The ability to decode text is a critical skill. However, the ability to accurately decode text does not
ensure comprehension of what is read. Scarborough’s reading rope model describes the many strands
of skilled reading. Background knowledge is only one strand included in language comprehension and is
necessary for readers to make sense of new ideas and situations. It includes all of the knowledge
acquired through life experiences and learning. The more background knowledge a child has, the more
she can comprehend what is read.
“If we do not spend large amounts of time reading aloud and discussing challenging
material with children – material that is well beyond their ability to decode with
understanding, we miss a critical opportunity to increase their knowledge of language and of the world – the kind of knowledge that will prove decisive for
reading in later years.” (Hirsch, 2006)
Without the necessary background knowledge, a reader cannot make sense of what is decoded. A lack
of background knowledge especially affects higher order thinking such as inferencing or making
connections to other content and experiences.
The strategies in this section will provide educators with tools to build students’ background knowledge.
Strategies will also support students’ ability to recognize when they do not have sufficient background
knowledge and what to do about it.
Knowledge of individual word meanings account for as much as 50-60% of the variance in
reading comprehension (Stahl & Nagy, 2006). Scarborough’s rope model indicates strands in
addition to vocabulary are important for language comprehension. However, after a student
has learned to decode, vocabulary knowledge is the most important factor influencing
comprehension. (Moats, 2009a).
Vocabulary instruction includes implicit and explicit instruction as well as developing both depth
and breadth of word knowledge. From third grade on, students must learn about 2,000-3,000
new words every year (Stahl and Nagy, 2006). Directly and explicitly teaching that many words
in a year’s time would not be effective. About 10 words per week is a reasonable amount to
teach in-depth. The other words, students will need to learn by implicit means such as listening
to new words used in conversation or during read alouds, and reading about a wide variety of
topics in varied genres (Biemiller, 2005).
An understanding of syntax, how sentences are constructed and semantics, how words and phrases are
related, are required skills for students to become proficient readers. The ability to make the text
cohere or stick together is not always natural. Readers must be able to make connections between and
across words, phrases and sentences. Just because a student can decode all the words on the page does
not mean that he will comprehend what he reads.
Students can get lost when reading complex
sentences that contain many ideas or text that contains a lot of pronouns and phrases.
Syntax is basically the grammar of language. Consider the following example:
A dog is a mammal.
If a student understands the syntax of the sentence, even if he cannot decode the word mammal, he
knows that the word has to be a noun because it follows an article and is the last word in the sentence.
He would be able to answer this literal question without decoding the word mammal: What is a dog?
Semantics is an understanding of how the meaning of a word or phrase can change depending on the
language around it. Consider the following examples:
We can fish.
Depending on the other words around this sentence it could have different meanings.
Visiting strangers is dangerous. Are the strangers that are visiting us dangerous or does the sentence mean, the act of visiting strangers
Students must know how to use the surrounding language to clarify the meaning.
John is a snake in the grass.
Does the author mean this literally – John is the name of a pet snake, or metaphorically – John is a
After work, Trisha and Claudia went to the store to get supplies for Ed’s birthday party. Although it was
just down the street, they decided to drive because the celebration was less than an hour away. What does it refer to? What is the celebration? When did Trisha and Claudia go to the store? Who are
they? What role does the word although play in the sentence?
It is easy for students to get lost in the phrases and references included in sentences. They have to
understand that words do no work in isolation and are always connected to other words in some way.
The joy of reading comes from the ability to understand an author’s message; to laugh, to cry, to get angry, to be in awe of the knowledge learned, to put yourself in the situation the author is describing. To do that, readers have to be skilled at decoding and understanding language at many levels. Too many students do not enjoy reading because they struggle with understanding what is not explicitly explained. They cannot make inferences or understand ambiguous language due to the lack of background knowledge and grasping the nuances of the English language. There are three levels or models of text comprehension, all of which must be held in memory as students build their understanding of what they read.
These are three ways that readers build and represent their understanding of what they read in memory: surface code, text base and the situational model (Bernaerts, et. al., 2013).
The surface code refers to the exact language used to express ideas. Students that lack understanding of the vocabulary included in a particular text or lack knowledge of the syntactic features of the language being read could have difficulty with comprehension at the literal level. Students who understand the text base are able to restate the literal message of the text in their own words and can answer literal comprehension questions. These first two levels depend on an understanding of the syntax and semantics of English. You can find more information on these levels in the Language Structures section of this resource.
To understand text at a deeper level, a student must create a situational model or representation of what is read. In
order to do this, she must infer information not directly stated by the author. In other words, a student uses the surface
code as a set of cues to build the situational model which involves activating the appropriate background knowledge
including general knowledge, memories, and interactions with other texts. (Bernaerts, et. al., 2013) See the Background
Knowledge section of this resource for more information.
Consider the following sentence from the Language Structures section:
We can fish to store in the cellar so we have fish to eat in the winter.
