Providing Background Knowledge: Effective Scaffold or Spoon-feeding?

Two weeks ago I looked at one of the recommendations found in the Common Core Standards Publisher’s Criteria for Grades K-2 and 3-5, which attempt to lay out some guidelines for designing Standards-based reading curriculum. In addition to questioning strategy instruction, both Criteria also offer caveats against front-loading information or engaging students in pre-reading activities that provide them with access to a text’s ideas without actually grappling with the text itself.

Like the criteria about comprehension strategies, questioning front-loading is a ‘biggie,’ especially when it comes to providing background knowledge which students might not have. No less an expert than Doug Lemov, for instance, the author of the hugely popular Teach Like a Champion, cites pre-teaching background material as one of the techniques effective teachers use. “If students don’t really know what a Nazi is when they start reading ,” he writes as an example, “they’re not going to get what they need to out of Number the Stars or The Diary of Anne Frank.” And so he advocates providing students with that information before they crack open those books “because it prevents misunderstandings before they crop up rather than remediating them afterward.”

There are certainly times when I front-load information. I give students vocabulary words, for instance, when I want them to practice a particular kind of thinking without getting hung-up on unknown words—though more often I don’t because I want students to see and experience how they’re still able to construct meaning without knowing every word. But I’m not sure I ever front-load information to circumvent misunderstandings because I believe that confusion and uncertainty are part of the reading process.

Students need to experience how readers work their way from confusion to understanding, and that process can get short-changed if we front-load too much. I also want students to see that if they read closely and attentively, connecting the dots of details together and considering what significance they might hold, they’re capable of comprehending and understanding without extensive prior knowledge. That’s because most narrative texts are what I call ‘self-contained worlds’—that is, they provide the context and knowledge readers need to understand them, provided they read carefully enough and attend to the details they encounter.

To show you what I mean, let’s see what could happen if we don’t front-load information about Nazis before opening Lois Lowry‘s Number the Stars by first looking at the opening of a book I doubt we’d provide background knowledge for: Suzanne Collins‘s YA dystopian novel The Hunger Games. Here’s a slightly abridged version of the book’s opening, which I invite you to read, setting aside what you might already know to see what you can make of the world you’ve just entered by connecting and fitting details together.

Provided we’ve managed to ignore all the hype about the book and movie, we won’t know for several pages what ‘the reaping’ is, but by connecting details in the first paragraph, we can infer it’s a source of bad dreams. And while it may be an occasion for gifts, as evidenced by the goat cheese, it’s also associated with shuttered houses, empty streets and sleepless nights, which doesn’t make it sound like fun.

We also don’t know where we are, other than some place called District 12. But the clues give us the sense that it’s a dreary, bleak place, where people sleep on rough canvas sheets and walk down black streets with hunched shoulders. And with the word ‘hunger’ from the title in mind, we might also infer that it’s a place where there might not be enough food to feed even a mangy cat. There is, though, something sweet and heart-warming about the siblings’ relationship that stands in stark contrast to the other details. And the tension between that bleakness and sweetness, along with our desire to learn more about what’s happening, is what keeps us turning the page.

Now let’s look at the opening of Number the Stars and think about what a reader who knows nothing about the Nazis or World War II might be able to make of it, using the exact kind of thinking we just applied to get an initial feel for the world of The Hunger Games. 

Without any knowledge of geography or history, we can infer here that we’re in a place called Copenhagen and that, at least in the first half of the passage, it seems like a nice-enough place, where girls race and laugh on their way home from school down streets lined with shops and cafés. But then something happens and the whole mood changes as the girls encounter two soldiers with rifles, tall boots and cold, glaring eyes who speak a language that’s different than theirs despite the fact that the soldiers have been in the girls’ country for three years. We do not need to know that they’re Nazis to comprehend the fear they inspire. Nor do we need to know the word ‘contempt,’ since there will be other places in the book to pick up the fact that many people in this place called Copenhagen feel something else about these soldiers that eventually leads them to great acts of courage.

