Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Little Knowledge is Not Such a Dangerous Thing

" Instruction for struggling readers should include knowledge building...."
Handbook of Reading Research. Volume 4, p.349

"The construction of mental representations does not involve the application
of precise, sophisticated, context-sensitive rules...." Walter Kintsch.
Comprehension, p.5

When it comes to the role background knowledge plays in reading, the verdict has been in for years now: The more background knowledge readers have about the topic discussed in print, the faster they comprehend and remember what they read. In a way, though, many instructors, including me, have found that insight to be a mixed blessing. The good news was that readers with poor comprehension were probably coping with a lack of background knowledge rather than with an innate inability to process prose efficiently.

The bad news was that the students we were seeing in reading labs and classes pretty much lacked any shred of academic background knowledge. There were lots of things they knew about life and the world, but very little of that knowledge was likely to speed up their understanding of a text describing photosynthesis or the Missouri Compromise.

Almost all the instructors I know, including me, were flummoxed by the magnitude of background knowledge we felt we needed to give students if we were to show them that textbook comprehension was not always going to be arduous and exhausting. Sure we could hand out textbook selections that dispensed a nugget or two of academic wisdom but those few nuggets didn't even half fill a pretty empty bucket. We did our best but still felt our efforts were inadequate, maybe even pointless, largely because students came to us knowing a lot about family dynamics, romantic relationships, pop culture, cell phone plans. etc, but painfully little about the world outside their personal lives.

Yet in retrospect, I have come to think that those of us who didn't think we could ever provide students with enough background knowledge to be useful thought about it in the wrong way. We thought, or at least I did, that unless we gave students the entire lowdown on say the causes and consequences of the Civil War, we were wasting their time. Yet the more I read about the role of background knowledge in comprehension the more I think we were over-estimating our task. (It's also true that the more I read the work of cognitive psychologist Walter Kintsch, the more I am convinced that detailed background knowledge is not the sina qua non of comprehension; it's having the larger framework that really counts)

When researchers talk about background knowledge (See, for instance, "Integrating Memory-based and Constructivist Processes in Accounts of Reading Comprehension,
available here, they are talking about a general framework that allows readers to call up appropriate word meaning or supply the appropriate inferences expected by the author. And general frameworks,with emphasis on the word general, are not that difficult to supply, particularly with the aid of the Web.

Through brief, sequenced assignments, we--and instructors in other departments interested in making sure their assignments are understood-- can supply students with what I call knowledge "snippets" about key academic topics. These snippets can be pieces of text, videos, photos, poems, memoirs, etc. But what they must do is (1) provide a big picture or overview of what a person, theory or event accomplished (2) generally explain why a person, idea or event is considered significant (3) define a key concept essential to understanding the topic addressed and (4) include a relevant visual aid. Students can then use those snippets to create broad knowledge frameworks that allow them to plug in, or as the researchers say, "instantiate" related facts and ideas when they encounter them in their reading.

As the reading researcher Nancy Marshall pointed out years ago, schemas or, the term I prefer, knowledge frameworks "allow an exchange of meaning to occur." They allow the reader to "include new information, to rearrange old information, or to identify old information with new sources." (Available only in print in Comprehension and the Competent Reader, p. 41.)Without these knowledge frameworks,students are in mental free fall, trying desperately to create the larger network or pattern they need in order to categorize new information coming in from their textbooks.

But keeping students from stumbling around in a text without finding any purchase is not so hard as we once may have thought, particularly with the advent of the Web. When students have assignments that confuse them, they can use heading key words, for instance, to get a general sense of what their text is about, and that general sense is probably all they need to develop a schema that will, in turn, improve their comprehension.


Eddo said...

I just got an e-mail that a new post was up. Congratulations! I had said you would be lucky if you got one a year up given your schedule. But you fooled me. But isn't the date out of synch since we are going into September? Ed

retProf said...

To me, one has to distinguish between two types of texts: (a) one riddled with allusions that basically reflect where the author comes from (milieu, education etc); (b) one written for a more general audience that cannot be presumed to be in sync with the predilections of a specific author. a-Type texts will remain opaque to the uninitiated, i.e. anyone not familiar with the author's background (which may include knowledge of the Bible, the Iliad, or Newtons' third law or any combination thereof or whatever). I do not believe any general strategy will make these types of texts accessible to the uninitiated, and more importantly, there is no need for such a strategy b/c by definition, these texts are (meant to be) exclusionary.

blogger balks at the length of my comment--so, let's go to the next one.

retProf said...

So, we're really talking about texts of type B, which may presume, for example, that readers know when WWII ended, but are read by people who don't. What can we do? Of course, a teacher can supply this type of background information whenever it is needed in a specific case, but that is not a general strategy--it's more like putting a thumb into a hole in a leaking dike--It will not solve the general problem. No course, not even a 4-year program, can deliver the kind of "cultural literacy" that a milieu failed to deliver. What can be done, and I am with you, Laraine, on that, is to instill an attitude in students that points out that the background knowledge they are lacking IS available on the web (but that, of course, has to confront the issue that a good portion of what's available is BS--I can't get into this here). And secondly, it's a huge challenge to textbook authors to free their explanations to the largest possible degree from unexplained references and allusions.

