I'd make two comments:

- I think the NRP report does in part takes vocabulary as a proxy for the type of background knowledge you present ('knowledge' is a slippy term in research - given there are so many different types!). It is quite common for them to be used interchangeably, though it is fair to say vocabulary may be a narrow conception of background knowledge.

- The key issue is that the NRP had to include high quality experimental studies on knowledge building curricula leading to reading comprehension gains, but it is an area that doesn't have a lot of good empirical evidence. Cabell and Hwang (2020) put it really well: "Well-established theoretical models and a body of empirical research elucidate the critical role of content knowledge in comprehending texts. However, the potential of supporting knowledge in service of enhancing linguistic and reading comprehension has been a relatively neglected topic in the science of reading."

Of course, any significant research finding from two decades ago should be updated and our views and insights should evolve. I suspect a systematic review today would throw up similar challenges re: 'knowledge building/knowledge rich' curricula and instruction. We still don't know a great deal how operationalise knowledge building in the curriculum to consistently improve reading outcomes, though we recognise the vital role of declarative knowledge and vocabulary to comprehension.

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Yes, those are valid points. I haven't really delved into what the NRP said about vocabulary, but I believe they do make the point that vocabulary should not only be taught directly but also indirectly, as encountered (preferably repeatedly) in text. But I'm not sure they make an explicit argument for building knowledge systematically as a way of expanding vocabulary, and I certainly don't think that message comes through in the summaries or infographic, which is all that most people are familiar with.

As for research on the effects of knowledge-building curriculum, there are inherent difficulties in measuring that if you rely on standardized reading comprehension assessments, which are considered the most reliable. The reading passages on those tests aren't connected to any particular body of knowledge--the topics are random--and it can take years for students to acquire the critical mass of academic knowledge and vocabulary that will enable them to read and understand any "grade level" text.

I (and some others, like Hugh Catts) would argue that you actually can't reliably assess (or teach) reading comprehension in the abstract, but that's what we constantly try to do -- and it's led to disastrous consequences for many students.

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It takes a model or, to me, a heuristic to be able to reduce complex bodies of knowledge and/or theories in a way to be understood or at least serve as an entry point to a profession--or at least serve as an argument or counter argument. I believe the rope and/or the simple view served such a purpose. To reduce some (but not all) of the findings of the NRC and the NRP into something that could serve to (a) counteract the widespread cult so to speak of whole language at the time--which indeed morphed into balanced as a result, and (b) serve as an organizer for persons trying to articulate a more scientific perspective. Of course, the positive organizing/communicative features of models/heuristics also have negatives, like oversimplification and deification, which we all have seen as well. The so call "strands" are not at all "separate" and are highly correlated. As a measurement person and as an early contributor to DIBELS I cringed at efforts to develop measures to fit into each strand and thus into a "box" for each. I also cringed at instructional efforts to develop interventions to fit into a box for each strand, and as noted, "comprehension" is not one that fits easily into a box. Notably, neither does "fluency." Fluency is NOT the same as "automaticity." Still, to me, it is not worth SMASHING a heuristic, but instead to promote a richer one for comprehension. Joe Torgesen hit me with his long ago that was so RICH in communicating the complexity, that includes factors like Reading Skills, Language Skills, Knowledge, and Meta-Cognitive, all with subcomponents like...motivation and interest! Life experience! Fix up skills! Vocabulary. That heuristic, to me, is one that should be promoted (or a similar one) when one talks about comprehension because it identifies the things that can be taught--and the things that maybe can't be taught. How does a teacher get a 9th grader interested in the Odyssey? Doug Fisher knows some strategies I'll bet! Sorry for the long posting. I do believe past models/heuristics have/are served their purposes, but we need to know the advantages and disadvantages and not deify them and be aware of the dangers.

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I take your point about the limitations of infographics, but a powerful one might be an archway where the keystone is knowledge. It’s indispensable and locks the other pieces in place.

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Hmm, maybe. But I think it's more of a two-way, reciprocal relationship between knowledge and comprehension than an archway, in my view. You need SOME knowledge to gain additional knowledge (if you're trying to read about something you know nothing about, it's going to be tough to understand it). But also, reading will help you acquire new knowledge, if you've got the requisite threshold of knowledge plus familiarity with the syntax of written language. So maybe some sort of spiral could work as an image.