In fact, not knowing who the soldiers are and why they are in this place allows us as readers to feel and experience the full horror of what’s happening, as that awareness dawns on us slowly, as it does on Annemarie. And it’s not knowing that keeps us reading and makes us want to learn more, just as it does in The Hunger Games. For that’s what narratives give us: the opportunity to not just ‘know’ what happened in Denmark in the 1940’s but to emotionally and empathetically experience it ourselves as we enter a world that the author has created through carefully chosen details that give us what we need to know in order to make meaning. That’s not to say that, as teachers, we shouldn’t bring history in at some point to expand and enrich our students understanding, only that we might benefit by waiting till the students are curious and engaged in the book and have something to attach that information to.

In the end, I think it all comes down to purpose and what we want students ‘to get.’ If we want them to ‘get’ information about the Holocaust, there’s far more expedient ways to do that than reading a novel. But if we want them to get how readers construct an understanding of everything from the setting to the theme from the details the author provides, while also experiencing the power of narratives to move our hearts, not just our minds, we’d do better by teaching them the process of meaning making than by front-loading facts.

That’s the gift and enlightenment we can give to students—not facts, but the tools to make meaning.

© 2011 D.A.Wagner -

26 thoughts on “Providing Background Knowledge: Effective Scaffold or Spoon-feeding?

  1. Thanks for this post, Vicki. I’m in a reading group with other coaches and we’re digging into Teach Like A Champion (the reading chapters in the book specifically) because so many sites/teachers we support are reading and/or taking on the practices outlined in this text. In our next discussion I’m going to bring forward this blog post as another lens we look through :). I think we are constantly in classrooms where we’re thinking, “What’s the purpose?” and/or “What is really being taught here?” And I think it’s often easier (to generalize a bit here) or more comfortable for secondary teachers in particular to teach content vs. teach into the reading process — because after all the reading process is complex, and does imply some struggle and confusion which can run counter-intuitive to our valiant attempts to scaffold and support readers (which sometimes result in over-support and/or spoon-feeding).

    I like your post because it reminded me of my own reading process and what I find rewarding about engaging with texts as a proficient reader — it is the struggle, the confusion, the questions that arise, the “mystery” if you will in longer works, that propel me forward and compel me to keep reading. Why would we want to rob our readers of this feeling? 🙂

    • Why, indeed! For the record, I do think Doug Lemov has lots of great things to say about classroom management, but I think there’s a lot of unexamined assumptions around what he says about effective reading instruction, particularly about the outcome expectations and also about what should or shouldn’t be the content of an ELA classroom. I’d argue that the process of meaning making could be the content, not the book, per se, or skills. But I’ll be really, really curious to hear what you all think!

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  4. Nice post! Thanks for getting me thinking. I came to your blog via a link from Choice Literacy.

    Prior knowledge vs. process instruction. That sure is a delicate balance. I suspect (and suspect you suspect, too) that there is no formula out there to follow. What moved me to post here is that I’ve been thinking a lot about the focus we reading teachers place on process instruction. I’m finding myself moving more and more toward believing that process instruction should be very brief and focused, and should be a servant of content. I think this because I believe my students aren’t all that different from me: I use lots of processes, but in order to figure out the content or the big picture meaning. Sure, the reading processes are super-important to that; however, they aren’t all that interesting to learn about by themselves, AND, kids are more familiar with them from other contexts than we give ’em credit for (e.g. they make lots of inferences about adult thinking from adult actions). The real stuff is the content, whatever that might be for that text.

    Having said there is no formula, maybe I do believe there is a “rule of thumb.” 🙂 Like a good basketball coach, we should know our students really well, and give them the best tools we can at the time they need it to get the most out of what they are doing.

