Parents introduce the world to their kids. Early on they say things like, “See the doggie?” “That’s red,” or “Feel the wind?” Later on they might offer a simple explanation at a family gathering like, “Your grandma is a Democrat, your uncle a Republican. So, they disagree about politics, and like to argue about it.”
Whether parents fully realize it, they are in the business of introducing the world to their kids, and the more kids are introduced to, the more enabled they are to learn. Here’s why.
You Need Knowledge to Gain Knowledge
Background knowledge is what you bring to any learning situation. Kids with a sizable store of general knowledge, facts, and vocabulary have learning advantages.
Here are 7 chief advantages. Background Knowledge:
- Makes learning easier.
- Makes remembering easier.
- Improves reading comprehension.
- Improves reading speed, because you don’t have to re-read as often to understand the text.
- Frees working memory space to learn even more.
- Increases the accuracy of inferences you make from the text.
- Improves your problem solving abilities.
Cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, puts it concisely, “The more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.”
The Matthew Effect
Everyone realizes that knowledge accumulates, but what most don’t grasp is that knowledge accumulates exponentially. The more you know, the more you can learn. In the mid-eighties, reading researcher Keith Stanovitch described this accumulation advantage with the phrase "the Matthew Effect," referring to the perplexing biblical passage that says: to those who have, more will be given, and to those who have not, even that will be taken away. Those with a rich knowledge base comprehend more and become better readers. Those with a poor knowledge base comprehend less, making it more difficult to catch up.
The Matthew Effect makes it clear why early exposure to knowledge, facts and vocabulary is so valuable. Learning compounds. Early efforts pay big dividends. Parents are in the first position to make these valuable learning deposits, even if they are uninformed of the long-term benefit of their effort.
Building kids’ store of knowledge is one of the most important contributions parents make to their kids’ learning and education.
Confusing Decoding and Comprehension
Background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension, but a common misconception obscures this fact. Reading is often associated with the adage, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he feeds himself forever.” Reading is compared to fishing. Once you can read, then you can understand what you read. If only that were true--we’d all be geniuses. Anyone could “read” a quantum physics textbook, and understand it.
Well-cited research by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie conducted in 1988 made obvious the importance of subject matter knowledge to reading success. In their experiment, students identified as having poor decoding skills were given passages to read that covered a topic familiar to them, baseball. Conversely, students identified as having excellent decoding skills, but unfamiliar with baseball, were given the same passages to read. What happened? The low-skill decoders’ reading comprehension scores were superior to the scores of high-skill decoders. These results make apparent that topic knowledge is essential to reading skill.
Sounding out all the words doesn’t mean that you understand. The misconception is that once kids learn to decode, to sound out the words, they are good to go. It is true that progress in decoding is essential. But, progress in comprehending is about acquiring more and more knowledge.
Background Knowledge, General Knowledge, and the Common Core
If standardized tests are used to assess reading ability, then kids unfamiliar with the topics covered in the reading passages are at a disadvantage. Are the topics used in standardized tests considered general knowledge kids should know?
Editors of print and TV are tuned in to the shared knowledge base that supports general reading and public communication. Books written for a “general audience” assumes taken-for-granted knowledge. If your background knowledge includes most of the taken-for-granted knowledge, then you understand most of what you read and hear publically. But if it doesn’t, then you probably don’t, and are more likely to tune out.
What is this common knowledge that enables students and citizens to understand and participate in pubic communication? E. D. Hirsch, Professor of Education at University of Virginia, has done the most research to identify this assumed background knowledge, which he described as “cultural literacy.” One of the most significant endeavors in education policy today is the development and adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Once you understand how background knowledge improves reading and learning, you can recognize the basic purpose of the common core standards, even if you disagree with the policy.
How Can Parents Build Kids’ Background Knowledge?
In the course of many out-of-school interactions parents explain the world to their kids, building kids' background knowledge. It’s what parents do day in and day out, whether or not they appreciate the learning impact. How well do you see these ordinary opportunities, use them creatively, and optimize the fun in the process?
As parents introduce the world to kids, they build kids’ background knowledge, helping them become better readers and better learners.
How Knowledge Helps, by Daniel T. Willingham, explains the 7 chief learning advantages of background knowledge mentioned in this post.
Reading is Not a Skill, a Washington Post blog post by Daniel T. Willingham, uses great examples to unpack the background knowledge needed to understand simple statements, so you really get the point.
How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores, a New York Times op-ed by E. D. Hirsch discusses the Matthew Effect, early childhood language learning, curriculum and the declining SAT Verbal Scores.
There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test, by E. D. Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio, The American Prospect, makes a convincing case that standardized tests of reading skill are inescapably measuring background knowledge.
Chapters 1 and 4 of The Knowledge Deficit, by E. D. Hirsch, a PCM Top Ten Book for Parents.
Chapter 1 of Why Don’t Student’s Like School, Daniel T. Willingham, a PCM Top Ten Book for Parents.