How Knowledge Powers Reading by Doug Lemov

February 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 5 
Literacy in Every Classroom Pages 10-16

How Knowledge Powers Reading

Doug Lemov

To help students master nonfiction reading, we must design instruction that builds their background knowledge.

Want to become a doctor? An economist? An engineer? You'd better be prepared to read articles, primary source documents, research studies, and complex essays. The same is true for shorter-term goals, like scoring well on the new SAT. In other words, success in scholastic and professional endeavors requires the ability to learn from the literature of a discipline.

Clearly, it's important to ensure that all students can read and master nonfiction texts—but it's also challenging. Nonfiction doesn't follow the "problem, rising action, resolution" conventions of fiction that students are familiar with from novels, movies, and TV sitcoms. With the exception of memoir and biography, nonfiction rarely tries to win the reader's interest with an engaging narrative voice. The tone is more often something like, "I've got some information here; stay with me if you can."

But the biggest challenge—and the most important—is this: Recent research shows that reading comprehension, deep thinking, and even creativity all rely heavily on prior knowledge. Although you can find a thousand articles claiming that knowledge is essentially irrelevant nowadays—that mere facts are not worth teaching in the age of Google, when anyone can look up anything at any time—in fact, cognitive scientists now mostly believe that this apparently tidy logic is wrong (Allington & Cunningham, 2006; Deans for Impact, 2015; Willingham, 2006). The brain's active processing capacity is finite, so unless knowledge is encoded in long-term memory, having to search for it actually crowds out other forms of cognition. Knowing things helps you think and read successfully.

At the same time, reading is a primary way to come to know things. Every time we read and comprehend a text, we add to the knowledge that helps us make sense of further texts.

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