This is not to say that your snippets do not have a role to play--they are great as far as they go (provided they remain entertaining in their own right, which they do so far). But the overriding challenge is, to me, to show students that things they do not know can be found out and that, in fact, IT MAY BE FUN TO FIND OUT.

Laraine Flemming said...

@retProf Thank you so much for your really thoughtful comments. I'm going to address them in two separate comments as well.

I definitely agree with you that there is a Type A group of writers for whom snippets of background knowledge are pretty useless. However, I would like to whittle away at your category a bit.

I would include in it only the purposely abstruse who write for the initiated, for instance, the Lacanian literary critics from a decade or two ago, who expressed themselves in what I think of as "cult writing." If you knew Jacque Lacan's whole whacky system of Freudian analysis, inside and out, you could, with luck, follow them. If you didn't, no snippets of background knowledge were going to save you.

To this group A also belong writers in research journals, who rightly expect to be read by people who know as much as they do. Although I have to say, with this latter group, I think a determined reader can make inroads by persistent re-reading and paraphrasing. However, the students for which I write are generally not determined readers--I say "generally" because I will never forget a student of mine who read everything she could find on forensic evidence in order to follow the O.J. Simpson trial. It was a lesson in the power of motivation-- and thus, for all practical purposes, would not be aided by snippets of background knowledge when confronted by either cult writing or a heavy-duty journal article.

But I'm not so sure that writing "riddled with allusions" belongs to your Type A category. Or at least, it doesn't belong to mine.

For sure, I think writers who assume a shared cultural literacy about names and events are hard for the developmental student to read. However, I dont think these writers are unapproachable. This kind writing of requires a pre-reading discussion of what the allusions and references mean and/or a commitment on the students' part to look them up on the Web, after a first reading in which allusions or references get circled.

I once taught an MFK Fischer essay that was, as you put it, "riddled with allusions" and initially my students were flummoxed by it. So much so they expressed their anger at her and me. ( I should say here, they had every right to be mad at me. It was a dumb assignment, all but guaranteed to make them feel inadequate).

Once the storm of protest subsided--"Why can't she just say what she means staight out?"--we went over the allusions in class and re-read parts of the essay silently and aloud, and I was impressed by how much the students had improved. once they were given what were essentially "snippets" of background knowledge about, for instance, the myth of Tantalus.

Perhaps more importantly, I think they were impressed by their own "higher learning," the sense that they too could, if necessary, play in the big leagues i.e. read essays where the author chose to use a lot of expressions and words the students thought of as "high-falutin." (My word not theirs).

Later on today, I'll respond to the second half of your, again. really thoughtful comment. You made me think about how far I would go in making claims for a snippet approach to background knowledge, and I have definitely refined my position as a result of what you say here.

Laraine Flemming said...

@Eddo Yes, I know. I am not a very good blogger. but I am trying to improve. I'd probably get better if you would post a comment in response to the content of the new post rather than reminding me that, when it comes to new posts, I am a master procrastinator.

retProf said...

@Laraine: I'm looking forward to your second response. In the meantime, let me clarify one thing. A teacher who understands a text thoroughly, including every allusion, however obscure, can of course guide a group of students in class to arrive at an understanding of the text. I'm more concerned with the situation where such a teacher is not present, i.e. with strategies we should suggest to students that they can use on their own.

I excluded my "type-A" texts because they are written by an author with a specific background for readers with that same (or a similar) background--which excludes almost by definition readers who do not share this background, and I think we should direct our energies elsewhere, "type-B" texts in this case.

And here, nothing beats motivation--I'm totally with you here. With the resources available today, just about everything this side of complex discipline-specific expertise (which you typically acquire in 4 years of college) can be figured out--one just needs the motivation to spend the time. But what do we do when this motivation is lacking?

Laraine Flemming said...

@retProf I just wanted to respond to this comment before tackling the second half of the earlier one.

The strategy, to my mind anyway, is to add allusions to regular vocabulary building, both in class and out. I've been doing this for years, first in the classroom and now in my books and really believe it should play a role in reading classes and texts.

I think vocabulary building with allusions is critical, in part, as an aid to comprehension but also because they often provide information about events student should know about, e.g. Rosie the Riveter and John D. Rockefeller are two figures that play a role in allusions and knowing a little about them can help students understand pivotal periods in our history.

The second strategy, which I mention in my previous post, admittedly somewhat obliquely, is that students read through an "allusion-riddled" text once and circle those allusions that make it impossible for them to get the gist of the sentence. And yes, this can really happen. Then on a second, slower reading. they look up the allusions they circled.

