Some context on context

Let’s talk about ”background knowledge.” The term refers to things a child knows about the world–about people, events, and situations; categories such as animals and clothing; topics such as animal habitats and how plants grow. These are things we use language to talk and write about. This knowledge provides the “background” or context for understanding a text.1

Unsurprisingly, there are differing views about the role of background knowledge in early reading.

One side is represented by theories such as the Simple View of Reading, which states that early reading has two components: knowledge of the written code (the part that is unique to reading), and knowledge of language (already known from speech).2 The Simple View is an observation about conditions at the onset of reading. By learning about print readers gain a portal to all they have already learned from using spoken language. Background knowledge is implied in this theory (because language is used to talk about things in the world) but not treated as a principal component of beginning reading. Theories that emphasize the primacy of learning about the printed code in early reading are sometimes said to emphasize “skills” rather than “meaning” or “literacy”.

An opposing view assigns far greater weight to background knowledge in learning to read. Proponents of this view emphasize “literacy” and “meaning” over “skills.” Reading is seen as “an active, constructive, meaning-making process.” The words on the page are only the starting point for generating the interpretation of a text, which varies as a function of a reader’s personal experience, knowledge of the world, and culturally-determined beliefs about the purpose of reading. Skilled reading is seen as a heavily top-down, knowledge-driven process: given sufficient knowledge of language, topic, and genre, a child can accurately anticipate words in texts and only has to sample the letters lightly to confirm their guesses. The instructional implication is that children need to learn how to combine different types of background knowledge (or “cues”) to recognize words, doing away with the need to dwell on “skills” such as gaining familiarity with the spellings of words and their pronunciations.

We think that these seemingly opposing views can be reconciled by taking a cognitive perspective, which addresses the mental operations involved in reading, and a developmental perspective, which addresses how behavior changes as children acquire knowledge over time. Let’s look at how … More Some context on context