Last week, I read a news article that I didn’t truly understand. It wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, an article of extreme complexity – it was on the BBC website, in the Science section, and it was about mapping the Earth’s magnetic ocean tides from space. I understood the basic premise of the article, but I think I would struggle with some fairly straightforward understanding (or ‘Close Reading’) questions on it. As someone of a decent reading ability, why was this?

I don’t believe that I struggled with this article as I don’t have the capacity to understand it. I struggled with this article because I didn’t approach it with sufficient background knowledge – both of the topic and of the subject-specific vocabulary. There were words and phrases in the article of which my knowledge was thin at best and non-existent at worst – I’m not sure what ‘magnetic signature’ means, nor ‘nanotesla’ or ‘upwelling magma’. To be really honest and display my scientific ignorance, I think I only have a fairly flimsy knowledge of what a ‘magnetic field’ is. Without a secure knowledge of key vocabulary (and the topic itself), my understanding of it was hugely prohibited. Not only is my knowledge of this particular area of science shallow, but my wider knowledge of science as a discipline leaves a lot to be desired; with what I couldn’t deduce directly from the text, I had limited scientific dots of knowledge to join it to elsewhere. If I read an article on engineering I would encounter similar problems, or American Football, or indeed any topic that I arrive at with limited knowledge.

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, provides a much more concise example than my struggles with a science article. In an article in the New York Times, he asks readers to consider the sentence ‘I promised not to play with it, but Mum still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.’ This sentence, like pretty much all prose, has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Willingham points out that, even in this simple sentence, there are three pieces of background knowledge vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library, Rubik’s Cubes make noise and kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. Without this background knowledge, understanding of this piece of writing is hugely prohibited.

Lack of background knowledge does not only limit understanding but analysis too. When any reader does not have a confident grasp of content, their ability to interrogate a text in detail is hugely reduced. In other words, detailed analysis relies, first of all, on detailed knowledge. To give an example of the relationship between knowledge and skills, take some of Robert Burns’ famous lines from his poem ‘To a Mouse’:

‘I am truly sorry man’s dominion has broken nature’s social union.’

Imagine trying to understand these powerful, pertinent lines if you didn’t know the following: the meaning of the word ‘dominion’, the meaning of the phrase ‘social union’, that Burns was a farmer or that he often promoted views that endorsed equality. Even if you did know all of these things, imagine how much deeper your analysis of this could be if you knew that Burns’ and his family were often unsettled and uprooted by greedy landlords in ways not dis-similar to the disruption of the Mouse’s habitat depicted in the poem. Knowledge and skills are not mutually exclusive; rather, building skills often heavily depends on sufficiency of knowledge.

This is not just based on mild assumptions. In one recent experiment in the US, a mixture of pupils – some rated as good readers, others poor – were asked to read a passage about football and respond to questions on it. The poor readers who were football fans were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the sport. The good readers, like me with the science article, did not lack the capacity to understand the article, but lacked knowledge of the basic content and terminology. This study adds to a growing body of evidence that underlines the necessity of background knowledge in order to enhance reading skills.

There is, however, a key distinction between my reading of the science article and a child reading material in school: I was given a choice. I didn’t really “get” the science piece, so quickly found myself in the much more comfortable terrain of the Scottish Football section, where I could not only read articles but consider them and use them to form my own opinions. And on top of all of this, I could read in the absolute comfort that I wasn’t going to be questioned on it afterwards and given a score that essentially ranked how well I understood it.

Children don’t have the luxury of this comfort nor autonomy. One day, they might be assigned an article to read on fake news, the next day the Commonwealth Games and the next the growing threat to polar bears’ habitats; all articles that have little in common except assuming (and consequently, requiring) a sufficient degree of background knowledge for understanding and a considerable amount of contextual knowledge for analysis. Pupils do not have the option, like I did, to simply close the tab and revert back to an article that they are more interested and comfortable with. They are rightly, in my opinion, exposed to a range of topics not just from day to day but from lesson to lesson.

And therein lies a key challenge. There is no way that teachers can have the time to rigorously develop deep knowledge of every single reading topic a child encounters. They can, however, decide on key topics and build transferrable knowledge so, the chances are, that children are armed with information when they sit down to read. Cast your mind back to the possible topics outlined in the previous paragraph. Imagine, for example, if Modern Studies had developed knowledge of fake news, PE had built awareness of key sporting events, History taught the Commonwealth and Geography instilled knowledge of the threat that global warming is bringing to animals’ habitats.

It is important to point out that, of course, every teacher teaches knowledge. What we need to consider, however, is how durable and flexible that knowledge is – some studies suggest that as much of 95% of information imparted to children is forgotten with three days unless revisited. In order to combat this, schools should consider how they are utilising interleaving and repetition to make knowledge permanent and, subsequently, transferrable. With effective utilisation of Knowledge Organisers (of which I will discuss in more detail at a later point), pupils’ knowledge, and consequently their ability to respond effectively to reading tasks, would be hugely increased. It may sound simplistic to say, but schools owe it to pupils to equip them with transferrable knowledge of the world around them.

For some children, school is the only place they will get this. Like many educational challenges, class is never far away – some pupils have the opportunities to visit museums, experience other cultures, learn from learned parents and generally benefit from rich educational experiences outside of school, building knowledge in the process. Far from every child can be given these learning opportunities, and if we don’t focus on teaching knowledge, the more affluent kids are given a head start.

My struggles with a science article can be similarly applied to millions of children in school on a daily basis. There are, of course, several complex reasons as to why a child can struggle to comprehend reading material but I believe, and a growing body of research shows, that lack of background knowledge creates extremely high hurdles for the majority of pupils. Put simply, for effective reading we need understanding, and for understanding we need knowledge. Teachers should focus more on trying not only to build it, but sustain it too.

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