This Month’s Focus
At Great Minds®, the Humanities team stays updated with the current scientific research on literacy. We bring research to life in our curricula and make it accessible to educators in posts like these. In this month’s blog post, Julia Sawyer-Wood shares the power of building knowledge in the elementary literacy classroom.
Knowledge Is Critical for Reading
I teach a group of creative and talented Grade 5 students, many of whom began the year reading below grade level due to significant gaps in literacy instruction during the pandemic. While my colleagues and I have worked to close our students’ foundational skills gaps this year, we see that our students are also hungry for knowledge.
Closing foundational skill gaps often becomes the sole focus of literacy instruction to the detriment of building sufficient background knowledge for reading. While foundational skills are necessary for students to become skilled readers, those who read below grade level also need access to complex texts—which require stores of background knowledge to comprehend. Students reading below grade level need more invitations to have a knowledge party in their heads.
What’s a Knowledge Party?
In her book The Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler explains that students need a “knowledge party” in which knowledge mingles with new ideas and sticks around in long-term memory (31). As I have been teaching my students for two years, they regularly demonstrate a “knowledge party” as they connect content across Grades 4 and 5.
- In Grade 5 Module 1, students read Thunder Rolling in the Mountains and learned about the Nez Perce. During that time, Ty asked me to recreate the timeline from a Grade 4 Module 3 text, The Redcoats Are Coming!, to compare the timeline of Westward expansion to the events of the American Revolution. As a result, students could see the relationship between the two eras in the timeline of American history.
- Other students remembered the perspective of the Native American trader in a Grade 4 Module 3 text, Colonial Voices, who, regardless of the outcome of the American Revolution, knew her people had already lost. Jada wondered if the Grade 4 Module intentionally foreshadowed what they would learn in Grade 5 when they studied the Nez Perce. It was amazing to hear Jada use literary vocabulary (foreshadowing) and make a poignant connection between characters in two different modules and grades.
- When students read The Phantom Tollbooth in Grade 5 Module 2, Bryson noticed the similarities between the main character, Milo, and Jack from Love That Dog. Both characters had challenges with learning at the beginning of each novel, and both went on journeys that opened their minds to different ways of thinking.
Hosting a Knowledge Party
After teaching two grade levels of Wit & Wisdom, I learned a few things about helping students enjoy the knowledge party I host in my classroom every day. Here are some strategies teachers can use to increase joyful engagement in knowledge building.
Leverage the Wonder Content Stage. During Wonder stage lessons, students have the freedom to think about the texts without the added burden of finding a single correct answer. This freedom allows students to make connections and ask questions that propel them into deeper reading. As students progress through the module, I take informal notes on what they notice and wonder and refer back to their work. Connecting to their original thinking about the text helps them build on their existing knowledge.
Facilitate conversations with questions. Every minute matters in our 75-minute literacy block, so students need to do the heavy lifting—not me. It is too easy to fall into telling them everything I want them to know. Instead, I make sure they are the ones doing the talking by facilitating class discussions with questions. Rich text discussions are invaluable for students who struggle with reading comprehension. I rarely let students off the hook with simple answers such as “I notice that the character is wearing green.” My students know I will follow a simple response with a prompting question.
Tried-and-true questions include:
- Why do you think you noticed _____?
- Why do you think _____ is _____?
- How do you think _____ will affect the story/character/conflict?
- What connections can you make with other things you have read?
- That is a great wonder. Can anyone respond to that?
Make thinking visible. Students benefit from seeing their thinking and drawing on that knowledge while completing tasks. For example, in Grade 5 Module 1 Lesson 6, students read six informational passages about Nez Perce culture and lifestyle, work in expert groups to share new knowledge, and then discuss takeaways with the whole class. As students share, I record their thoughts on anchor charts. I post those charts for reference throughout the module. The anchor charts also remind students of the knowledge they have built and serve as a bridge to earlier learning. Students who struggle with writing frequently use these charts to gather evidence and support responses to tasks. Visible knowledge posted around our classroom affirms that students are the experts on the module topic.
Teach other content areas. Since many students are behind in reading comprehension, it would be easy to do what we have always done: teach skills isolated from content knowledge and dedicate more time in the day to these efforts. But having seen the gains students made in reading due to their growing knowledge base, my team is now working to extend student knowledge in our science and social studies blocks.
Let me leave you with this thought: Building knowledge is for everyone. Allowing students who struggle to access only small bits and pieces of knowledge from texts below their actual grade level is neither beneficial nor engaging. Every student deserves to be deeply engaged and motivated by the topics they study in school, and Wit & Wisdom has helped me do that for my students.
We would love to hear about the knowledge parties your students have every day in Wit & Wisdom! Connect with us in our Facebook groups for each grade band (K-2, 3-5, and 6-8) or on Twitter @WitWisdomELA.
Wexler, Natalie. The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—And How to Fix It. New York: Avery, 2019.
Julia Sawyer-Wood is a Grade 5 teacher in the Little Rock School District in Little Rock, Arkansas. She has 15 years of teaching experience and has been a Wit & Wisdom PD fellow for two years. At any given time, she is likely to be found reading or listening to an audiobook.
Topics: knowledge building