    I work with transitional readers – third graders – and I’ve found that their interest in more complicated text is often piqued by helping them enter the text through historical context, or by letting them in, before they read, on the way an author has started a story. I’ve found that if I can give them the tools to understand more complicated text, or highlight some important parts, they can do it pretty darn well. But I have to give them just the right pan to find the nuggets as they work the river of text for gold. For example, I’m thinking something like this for THE HUNGER GAMES (which I haven’t read and I wouldn’t read to a mish-mash of third graders…): “The beginning of this story really left me with a bunch of questions and a really strong feeling. I’m not going to tell you how I felt right now, but let’s read the beginning and then talk about it later. While you’re reading, could you please pay special attention to how the author’s words are making you feel, and why you might feel that way?” Later, I’ll bet there would be lots of other opportunities to model connections to other dystopian literature. Similarly, for younger kids, I can imagine starting NUMBER THE STARS something like this: “In order to better understand the beginning of this story you need to know that it takes place in Europe during WWII. WWII was a huge war that started 75 years ago, lasted for 7 years, and millions of people were killed. Before this story starts, the German Nazi army – one side in this big war – had taken over the country and were trying to rule it. Think Star Wars. Let’s read the first part of the story and try to figure out what is going on and what the characters think and feel.” Then, when they get to understand the emotional lives of the characters a bit better, and their feelings toward the Nazi soldiers, a teacher could provide additional details about what the Nazis believed about world domination, Jews and others, and how some Danes were collaborators and others were resistors. Those details might help students make connections to the larger themes of the story, which is a big content reason why we read fiction, right?

    Maybe what we’re talking about is a difference between upper grade levels and lower grade levels. Mine have a smaller, lived context to understand new stuff, but not the larger, more abstract context yet.

    Again, thanks for getting me thinking.

    • It is a delicate process, which requires that exact kind of ongoing questioning and thought about purpose that I think you mean when you talk about there being no formula. I also love the gold panning metaphor! And I think that the way you’re talking about process versus content is what I’m getting at when I talk about comprehension strategies versus meaning. The strategies have to be in the service of the meaning, not the end goal in and of themselves. And very often when we really focus on meaning, the strategies take care of themselves, as it sound like you’ve noticed too. The only thing I’d do a little different from your lesson examples is that I’d try to frame that opening instruction around something that readers can do with any text, not just this one, so that it’s transferrable from one text to another. Thus, for both the Hunger Games & Number the Stars you could say something like, “Readers always pay attention to what kinds of feelings the author’s words stir up in them, especially in the beginning when so much is unknown, and then they ask questions to try to figure out what’s making them feel what they feel.”

      • Your words: “Readers always pay attention to what kinds of feelings the author’s words stir up in them, especially in the beginning when so much is unknown, and then they ask questions to try to figure out what’s making them feel what they feel.”

        I really like this way of generalizing. Thank you.

        And, yes, I can see now that you are talking about comprehension strategies emerging from deep engagement in the content (or meaning) of whatever piece one is reading. This resembles the same way I learned to shoot free throws…by shooting free throws, and getting some “just in time” pointers from my coach as I worked on those skills. Too much strategy instruction is exactly what I’m trying to grapple with…and push back a bit against, I guess. Your thinking helps clarify my thinking.

  5. I agree that the front-loading of text has taken the curiosity and the mystery out of reading a novel. Who wants to read a good book when the whole story is revealed before you even read?
    The purpose of reading a novel is to ask questions, comprehend a story and to engage with the text. I also understand why most ELA’s are concerned about this new way of teaching. It’s NEW! It goes against everything we have been taught about reading instruction. We have taught the vocabulary, setting of the story,character, introduced every concept that we think important for students in the process of dissecting the novel FOR THEM. This is where the new approach turns the tables. We want students to take part in the process and start thinking on their own. While reading the novel, nonfiction articles can be read that relate to the novel. A student may become interested in; let’s say Nazis, and that could be a topic of study for that student or a group of students. My point being, this is where nonfiction and differentiation can be taught with a novel. Effective reading instruction can be done with any text. While changing the way we effectively teach reading, we may actually change the way students perceive reading. We may instill the enjoyment of a gift that could potentially change their lives and have them career and college ready.

