and especially the kind of reading comprehension expected at higher grade levels of more complex text is having relevant background knowledge. And so that could be knowledge of the topic but it could also be general academic knowledge and vocabulary and familiarity with complex syntax which you really get through learning about a whole bunch of topics and being exposed to complex text maybe through read alouds and discussion in the first instance. And we’re not doing that in elementary school because we are focusing so much on these comprehension skills and strategies instead of using them as a way to get kids to think about specific content, specific topics. And so the two kinds of knowledge gap that become very apparent very obvious at higher grade levels, especially high school first of all, the gap between, you know the good readers and the poor readers. So the good readers are usually the kids who have come to school with a certain threshold of academic knowledge and vocabulary probably because they have more highly educated, you know more affluent parents. And they had more opportunities to pick up that kind of knowledge outside school, which continues. And so they have been able to move ahead at a more rapid pace because they are able to not only read complex more complex text, but also acquire new information from it. And the other kids the quote unquote poor readers are falling farther and farther behind every year. So the gap between those two groups of readers becomes very obvious at high school. And also the gap between what the high school curriculum and sometimes middle school curriculum assumes students will know and what many of them actually do know. And this could be true really at also socioeconomic levels to some extent but especially in high poverty schools, kids can get to high school without ever having had systematic exposure to history, geography, science, anything but reading and math because this focus on reading and math can continue through middle school. And that leaves them through no fault of their own with very large gaps sometimes in their background knowledge which really makes it very difficult if not impossible for them to access the curriculum at the level they’re supposed to.

– You know, as a former science teacher I loved hearing you say, don’t forget about the science but you know, maybe you can take us into an example of how this background knowledge plays out. I mean, I’ve heard you talk about the baseball study and I feel like it really kind of brings this into sharp focus for someone that may not be familiar for how much of an impact background knowledge can have on the reader. So tell us about that study and and kind of what the lesson is for us.

– Sure, yeah, it’s an ingenious study that was done back in the late 1980s and a couple of researchers wanted to find out what is more important to reading comprehension. Is it general skill, like finding the main idea, the kinds of things that are tested on standardized reading tests? Or is it how much the reader knows about the topic they’re reading about? And they chose the topic of baseball because they were doing this study with seventh and eighth graders and they figured there are a lot of kids out there who are not generally good readers but they are real experts in baseball. So they gave all of these kids, oh they divided the kids first into four groups depending on how much they knew about baseball and how well they had scored on a standardized reading comprehension test. And then they gave them all a passage to read describing a baseball game and tested their comprehension of that passage. And what they found was, what really made the difference was how much a student knew about baseball. So the kids who were poor readers or poorer readers according to the test, but were also baseball experts did almost as well as the good readers who were baseball experts and significantly better than the quote unquote good readers who did not know much about baseball. And that’s not just one study. That same kind of study has been done in multiple other contexts. And the same result has always been found. And I think sports is a great way of getting at this the importance of knowledge. I often, when I’m doing presentations, I tell people, okay I’m just gonna show you a paragraph from a newspaper and I’m gonna ask you to find the main idea. Shouldn’t be a big challenge. I’m sure you’re all expert readers. And then the paragraph, it turns out, what I don’t tell them is taken from a British newspaper and is describing a cricket match. And I get these really confused looks because, you know there’s all this terminology that people are not familiar with.

– So the knowledge gap in some ways stems from lack of exposure to content in schools. So I’m curious, I mean, are there ways that teachers may be accidentally exacerbating the effect of the knowledge gap by what they’re choosing as texts or to talk about or favorite ideas to kind of bring to light in their classrooms?

– Yeah, and this is not the fault of individual teachers it’s not any individual’s fault. This is a systemic problem. But yes, what we are doing with the best of intentions is exacerbating the gaps that exist when students enter school because, for two reasons. And one is focusing on these skills and strategies rather than on building content knowledge. And so, you know, some kids are acquiring knowledge outside school or through what they may be able to read in school independently, but others are limited because they don’t have those opportunities to acquire knowledge outside school. And because of the other basic problem which is this system of leveled reading where kids are assigned reading levels, you know, that maybe years below their grade level and just directed to a basket or a shelf of books that matches the reading level. And those books are not categorized by topic just as when teachers are doing comprehension instruction they’re choosing a text not for its topic. When they model a skill or strategy, they’re choosing a text for how well it lends itself to modeling comparing and contrasting or whatever. And the texts that students are told, this is at your reading level they too don’t take account of the topic of the text or the individual’s background knowledge. So it could be really quite a mismatch. I mean, it has been found that those leveled reading measures different ones do not agree with each other. So they’re just really approximations. But the kids who are in the low reading groups, generally that’s either because of low decoding ability or lack of general background knowledge or both they’re being denied the very thing that could help them move up in levels, reading levels which is access to academic knowledge and vocabulary and familiarity with the complex syntax the sentence structure of written language. So really we’re trapping them in these boxes as I said, with the best of intentions and not giving them what they need to get out of those boxes.

– Well Natalie, we’re going to take a short break. If you’ve found this video somewhere on the internet head to pltogether.org for the rest of this conversation as well as many more. Natalie, thanks so much for being part of PL Together.

– My pleasure.