What I think is a really bad idea is to have students look up these kinds of stumbling blocks while they are reading and, as the research suggests, get distracted by the web sites they visit. Some of them, like the ones on mythology, can lure you in. Or maybe that's just me. It might well not be a problem for my student audience, who might not find discussions of mythological or historical personages quite so compelling.

Laraine Flemming said...

@retProf I think we are basically in agreement. I don't think teachers can give students the background knowledge for every single text they read. I do think, though, that a freshman audience covers a pretty standard bill of fare. For that reason, giving students snippets of background knowledge about, for instance, Piaget's theory of educational development or Maslow's hierarchy of needs is going to be useful to most, or at least, many college freshmen.

Since I believe in teaching knowledge-based comprehension, i.e. introducing reading strategies within the context of useful information about key past and current events and people, as opposed to focusing on narratives or more accessible and easier to grasp content such as the playful habits of squirrels or flavors of ice cream, I think reading teachers are in a position to flesh out students' background knowledge in relatively painless but still useful ways.

But I agree, that's not a reading strategy--although I do think it qualifies as a teaching strategy--students can apply. What students can do, however, is to look up headings from textbook chapters on the Web before and after they read. I do this myself with unfamiliar material, and in my textbooks, I encourage students to do the same.

I think this is a strategy and I consider it far more useful than telling students to "activate their background knowledge" before reading since I have seen, and continue to see first hand, how little academic background knowledge students have available when it comes to reading college textbooks. I think a better strategy is to tell students how to go about getting the background knowledge they are missing. I think it's also important to repeatedly stress how background knowledge aids comprehension. Students need to be aware that reading their textbooks will get easier if they acquire, at the very minimum, a general framework that they can build on as they read. In other words, we are back to my snippet approach to acquiring background knowledge; only now, you are right, the ball is in the student's court.

retProf said...

Yes, the ball is, as always, in the student's court, and the best thing teachers can do is motivate students to do something with it. In our case, I think it's more important to demonstrate to students how important background knowledge is, period, than to provide the specific knowledge needed to understand a specific text. We seem to have arrived at an agreement about this.

On a self-critical note: I taught in a graduate program with a substantial contingent of foreign students. Since I was advising them on their dissertation, I spent an enormous amount of time trying to show them how to write in a second language (some had not even been taught how to write in their first language!). In retrospect, I wonder: Should I have focused also on their reading comprehension? I somehow never came to fully understand, at the time, the importance of background knowledge that is culture-specific and which I took for granted...

Laraine Flemming said...

Hi, So glad to see you back. I thought you might have given up on me because I was so slow to complete my answer.

Yes, we do agree, but not completely. I actually think that it is the reading teacher's job to offer students as much background knowledge as possible. It doesn't necessarily have to be in the form of hand outs or lectures (not that I share the current contempt for lectures but I don't think it would work in this context), but the exercises or reading passages they use should, as much as possible,
focus on people, events, and ideas that might come up in introductory course in subjects like basic biology and American history.

As for your own experience, I wouldn't beat yourself up about that. You did more than many non-reading or writing instructors do. You tried to teach your students how to write better. I have known some wonderful teachers who did the same. But I have also known way too many who couldn't be bothered talking about reading or writing with their students because they felt it was the composition or reading teacher's job.

I remember being shocked by one of my first efforts to encourage a history teacher to talk about the particular methods of presentation history writers use to explain their subject matter. When I told her that her students were coming to me and telling me they were having a hard time with the text she was using and it would help if she. as well as I, went over the specialized vocabulary, signal clues, common patterns etc, she said icily," That's your job, not mine"

Unfortunately, I hear from other reading and writing instructors that, to some degree, this attitude persists, and it is really too bad because everyone loses as a result. My point is, you did not fall into that pattern, and you deserve a lot of credit for that.

secret fan said...

Dear Laraine Flemming: I just discovered your blog, but realize that you haven't posted for 4 years--will you get back to it?

Laraine Flemming said...

Thank you so much. I am going to start blogging again, but I will not be posting on educational topics in general. I'm going to be posting thoughts on specific texts I am reading with my students and encouraging them to discuss both the texts and the posts in the comment section.

About this blog: For years now, whenever I wanted to test out a new exercise or figure out how I’d like to address a new topic,I’ve been sending out an SOS to teachers I’ve worked with or met at conferences and online and asking them what they thought of my approach or if they had another way of addressing say improving students ability to stay focused while reading on the Web.

Probably later than it should have, it’s now occurred to me that a blog might be a good way to bring others into these online discussions, which, for me anyway, have been incredibly valuable. So every week or so, I’m going to post my thoughts on a topic that I consider really central to the teaching of reading and writing. In every post, I’ll include practical strategies for addressing the topic discussed.

My hope is that other instructors will respond with their thoughts and, over time, we can come up with a repository of teaching methods geared to specific objectives like teaching coherence in writing or using linguistic cues in reading and a host of others.