For years, one of my favorite subjects to read and study about has been the effect of background knowledge on reading comprehension and student achievement. In one of my graduate level ed psych classes, I did a presentation titled “School is So Boring” about how students come to school with different schema and that, depending on what they know, it does not always line up with the expected or assumed background knowledge they would have to have in order to be successful in school.
I’m now a reading specialist for grades 4-6 in Northeast Philadelphia, where my students and I bring varied background knowledge to the table. I’ve actually been thinking about background knowledge and frontloading a lot lately as I recently administered the last F&P Benchmark Assessments of the year. (My school uses these benchmarks to determine which students receive intervention services, and the levels also go on the report cards, but that’s a blog post for another day).
As I read through the section “Excellence 2 – Expert Teaching Through Frontloading”, I highlighted three phrases that stood out to me.
Make no assumptions
You know the saying “you know what happens when you assume…” and I think that this saying holds true in the classroom. Just through observation, it seems to me as if teachers (including myself) make assumptions about what our students know. “They are in ____ grade, so they should know _____.” When we find out they actually don’t know _____, we wonder “well why don’t they know this, they should??!?” But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what we think our students should know; rather, it matters what they actually *do* know.
In the book, Regie writes that “make no assumptions” applies to our instruction as well. I agree with her thoughts that we should be constantly assessing our teaching to make sure that our students are getting the most out of our instruction. Just because something worked before with another group of students doesn’t mean that it will work with another group of students, or even with the same group of students on a different day!
Make it smart to ask questions
Through informal talks with my students, I have discovered that many of them are hesitant to ask questions in a large group setting for fear of being embarrassed, or because they feel as if they “should” know certain things that they don’t, for whatever reason (which is irrelevant, in my opinion, because our responsibility is to meet students where they are, not where we think they should be).
Asking questions is so smart! I mean, what do adults do when we don’t know something? We get on our devices and Google it! From correct pronunciation of a word to knowing when to use “i.e. vs e.g.”, information is incredibly easy to access. So why should it be different for students? Why create a stigma around asking questions? Asking relevant questions shows that our students are engaged in the material – they want to know more about what they’re reading. That hunger for learning should be encouraged.
Check to be sure students understand the purpose
Like the previous point, I considered this phrase from an adult perspective. If I am being asked to read something or do a task, I like to know why I’m doing it. Bonus points if the reason benefits me. I think it’s the same for our students. If students can see the value in why they’re doing something (Regie writes “‘…Then I want you to do the same kind of thinking when you read ______, so you can become an expert reader.’”) they take ownership of the task and are seem more likely to put effort into the task. My students love when I call them “good readers”! They know that reading is the key to so many things, so they have that buy-in when I ask them to do a task like read through the whole word or use sticky notes to jot down facts and information from a non-fiction text.
I know that I can be cynical about posting SWBAT, IOT on my board, but since I’ve started rephrasing it for the students (rather than administration), I feel much more focused on actually letting my students know why we are doing something.
So back to frontloading, and why I am so interested in it. The benchmark assessments are limited, in my opinion, because they ask for very specific background knowledge in order to be scored as proficient. There is one passage in particular, about hawks in the city, that my students seem to bomb every benchmarking season, regardless of their reading level. It took a while, but I finally came to the conclusion that my students were bombing it because the entire comprehension section was based on the assumption that students knew hawks typically lived in the country. My urban students have never seen a hawk in their lives, so they don’t know this. When I told them “hawks typically don’t live in the city,” it changed almost their ENTIRE response to the comprehension questions and understanding of the passage.
By simply providing students with this little piece of information, their understanding of the text improved so much! And this took less than one minute to do this simple frontloading. Imagine if I would have spent even more time frontloading! Until textbooks and educational materials become more diverse and representative of all our students, frontloading will be one of the most important ways that we can prepare all of our student for success, regardless of their background or experience.
This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.