    • Yes!!! There is a big change afoot that has the possibility of transforming both the way we teach reading and how students transact with texts. I think the benefits are enormous, for both students and teachers, but it does require teachers to make a shift from what Randy Bomer describes as “the teacherly self-concept of curator or gatekeeper of supposed content . . . to create a different teacherly identity concerned primarily with students’ ability to make meaning.” That means that we have to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort level, just as we ask kids to do every day. But I’d never worked with a teacher who, having made that shift, doesn’t feel great and empowered by it.

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    • Inspiring someone to write is always a good thing–as is, I think, the kind of discomfort you mean. And I think you nailed it right on the head when you talk about the tension–and the current imbalance–between product and process in your post. Like you, I’m a process lover, since I think that where real learning happens. And my hope is that somewhere along the line, as we strive to meet the new Standards, those who are focused solely on product will realize the need to balance that with process. At least I’m heartened by the number of us out there who already instinctively know that.

  7. An addendum to your lesson using Hunger Games and Number the Stars is using another great Holocaust book called “Once” by Morris Gleitzman. In our first chapter, we meet a little boy named Felix. It doesn’t take long for him to tell us that he is living in an Catholic orphanage in 1943, so that helps us predict that he might be Jewish. We hear him pray to “God, Jesus, the pope, the Virgin Mary, and Adolf Hitler,” and at that point we want young readers to be totally confused. Because then we can teach them IRONY! It’s ironic that Felix is praying not only to Jesus, but to Adolf Hitler. Once I see that light bulb go off in my students’ heads, I know I’ve done the right thing by letting them figure out what’s going on with Felix on their own. If I had front loaded this, all of the deductive reasoning would have been lost. Give it a try if you are teaching prediction or irony…all you need to do is read Chapter 1. Your students will be hooked.

  8. I am thinking about your post through the lens of teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) in content areas. One of the key components of the research-based Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model is to build background. It is critical for making our instruction for ELLs more comprehensible (not just a bunch of nonsense words that do not carry meaning for them). If we do not “front load” instruction for them, they will quickly be lost and left behind in the lesson. Perhaps that involves pre-teaching ELLs in a small group aside from the larger class, especially if the instructional goal is making inferences, but overlooking the instructional needs of ELLs will likely lead to poor learning outcomes for them.

    My other thought about your post is that there is a difference between fiction narratives like The Hunger Games and Number the Stars, especially with regard to the authors’ techniques for hooking readers’ interest. I consider this to be a very different style of writing than most textbooks in content areas or even non-fiction books (other than perhaps biographies) where the author’s purpose is strictly about informing, not entertaining readers. In the case of reading non-fiction texts, if we do not ensure students have some understanding of key vocabulary and the big ideas or concepts, will they even be motivated to struggle long enough to figure out what the text is about (not to mention understanding key details)? How many non-fiction books have you read with a good hook like Collins’ first paragraphs in The Hunger Games?

    • You’re absolutely right about the different between narrative and nonfiction texts. The work I did that led up to my latest book was all done around narratives, which, because they unfold over time in dramatic scenes, convey information very differently than non-narrative nonfiction texts. I’ve been looking at how that work does and doesn’t apply to nonfiction this year and my thoughts are still developing, but I do still think we need to let students wrestle with a text to build up their literacy muscles–at least some of the time. And when working with particular populations, like ELLs, that means balancing the amount of time I offer extra scaffolding and support, with time when I don’t, and making strategic decisions about what texts to do that with and when. Generally I let them build up that reading muscle on texts where the content is more engaging and relatable so as not to pile too many challenges on them at once. Because, you’re right, every reader has a breaking point, when the challenges of the text they face are simply too many for the pay-off of the effort.

    • It is a challenge, but it’s worth it when you see kids actually making meaning. And giving kids lots of practice in small groups really, really helps.

