It’s important to incorporate content knowledge into early reading instruction. Kids are in school so many hours of the day, and phonics instruction should only take about 45 minutes, a trivial amount of time. Our systematic phonics books can teach kids to read, but be sure to read-aloud to your students too.
In later grades, kids often struggle due to insufficient background knowledge. You understand what you read because you know the vocabulary words and you have some familiarity with the topic. Background knowledge is a key component of reading comprehension. If you have no interest or experience in football, a football article will perplex and bore you.
Learning fun facts during early reading instruction
In early reading instruction, kids should get exposure to systematic phonics and content knowledge simultaneously. Exposing kids to content knowledge is really fun! You can teach them fun facts about the world, like how blue whales are bigger than dinosaurs ever were or how pumpkins have flowers that blossom and wilt within one day.
In our hyper-connected world, wherein we can look up anything at any time, we tend to devalue facts. We place emphasis on critical thinking skills without really understanding what critical thinking skills are or how they arise.
What Cognitive Science says about critical thinking
In the Cognitive Science research, it’s very clear that critical thinking skills arise from deep, rich knowledge of a subject (Hirsch, E.D., Walsh, Kate). Without content knowledge, you simply cannot think critically about a topic. For example, if you know nothing about how diseases spread, you cannot think critically about how to contain them. If you know nothing about football, you cannot think critically about the next best to play.
Kids should start developing content knowledge early in their schooling. In fact, although we tend to bash facts, kids often love to acquire interesting facts about the world. If you get your students to memorize some interesting facts, they will share them with their parents, discuss them with their peers, and think about them when their associative memory is activated. In my own experience, when I teach kids interesting facts systematically, they tend to enjoy learning more.
How to introduce and review content knowledge
In this post, I discuss some excellent read-aloud books to get you started. For each book:
- Write 3 facts that you want your students to memorize. Pick the most interesting ones in the book, the tidbits kids tend to love.
- Connect these facts with something in your students world, something they are already familiar with. For example, if you learn that Redwood trees are 300 feet tall, keep in mind that this means nothing to your student. You must take this fact and connect it to something your student already knows. If your student lives in California, you can say, “this is about the size of five palm trees.” In sum, teach them to associate new knowledge with existing knowledge.
- Use blocking and interleaving to review the facts daily. If you use blocking and interleaving across a broad range of time, your students will never forget these facts. These learning strategies are that effective.
Nonfiction read-aloud book recommendations
Always couple content knowledge development with early reading instruction. To get started, here are the read-aloud book recommendations:
The Cat in the Hat Learning Library
This series incorporates fun facts about plants, animals, the weather, and space. In addition, these books use silly rhymes to improve retention. Rhyming books can also help some children develop phonemic awareness, though kids with learning disabilities need explicit phonemic awareness instruction nonetheless. In the reptile book, here are some sample fun facts to teach your students systematically:
-Komodo dragons are 10 feet long. (Then, associate this with something they already know.) This is about the length of 1.5 men.
-How do chameleons stay up in trees? They wrap their tails around the tree branch. This is similar to what monkeys do to hang from tree branches.
Here is a link to The Cat in the Hat Learning Library.
Read, Listen and Wonder
The Read, Listen and Wonder series incorporates magical pictures that help the reader visualize unfamiliar things like baleen and krill. I love the tone of these books, because the author captures the wondrous, unknowable formula held in nature.
Here are some fun facts to teach from their book about blue whales:
-A blue whales eye is about the size of a tea cup.
-A blue whale is 100 feet long, which is as long as 3 school buses.
Here’s a link to the Read, Listen, Wonder series.
Let’s Read and Find Out
This series covers lots of topics including: our five senses, germs, light and planets… etc. Here are some fun facts you can teach from their book about pumpkins:
-Pumpkins ripen in the Fall. Can you think of any other produce that ripens in the Fall? (Your students might say apples.)
-It takes four months for small, white pumpkin seeds to turn into big, orange pumpkins. So while you’re having fun during the summer, pumpkins are growing and changing colors.
Here’s a link to the Let’s Read and Find Out series.
Early reading instruction & content knowledge can boost reading comprehension
Each bit of information helps your student build her knowledge about the world. One simple fact can unlock many other facts. And from Cognitive Science, we know knowledge is a prerequisite for critical thinking. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer writes about how our memory is associative. In order to learn something new, we must latch that new information onto something we already know. This is why learning that hummingbirds can hover and fly backwards almost immediately triggers thoughts of aviation. In fact, for us adults, it’s easy to learn that hummingbirds are expert, top-notch fliers, because we’ve seen helicopters and other aircraft.
Broaden your students’ knowledge about the world. This will build a solid foundation for critical thinking.
I hope you enjoy reading these books as much as I have!
Reading Elephant offers systematic phonics books that teach struggling readers how to decode.
Foer, Joshua. (2011) Moonwalking with Einstein. New York, USA: Penguin Books.
Hirsch, Jr. E.D. “Building Knowledge: The case for bringing content into the language arts block and for a knowledge-rich curriculum core for all children.” American Educator.
Hirsch, Jr. E.D. (2003) “Reading Comprehension requires knowledge–of words and the world: scientific insights into the fourth-grade slump and the nation’s stagnant comprehension scores.” American Educator.
Walsh, Kate. (2003) Basal readers: the lost opportunity to build the knowledge that propels comprehension. The American Federation of Teachers.