THIS MONTH’S FOCUS
By systematically building students’ knowledge within and across Kindergarten through Grade 8, Wit & Wisdom® embraces and integrates the research that shows building students’ knowledge is essential to their success in the English language arts classroom.
“Comprehension and communication depend on a body of broadly shared knowledge, but American schools spend astonishingly little time building it—and our most disadvantaged students get the least.” (Knowledge Matters)
The seminal “baseball study” is a helpful starting point for the discussion of the interplay between knowledge and literacy. Researchers Recht and Leslie (1988) looked at the effect of topic knowledge—in this case, of baseball—on reading comprehension. As expected, students with high reading comprehension skills and high knowledge of baseball scored well on a reading passage about baseball. Unsurprisingly, students with low knowledge of baseball and low reading comprehension skills did not score well. The surprise? Students with lower comprehension skills but higher content knowledge significantly outperformed students who were better readers but knew less about baseball.
The instructional implications of these findings are stark and powerful. Students can read more difficult texts if they have sufficient prior knowledge. If students do not have one single level of reading, a leveled approach to reading does not make sense and may hold students back by limiting them to lower-level texts rather than moving them into progressively more complex texts. Additionally, findings like these suggest that an intentional focus on building students’ knowledge is more beneficial than a focus on comprehension skills alone.
Cognitive science also demonstrates the power of knowledge building. Researchers confirm that prior knowledge and the ability to organize new information are essential to learning. A crucial element in learning is integrating and connecting ideas into our existing mental frameworks. In a school setting, this has serious effects on equity. Researchers have termed this the “Matthew effect.” The “rich get richer” (Willingham, 2006), and students with lower background knowledge and skill often fall farther behind.
We also now understand more about how active learning and application helps knowledge move from short-term working memory to long-term retention. That is why, if you pause now and summarize what you have read so far in this communication or explain it to someone else, you will understand the content at a deeper level and you will remember more of what you have read.
What are the teaching and learning implications of these streams of research on knowledge building? Teachers will want to take these actions:
- Follow Wit & Wisdom as intended.
- Help students achieve long-term retention.
- Focus instruction.
- Reorganize the classroom library
- Support students in reading complex texts.
- Make connections.
Follow Wit & Wisdom as written. Wit & Wisdom and our continuous learning option, Wit & Wisdom in Sync, bring to life the research on knowledge building with texts and tasks that were chosen and designed to maximize students’ content learning. Teachers may be tempted to skip or replace supplementary texts or tasks for pacing or other reasons, but an unintended consequence may be that students fail to learn or retain as much as they could.
Help students achieve long-term retention. Moving information from short-term working memory to long-term memory for retention requires students to ‘do something’ with their learning, such as summarize it for someone else; actively recall and verbalize it in discussion; or write, chart, graph, map, or draw key information. Wit & Wisdom lessons often include tasks to promote active learning of knowledge, and teachers need to avoid replacing or over scaffolding for such tasks, as doing so may deprive students of the chance to retain knowledge.
In an online environment, teachers need to be even more careful to ensure that students have sufficient time to talk, keeping the ratio of teacher talk to student talk balanced in favor of students, and that all students actively participate in discussions and tasks. While wait time might seem awkwardly long in an online discussion, the same principles apply as in the classroom—students learn more through their active participation.
In a distance learning setting, intentional planning for active participation is important. Student pairs can use a chat feature to discuss ideas and offer feedback. Using a shared classroom space to post work provides an opportunity for peer-to-peer feedback. When students are learning together in a video conferencing platform, teachers can use breakout rooms for discussion and collaboration.
Focus instruction. To help students make meaningful connections between ideas and prior learning, teachers must take steps to focus students’ attention on key knowledge. Instead of trying to address all interesting elements of a text, teachers should closely follow the lessons, whose intentional questioning and follow-up help ensure students take away the most important learning.
Teachers can display anchor charts and create classroom displays of the module’s Essential Question and Focusing Questions and the daily Content Framing Questions and Craft Questions to help keep students grounded in the most essential knowledge. When teaching at a distance, teachers will want to plan for ways to use a shared online classroom space for such displays.
To ensure that time spent together is engaging and purposeful for students when teaching at a distance, teachers may want to record and post an instructional video for students to watch before the next lesson, as the Great Minds teachers have done with the content-focused daily videos of Wit & Wisdom in Sync. By providing content and sharing information in an asynchronous resource that students can watch and rewatch on their own, focused content delivery is assured, and together time can be used for discussion, collaboration, and questioning.
Reorganize the classroom library. Students benefit when teachers organize their classroom libraries by topic, series, author, or areas of interest so students make selections based on interest and build knowledge based on that reading. Researchers tout the benefits of text sets—particularly those that group different genres together—to build students’ knowledge and vocabulary. Use the Wit & Wisdom Volume of Reading suggestions (provided in print or digital as an appendix to the Teacher Edition) to help build out a classroom library with books related to the Wit & Wisdom module topics. Avoid organization by reading “levels.” Books organized by levels may discourage students from reading more complex books, which, because of their interest and existing knowledge of the topic, they could actually read.
Teachers teaching virtually may want to refer students to websites with reading lists organized by topic or create their own recommended text sets. In addition, teacher-created lists could include links to school or district online libraries.