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  11. When I taught sixth grade, I used Number the Stars as one choice book in a theme of World War II. AT THE SAME TIME that we were reading historical novels about man’s inhumanity to man, we also were learning the facts and contexts of the novels. My intent was not to provide background prior to reading, but to view the war through people’s stories. Literature brings the emotion and personal experiences, in this case the “horror”, that nonfiction lacks. I believe this becomes the “art” of teaching.

    One should always consider how much front loading is necessary. I was once doing a “picture walk” with a first grader prior to his reading a book. His urgent request, “Don’t tell me the end!”. Another lesson taught to a teacher by a student! How many times do we “spoil” the reading by over teaching…

    • What a great anecdote from the mouth of a first grader! Why bother reading if we know what’s going to happen or the story unfolds exactly as we predicted? As for Number the Stars, I’ve used it, too, to great affect in thematic units that explore war or inhumanity across genres. What’s so important here is what you’re saying about intentionality. I think we always need to consider our purpose and what’s potentially gained and lost in many of the practices we do by rote–and then make strategic, purpose-full decisions about when to engage in those practices or not.

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  13. I really enjoyed reading this and I like what you have said about providing students with enlightenment and allowing THEM to make the connections in their heads – rather than giving them the context/background info to do it.

    I currently work with a very low attaining group of Year 6 children (half of them have just moved to London from Middle East and Eastern Europe). Management is pressuring me to up their reading standards – which is tricky – because we’re talking about EAL students who have some knowledge of English but not enough to help them process the SAT Reading paper which they will have to do in May.

    I struggle with teaching them reading because I’m not sure what to focus on. Where do I start? Their phonic awareness needs some work, word recognition is falling through as well… on top of that there is the whole “life-literary experience” which they haven’t had. I posted a picture of lightning the other day and told them to write a short poem about it – not realizing that half of them did not know what it was called. They do not know of the word “lightning”.

    And this is what makes it so hard. We take ages to get through even the shortest passage. I struggle with whether I should provide background information and context to help them or should I just allow them to make those connections themselves. Sometimes, I feel like I”m spoon-feeding them, explaining every little thing because they have absolutely no clue what the story is about. Ideally, I would like to give them the opportunity to work out those meanings themselves but I’m not sure if they even have the “skills” needed to make connections? Should I teach them those skills then? If so, how? Have they been in the “English literary world” long enough to do that? I”m just overwhelmed by the amount I have to teach and the time frame I’m given to do it. With my children reading 3 years below expected levels, how can they cope with the KS2 SAT Reading paper?

    (I just realized after typing this that you teach in New York and not England. KS2 SAT is a National Exam that all the Year 6 children have to take. The English part of it consists of a Reading paper with a focus on interpretation, inference and author purpose and a Writing paper).

    • I confess that I don’t know UK lingo, nor am I fully up to speed on your system’s expectations, but I certainly understand the frustration and worry you share about how to help students do the impossible. For the last several years, I’ve consulted for a large school where the vast majority of students are what we call ELLs—English Language Learners—from China. And yesterday the third grade teachers (whose students are generally age 8 or 9) were informed that any students not meeting certain benchmarks by the end of the year could not be promoted—-which for some of the teachers meant their entire class. Clearly there’s something wrong with systems that don’t acknowledge the learning curve of students who are new to the language. But given that those are the systems we’re each in, the question is what to do. With some of the teachers I’ve supported, we’ve used what we call a “simple text, complex task” approach, which means that we use a text below their expected reading level that is easier for the students to access, but keep the thinking expectations high. Then over time, as they build up some confidence and have more words up their sleeve, we increase the complexity of the text. We’ve also used a lot of wordless picture books to get them talking, since building their oral language skills is critical. Finally, we’ve tried to use books that speak to their experience. I’m afraid I don’t know if any of these books are available in the UK, but some that you might want to look at are “One Green Apple” by Eve Bunting, “I Hate English,” by Ellen Levine, “Marianthe’s Story: Painted Words and Spoken Memories” by Aliki, and “The Librarian of Basra” and “Nasreen’s Secret School” both by Jeanette Winter.

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