As the reader, I have general knowledge of fish and that people eat fish. I understand this specific meaning of the word
can (to preserve). I know that a cellar is used to store food and I understand that in some places winter can be very harsh and people
cannot go outside. I also understand that eating is necessary for survival. As the reader, I have control of the surface
code and text base of this text. As I hold that information in memory, I start to build the situational model of what I am
reading. I immediately pull up memories of my grandparent’s cellar and picture the canned food on the shelves. I
remember walking down the concrete steps, the musty smell, the spider webs, and the cool feeling of the air. I know
that the process of canning food takes time and preserves food for long periods because I have that personal
experience. Because of movies I have seen or books I have read, I fill in information that the author did not explicitly
explain using my background knowledge – these people are storing food for the winter months because they may not be able to get outside to find food in the winter. I can infer that they live by water because fish live in water and that they catch the fish themselves. I can infer that they are worried about having enough food for the winter because they are canning food and storing it – not eating it right away. I create a situation in my memory based on the words and my
A student that lacks general knowledge or background knowledge about the words in the text will have a very difficult time understanding what he/she reads beyond a literal level.
Learning to read begins long before a child starts school. Print is everywhere in our society and children can’t
help but be curious about all the squiggly lines they see. Children begin to understand that certain symbols
represent meaning – the golden arches mean McDonald’s. Soon they begin to notice that adults point to
those squiggly lines and say words. Some children may even start to “read” those same words.
Before preschool most children do not understand that those squiggly lines are made up of individual letters
and that those letters have a sound that is blended together to create the pronunciation. They have just
memorized the shape of that word or its location on the page.
As adults it is hard for us to remember how many concepts have to be learned to become an effect reader.
Many of the very early skills we take for granted. But these very skills are predictors of future reading
achievement and “… serve as the very foundation on which orthographic and phonological skills are built.”
(Adams, page 338)
Literacy knowledge includes understanding concepts such as (in an exhaustive list):
Phonological awareness is the ability to identify, think about and manipulate the part of words, including syllables,
onsets, rimes and phonemes. It is an umbrella term that encompasses other skills such as the ability to identify and produce rhymes, syllables, onset, rimes and individual phonemes or single units of sound.
Phonological awareness is
critical for understanding an alphabetic system like English (Moats, 2009b).
Phonemic awareness is a related term that refers to the ability to isolate individual phonemes in a word. For example
the word, fast, has 4 sounds or phonemes: /f/ /a/ /s/ /t/. Phonemic awareness is an activity that can be done in the dark because it does not involve print. Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of the future reading success
of a child. (Moats, 2009; Uhry, 2011; NICHD, 2000).
The importance of phonemic awareness cannot be overemphasized as it provides the foundation of decoding, enabling the reader to unlock the printed word. (Carreker, 2011)
Reading and comprehending text is a complex process especially when interacting with the English language.
English is an alphabetic system that has a deep orthography, meaning it does not always have a one to one
correspondence between a phoneme (sound) and a grapheme (spelling) and we spell based on meaning. For
example, English has 5 vowel letters (a, e, i, o, u) and approximately 18 vowel sounds. Each vowel or a vowel
grapheme has more than one sound. Consider the different spellings for the long a sound in the following
words: rate, bait, play, steak, baby, weight, vein, hey. We also maintain the spelling of a word based on
morphemes (meaningful parts of words). The best example is the spelling of the inflectional ending –ed. It is
always spelled –ed even though it represents three different sounds, as in played /d/, twisted /ed/, and
hopped /t/. The spelling is maintained to indicate a word is past tense (Moats, 2009b, Moats, 2009c, Moats,
As Scarborough describes in the reading rope model, reading comprehension is the product of language comprehension and word recognition.
“The reader who has difficulty with decoding will not be able to derive
meaning form the text…” (Carreker, 2011, pg. 208).
If the goal of reading is comprehension of text, then
decoding is a necessary skill for students to learn, especially in English which is a complex alphabetic system.
Beginning reading curriculum that includes explicit decoding instruction is more effective than programs that
do not (Moats, 2009). However, word recognition is only part of reading instruction. Teaching comprehension skills should always be included in a comprehensive reading curriculum.
A student who can efficiently and effectively decode words has acquired many prerequisites such as an
understanding of the concepts of print, phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle (Carreker, 2011).
The majority of the words read by an adult are sight words; words their brain recognizes immediately and without
conscious effort. Reading instruction for students should result in this same automatic (sight) recognition of words.
Automaticity refers to the ability to perform complex skills with minimal attention and conscious effort. Automaticity is essential for higher-order thinking, such as skilled reading and writing, because important sub-skills must be performed accurately, quickly, and effortlessly. If reading sub-skills are performed automatically, then higher-order aspects of the task, such as comprehension or metacognitive functions, can be performed effectively at the same time. (Samuels, 1997)
Automaticity, or how fast we accomplish a task (rate) is one component of reading fluency. The other two components
are accuracy and prosody. Pikulski and Chard (2003) define reading fluency as “rapid, efficient, accurate word
recognition skills that permit a reader to construct the meaning of text. Fluency is also manifested in accurate, rapid,
expressive oral reading and is applied during, and makes possible, silent reading comprehension.” There is a positive
correlation between reading fluency and comprehension (Pinnell, et. al., 1995).
Automaticity of the subskills of reading starts with the beginning of reading instruction and develops over time. Rapid
naming (automaticity) of letters, sounds, phonetic elements (syllable types, affixes, etc.) words, phrases, sentences and
passages leads to reading fluency and comprehension (Vaughn, 2004).
Project Manager, Progress in the General Curriculum Network
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