Support students in reading complex texts. As Shanahan (2019) reminds us, “the harder a text is for a student, the more there is to learn.” This does not mean, however, that all students will be immediately successful with complex texts. Teachers play an important role in scaffolding reading of complex texts for students. Wit & Wisdom provides some essential scaffolds—most importantly, the Content Stage process, which deepens students’ understanding with each stage of repeated, close reading. Teachers can also provide scaffolds such as these:
- read alouds or audio books,
- opportunities for fluency practice,
- explicit vocabulary instruction,
- instruction on text features and genre structures, and
- integrated instruction in sentence and language structures and syntax.
When it comes to Wit & Wisdom instruction, teachers should avoid the urge to skip or swap out texts that seem at first glance to be too challenging for students. Wit & Wisdom teacher–writers carefully selected texts in Wit & Wisdom, and streamlined the library of Wit & Wisdom in Sync, to build students’ knowledge and vocabulary. Finding strategies to support students in reading a text is a better strategy than omitting it.
Make connections. Collaborate with colleagues across disciplines. The interdisciplinary nature of Wit & Wisdom topics and texts lends itself perfectly to cross-content collaborations. These kinds of cross-content connections allow students to build knowledge of the same topic from multiple expert perspectives. In Grade 4 Module 1: A Great Heart, for example, the texts already integrate science, with the study of the circulatory system, and literature and poetry, with the novel Love that Dog. Physical education teachers can talk with students about the importance of a healthy heart, measure students’ heart rates, and so on. Art teachers can examine paintings that show great heart and invite students to paint “with great heart.”
Help students form their own connections. Research on cognition points to the value of connecting ideas to build and retain knowledge. We know that experts in a field differ from new learners in the depth and breadth of the connections they make among ideas, facts, and skills. So how can we help learners make deeper and broader connections? Teachers can help students in this effort by asking targeted questions, reinforcing students’ spontaneous connections, or asking students to see an idea from a different perspective. Teachers in Wit & Wisdom schools can be particularly intentional about making connections between modules and across grade levels. For example, that same Grade 4 teacher teaching A Great Heart can also connect students with their Grade 2 learning about healthy eating. Helping students to make these kinds of connections across topics, texts, modules, grade levels, and their own life experiences can engage students and deepen their learning.
ENGAGING FAMILIES IN KNOWLEDGE BUILDING
The knowledge focus of the Wit & Wisdom modules provides a great opportunity for engaging families and caregivers in academic content and conversations. Learning from students about the topics in which they have become experts can be a joyful, engaging experience for families—and lead to a desire for continued exploration and learning. Download the relevant Tips for Families, in English (witeng.link/wwtips) or Spanish (witeng.link/wwsptips). Share these with caregivers and encourage them to read and discuss core texts and module topics outside of school.
Other ideas for engaging families in the work of building knowledge include the following:
- Launch a “Word of the Week” challenge using vocabulary related to the module topic.
- Start a book club.
- Share ideas for virtual field trips related to module topics.
- Consider taking field trips in person (when possible) to bring the module content to life.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS WITH KNOWLEDGE BUILDING
- Avoid unneeded preteaching of content. While prior knowledge promotes learning, frontloading content does not achieve the same goal. Wit & Wisdom modules build student knowledge through text, discussion, and writing so that as the modules progress, students can comprehend the complex texts. Different modules may elicit different strengths from different students—but all modules build shared content knowledge.
- Do not wait to teach students to read to learn. As Cervetti and Hiebert (2018) point out, the idea that students first “learn to read” and then “read to learn” is a dangerous misconception. The youngest students benefit from reading to learn and building deep academic and content-area vocabulary as they learn to read.
- Resist the urge to simplify. Especially in times of disruption, teachers may want to limit content or skills instruction or lessen the rigor of instruction. Willingham’s research—on how knowledge speeds and strengthens reading comprehension and critical thinking—provides a compelling counter to these kinds of decisions.
- Pose questions carefully. Asking purposeful questions can help ensure that instructional time focuses most meaningfully on knowledge building. Use the questions built into the Wit & Wisdom structure—the daily Content Framing and Craft Questions, text-dependent questions, and Focusing Questions. When crafting your own questions to further thinking or discussion, keep in mind that strong questions
- are open ended.
- engage and provoke thought.
- call for higher-order thinking.
- cross disciplines.
- raise additional questions or spark inquiry.
- require evidence and support.
FOR MORE KNOWLEDGE ON KNOWLEDGE
Cervetti, Gina N. and Elfrieda H. Hiebert. Knowledge at the Center of English/Language Arts
Instruction, Text Project Article Series, August 2018.
Knowledge Matters Campaign. Knowledge Matters Campaign: Restoring Wonder and Excitement
to the Classroom, www.knowledgematterscampaign.org.
Recht, Donna R., and Lauren Leslie. “Effect of Prior Knowledge on Good and Poor Readers’ Memory
of Text,” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 80, no. 1, 1988, pp. 16–20, witeng.link/0872.
Shanahan, Timothy. “Why Children Should Be Taught to Read with More Challenging Texts.”
Perspectives on Language and Literacy: The Importance of Knowledge, Fall 2019, pp. 17–
Wexler, Natalie. “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years.” The
Atlantic, 13 Apr 2018, http://witeng.link/0870.
Willingham, Daniel T. “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension,
Learning—and Thinking.” American Educator, vol. 30, no. 1, 2006, http://witeng.link/0869.
Ashley serves as Great Minds' National Director of Implementation Services for Wit & Wisdom. She joined Great Minds after 15 years serving Baltimore City Public Schools as an elementary ELA teacher, K–8 Principal, and most recently, District Office Literacy Administrator. Ashley partners with district- and school-level leadership to directly support and lead their Wit & Wisdom implementations.