But ideally, it would also include the role of listening and speaking in literacy -- none of these infographics really capture that. Before students are fluent readers, the most effective way to build knowledge and vocabulary is through having them listen to an expert reader read text aloud -- text that's more complex than they could read themselves -- and then discuss the content.

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I agree that knowledge should be added as a critical building block to reading. But the challenge is “what knowledge”? How do we prioritize knowledge and age-gate it, especially in our rapidly evolving world. It’s relatively straightforward to curate vocabulary. There is data to do this. But knowledge? How do we avoid teaching knowledge strategies?

Let’s use the example in Willingham’s video. He presents the statement that the “brain scan was fuzzy so the patient must have been wearing makeup”. The background knowledge required to understand the link between brain scans and makeup: 1) metal makes brain scans fuzzy and 2) make up has traces of metal. I consider myself a well read person and this feels very specific.

How do we curate the teaching of knowledge in this day and age? Even Hirsch’s wonderful Core Knowledge seems limited or lacks modern context.

Nathalie I am curious your thoughts on this. Sofia

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I don't think it's that difficult to figure out what knowledge to teach. We have to recognize that the choice of topics will inevitably be somewhat arbitrary, and not everyone will agree on exactly what should be taught -- although surveys have shown there's more agreement on that than you might think from news reports about battles over curriculum, etc. The people who make the most noise aren't necessarily representative of the majority.

But the goal is to develop general academic vocabulary and familiarity with complex syntax -- that's what will equip students to glean knowledge from text throughout their lives and learn about topics that weren't covered in the curriculum. The ONLY way to gain that general knowledge is through knowledge of specific topics. It doesn't work to teach academic vocabulary in the abstract, without context. But I don't think there's one list of topics that everyone has to learn about to gain that general vocabulary.

There are now half a dozen elementary literacy curricula that do a good job of building knowledge, which you can find described on the website of the Knowledge Matters Campaign. (https://knowledgematterscampaign.org/explore-curricula/). All of them cover different bodies of knowledge in different ways, so schools have choices -- and they can always supplement them with additional material if they fell something important has been left out.

You ask how we can avoid teaching "knowledge strategies." If you're talking about things like "summarizing" or "finding the main idea," the answer is that we SHOULD teach them, but not in the abstract. If the content is in the foreground rather than the strategy, the strategy can be a very useful way of both building knowledge and encouraging habits of analytical thinking. And I think the best way of teaching those kinds of strategies is by having students write about what they're learning, with explicit, carefully sequenced instruction.

The one thing I feel we can NOT do is say it's just too difficult to agree on what knowledge to include, so therefore we won't build kids' knowledge at all. The result of that is that we inevitably end up holding students -- and adults -- accountable for knowledge we've denied them access to, and that's not fair.

Also -- on that Willingham example: That's just an illustration of how lack of knowledge can interfere with comprehension. It doesn't mean that everyone needs that kind of specific, fairly abstruse knowledge -- fortunately!

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"The one thing I feel we can NOT do is say it's just too difficult to agree on what knowledge to include, so therefore we won't build kids' knowledge at all. The result of that is that we inevitably end up holding students -- and adults -- accountable for knowledge we've denied them access to, and that's not fair."

I think this is the heart of the matter.

I'd love to learn more about the surveys that have shown broad agreement on what to teach, especially in literature and social studies. Could that be because of the way curricula are written, focusing on easy-to-endorse processes as opposed to difficult-to-agree-on topics or events?

Here is an example from the North Carolina Social Studies Standards for Grade 4.

Standard 4.B.1 is: "Understand ways in which values and beliefs have influenced the development of North Carolina’s identity as a state." (https://www.dpi.nc.gov/media/11815/open) Most people probably would support that standard.

But as far as I know, curricular standards like this one do not include a specific list the historic facts and events. e.g. When teaching about values and beliefs have that have influenced the development of North Carolina’s identity as a state do the standards specify teaching about the 1898 Wilmington Coup (https://www.ncdcr.gov/1898-wilmington-coup)?

Agreement on such specific events and topics is likely difficult. Is this lack of agreement a reason that knowledge-rich curricula are avoided? If so, how can we bridge this issue?


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I would generally agree with this. Especially the point about teaching academic vocabulary in context in order

to better glean knowledge from text.

Regarding the agreement on what to teach, it’s a good point but the knowledge curriculums of today generally are already dated and underplay sciences and modern social studies with an emphasis on reading for knowledge.

