This Issue’s Focus: Background Knowledge and Vocabulary
This issue focuses on background knowledge—acquiring it, building it, and supporting readers to be independent learners and thinkers. The first articles focus on building background knowledge through investigation. Investigation takes multiple forms, ranging from the investigator role in literature circles to reading product labels and critically analyzing content.
Another major topic is vocabulary instruction. How do we identify, teach, and support vocabulary that is necessary for readers to comprehend content? New teachers will find this issue particularly helpful when it comes to identifying how readers struggle with content vocabulary and how to choose new words to teach. Experienced teachers will benefit from teaching ideas and new ways to think about vocabulary instruction, especially if Marzano’s notion of tiered vocabulary is new to you.
The reality is that if readers do not understand the vocabulary of the discipline they are studying, they will not be able to grasp the larger concepts. It is our responsibility as teachers to support them in those efforts. The material that follows will help you do just that.
Building Background Knowledge as Readers and Writers
General Discussion Topic
This combination of articles, when read as a trio, helps us to see our middle school students as unique individuals who bring a level of knowledge and expertise into our classrooms—expertise that we sometimes fail to recognize. But they still require our support to expand what they know and can bring to a reading experience.
Gabriel, Allington, and Billen, in their article “Background Knowledge and the Magazine Reading Students Choose,” show us how middle school students will often stretch to read difficult text of their own choosing, in part because they come to magazine reading with a certain level of background knowledge and engagement with the topic.
In “Building Background Knowledge within Literature Circles,” Barone and Barone describe their experience of motivating and engaging readers with the investigator role in literature circles. They found that when students were able to investigate their own questions with a level of autonomy regarding the methods and the sources to find the answers, they were more engaged in building background knowledge and filling in gaps.
Beatrice Newman’s “Mentor Texts and Funds of Knowledge: Situating Writing within Our Students’ Worlds” explores the concept of funds of knowledge to help students recognize that they have stories to tell. By fostering student writing in this way, she incorporates the notion of mentor texts and a way to inspire students to find their own stories. This idea can connect with other articles in this issue. For instance, magazines can provide a rich source of mentor texts to help students tell stories about events in their lives or share with others the sports and hobbies that interest them. Magazines and online publications written by teens for teens can also provide accessible mentor texts that bridge to more sophisticated literary examples, such as those Newman used in her classroom.
- Students will choose to conquer and enjoy texts that are challenging by any measure when they have background knowledge, vocabulary, and interest.
- Magazines provide a bank of texts in a variety of formats and on a variety of levels.
- Magazine excerpts may be effectively used either to introduce or practice standards related to informational or literary texts.
- The role of investigator in a literature circle allows students to personally learn about topics, words, and people that are important to understanding a novel.
- The investigator role helps with background knowledge and positions students to be active readers, constantly rereading and searching for information to satisfy their curiosity.
- All students have something to write about, and all students can be guided and nurtured toward successful and personally satisfying writing experiences.
- Students’ funds of knowledge serve as a vast treasure trove of writing possibilities for writers of all ages and all backgrounds.
- Magazine reading can be a source to tap into those funds of knowledge as well as a source of mentor texts for students.
Common Core Connection
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (www.corestandards.org)
Standard 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Standard 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
Standard 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
Standard 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing
Standard 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Standard 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Using These Articles with Your Team
- At the beginning of the year, as you survey students for other information to get to know them, ask about magazine reading preferences. Start a class or team list of favorite magazines. Create a resource to share or showcase popular magazines or articles. This could be as simple as a bulletin board or showcase in your team hallway or as complex as a blog or wiki space on your team webpage. Once you know what your students are reading, discuss how content area teachers could use magazine articles to supplement or complement content area texts.
- Involve the community in collecting magazines for classroom use. Ask parents and community groups to donate back issues to your school.
- As an advisory activity, choose or ask students to recommend a magazine article that they are interested in, then read and discuss in small or large groups. These discussions could lead to idea-collection sessions for writing prompts, as described by Newman.
Why Not Try This?
One of the popular magazines cited by students in Gabriel, Allington, and Billen’s study was North American Whitetail. Here is an example of one story that illustrates how to tie these ideas together:
- Examine the vocabulary in this story. Students who are avid hunters will probably know words like bleat can, yearling, and crosshairs. These are probably Tier 1 or 2 words for them, but will be Tier 3 words for many other students. Have students with different interests teach their peers vocabulary related to their hobbies.
- Something like the investigator role in a literature circle could help with defining unknown terms. Investigate why the geography of Ohio is a good area for deer hunting, or learn about the equipment the author describes.
- The “funds of knowledge” concept comes into the discussion when we use this article as a mentor text. How could students who are familiar with deer hunting use this piece as a model to write about their own hunting experiences? How could a teacher use this article as a bridge to reading about Brian Robeson’s first kill in Hatchet?