Module 2


Essential Questions

  1. What is the role of background knowledge during reading?
  2. What counts as literacy?
  3. Why is a literate environment important for developing readers?


Being literate depends on a variety of factors including in and out of school activities. Sometimes even something that seems insignificant, such as the time of day a class is scheduled, can impact one's literacy practices. The way we view ourselves as readers and writers and the way others perceive us can determine success and failures of our learning experiences. As a teacher, you come across many students with unique abilities, attitudes, and interests. For example, one student may enjoy video games and television, while another student may enjoy motocross racing. Also, one's attitude is influenced by families and one's environment. In this module, you will explore what readers need to be successful.


You will recall from Module 1, comprehension is an essential component of the reading process. We must always keep this goal in mind for reading, because accurate reading does not automatically mean that readers will remember or comprehend what they read just because they were accurate when decoding all the words. While the perceptions of teachers, family and others guide us in how we relate to various texts, this is just one part of the building block for us to understand the text. In order to be considered literate, one must be able to bring meaning to text. The following video demonstrates this process.


  " Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading "


What does this suggest about comprehension? What does this mean for teachers of various content areas? While the video pertains mainly to comprehending printed text, other forms of text are related. How does knowledge in the content areas help one comprehend speeches and diagrams, for example? From this video, we can recognize that reading is not just a rote skill; rather, we must be able to understand or comprehend what we are reading. Background knowledge and prior experiences assist in comprehension, but not having any background knowledge does not mean a person cannot comprehend something.

When we try to comprehend the writings of an author, we are attempting to obtain meaning from something someone else has written. Goodman (1996) explains that an author has a message to convey, but it is not possible for the writer's thoughts and meanings to be received intact into the reader's head. In fact, no text "will ever "contain" [the author's] message so precisely as to guarantee that [he/she] communicate [his/her] exact "intended meaning" to [the reader]" (Goodman, 1996, p. 2). Therefore, comprehension is based in large part on a parallel text that combines the author's intended meaning and what the reader brings to the text. This does not mean that anything goes. Even though each reader brings his/her own background experiences to a text, and no two readers will construct the exact same meaning from what is read, shared meanings will emerge. However, shared meaning constitutes a smaller percentage than individual meaning. Additionally, readers, in their interpretation of a text, must also use what is written to support their understanding.


The Role of Background Knowledge

Schema Theory explains that a reader must be able to make a reasonable connection between the ideas in a message and an existing schema (mental model) in the reader's mind. Bransford and McCarrell (1974) demonstrate this process using the following sentence.


The notes were sour because the seam split.


All of these words are probably familiar to you; however, taken as a whole you may not know what the message is. Some may argue that the ability to decode all these words is reading, however, most educators would disagree. Unless you can gain meaning in a way that allows you to demonstrate an understanding, you aren't really reading. In the above example, without an existing network of prior knowledge (schemata), the reader becomes lost. If you know that the sentence is describing playing a bagpipe, does that help? If you said yes, that is because you have some schema about bagpipes. In the slide presentation below, you will learn more about schema theory and how it explains the role of background knowledge when making sense of print.



 These ideas suggest that assuming one ability level or grade level for each reader is problematic. Readers will be more likely to comprehend and interpret texts for which they have background knowledge and experiences. In fact, the more knowledge one has the more challenging the reading material can be. At the same time, the same reader can be a very skilled reader in one content area but not in another simply because of the knowledge he/she brings to the text.


Literate Environment

Since prior knowledge and context play key roles in the reading process, it makes little sense to disregard students' environments both in and out of school. It is within these environments that students are exposed to the ideas and experiences that help shape their literate identities. Possessing schema about a topic is not enough. Whether or not schema is sufficient and appropriate to the context of the lesson also influences understanding. A learner's environment helps determine the adequacy of these factors. Let's return to Cambourne's Conditions for Learning. As you might imagine learning takes more than just what the reader brings to the reading event. Readers will also need to be immersed throughout the school day in literacy practices. One of the most common misconceptions about learning to read is that children acquire all of the skills they need to be good readers by third grade. This is not true. Learning to read is a continual process, even for proficient adult readers.

Children's literacy experiences begin early, and these early experiences continue to impact adolescents' literacy development. Children raised in high-literacy homes are entrenched in reading and writing experiences such as regular bedtime stories, attention to letters on signs around town, and practice writing their names. Adams (1990) estimated that these children may experience more than 1000 hours of literacy events before they ever reach school. Research indicates that children of poverty may not share the same print experiences that are privileged in schools. This can lead to insufficient background knowledge that immediately puts these students at a disadvantage because they are unprepared for the academic discourse that takes place in the classroom.

One way to combat this disadvantage is to broaden the viewpoint of literate experiences to encompass the literacies students practice outside of school. For many students from poor or culturally different backgrounds, an oral tradition is privileged within the homes (Egan 1987). Other students who struggle with traditional academic reading and writing often thrive in other literate spheres like online forums and gaming. Integrating youth culture and culturally-relevant practices can help students make connections and strengthen their reading successes. 

Teachers modeling their own literacy practices can also help students overcome gaps. Good readers often assume that everyone thinks like they do, but struggling readers do not automatically use the strategies associated with effective readers: visualizing, connecting, questioning, inferring, evaluating, analyzing, recalling and self-monitoring. Therefore, it's important for teachers to demonstrate these strategies as they naturally occur in their own reading experiences. Similarly, when students see adults reading and writing regularly, they begin to appreciate the value of these practices. In the next module, we will further explore what happens when students struggle.



Let's return to our essential questions for this module.

  1. What is the role of background knowledge during reading?
  2. What counts as literacy?
  3. Why is a literate environment important for developing readers?


How might you answer these questions now? What have you learned that can help you?



In the next module, we will focus specifically on the differences between proficient and non-proficient readers.



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