There isn’t really any meaningful coordination of ELA and Social Studies in the curriculum.

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Hoover & Tunmer (2018) make the point: “...the SVR does not claim that reading is simple. Both word recognition and language comprehension are highly complex, and because of that, reading is complex. The SVR simply separates the complexity of reading into two component parts.”

Rather than thinking of the comprehension side of the SVR model as **spoken language** it helps to think of it as **listening comprehension** (e.g., listening to the material read aloud). That helps deal with the considerable complexity differences between written and spoken discourse.

Graphic models of any complex phenomenon can be misunderstood. We need to find ways to communicate more effectively about the essential components and how they interact. But without such models we lack a common framework. See for example: Hoover, W. A. and Tunmer, W.E. (2021). The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading, Reading Research Quarterly First published online: https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.446

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While I completely agree with all your points about the NRP model I am curious about why you didn't contrast the old NRP model with the more current Simple View of Reading Model.

The Simple View of Reading (SVR) is an academic paper and a theoretical model in which the authors, Wesley Hoover and Philip Gough, propose two critical components involved in learning to read:

1) understanding the printed word (decoding and spelling)

2) understanding spoken language (listening comprehension).

These two components must work individually and together. Difficulties with either component causes reading comprehension problems.

The essential nature of (background) knowledge and vocabulary is much clearer in the SVR model than in the NRP's model. In the SVR reading comprehension is explained as a **product** of the two components, emphasizing their complex and powerful interconnections.

The SVR model has been largely supported in hundreds of research students and has a strong consensus among reading scientists. Why not replace the Five Pillars with the Simple View?

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I did discuss the Simple View of Reading, along with both the Five Pillars and the Reading Rope infographics, in an earlier post that you can find here: https://nataliewexler.substack.com/p/why-3-popular-infographics-on-reading

The Hoover and Gough paper dates from 1990, and the SVR was originally proposed in an article by Gough and Tunmer in 1986, so I don't know that it's more "current" than the NRP report from 2000.

I do agree that the "product" model makes more sense than the "pillar" model, but I think the SVR is still open to a lot of misinterpretation -- the main one being that it can lead to the assumption that if kids can understand "spoken" language, they'll also be able to understand WRITTEN language (assuming they can decode).

In fact, written language is almost always more complex than spoken language, so just engaging kids in conversation -- while important -- isn't enough to build the knowledge of sophisticated vocabulary and syntax they'll need for reading comprehension.

One or both of the papers themselves may make this point, but few people will actually read them. The vast majority will just see the infographic, perhaps explained by someone who may or may not clarify that the ability to understand SPOKEN language isn't enough (and from what I've seen that point is rarely if ever made).

So I'm afraid that in my view, replacing the Five Pillars with the Simple View wouldn't do much to address the current problem. I wish it were that simple!

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Thank you for directing us to this piece. I agree that the 'pillars' image is problematic for all the reasons you describe, but I think your concerns about the Rope and the SVR are misleading. Both of these infographics were intended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, describing the essential components of reading without stipulating how to teach them. Hoover makes this clear in The Reading League Journal devoted to SVR. For example, there are many of us who agree that phonics should be systematically taught but disagree when it comes to teaching rules, something Mark Seidenberg often addresses. Similarly, you are pleased to see background knowledge as part of Language Comprehension but express legitimate concerns about how it is taught. Are you familiar with Jan Wasowicz's Language Literacy Network? It's a more complex infographic that incorporates both language comprehension and language expression but also doesn't address the 'how'. Here's how Jocelyn Seamer explains it in her blog, An integrated approach to literacy instruction. https://www.jocelynseamereducation.com/blog/64347-an-integrated-approach-to-literacy

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Thanks for the information about the Language Literacy Network -- I wasn't familiar with it.

I take your point that none of these infographics are designed to address the "how." But even if they weren't intended to be prescriptive, they will inevitably influence the way educators teach, or at least the way they conceive of what and how they should be teaching. Once you send an infographic into the world, it's likely to be interpreted in ways you have no control over.

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So does it boil down to how we can best increase kids' background knowledge and understanding of complex syntax? The simple answer it seems is making available lots of read aloud stories. My iOS app Read Me A Story tries to help do this outside the classroom, where kids spend 80% of their time. I would love to see a controlled study to test this hypothesis. Any takers out there?

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