Common Core adoption has shifted the reading debate to include do we or don't we provide background knowledge when approaching readings. Leanna Heitin wrote For Reading, Knowledge Matters More Than Strategies, Some Experts Say for Education Week. Part of me wants to say, "Duh!" This is especially true when we discuss vocabulary. Many studies show that the leading indicator of reading comprehension is vocabulary. Students who do not know the words cannot understand the content. As the author points out, Google only gets you so far. Try reading a passage from a foreign language newspaper. You might be able to get the general content from the pictures or a few cognates, but beyond that you cannot understand it. Even if we give you the phonetic reading clues, it does not help you get it. We could let you have a translator app, but the general agreement is that they are not great. All the strategies in the world are not going to be enough until the language is transformed into one you understand.
The entire rationale that we as adults do not have teachers help us read our material for work is misguided. Rarely would you pick up a complex text about a subject in which you were a complete novice. You have background knowledge in your field. You go talk to colleagues. You play with materials to get a feel for them before you attack the reading. You attend a workshop or webinar or watch a video. Perhaps you start with an easier text and then advance to more complex ones. We certainly have some motivation to read it- interest, manager demands, promotion requirements. Thinking we should just send students into a reading cold is foolish. It is not what we do as adults. We need to give students, who are just learning to be sophisticated users of print, that same advantage.
That being said, this is especially true for students with a language disability or English Language Learners (ELLs). These students with limited English vocabularies need to be bolstered in order to try to attempt "easy" grade level texts, not to mention "challenge" ones. A student who does not have any idea what a video game is might have trouble understanding a story in which they play a key role. I worked with students at a Jewish elementary students where a majority of students did not have computers or televisions. If they were to read the video game story, their limited background would significantly impact their ability to comprehend the text. (This is an example of cultural background.)
I worked with students on a test in which they were asked to read two passages about Paul Revere- one a biographical sketch and the other more of a textbook passage. Then they were asked to answer questions and write a written response. Students who had a rich understanding of Paul Revere had a much easier time with the task than those who did not. It was independent of their reading level- it was all about their background knowledge.
I have a fifth grade ELL student who need to provide a written response to contrast two characters from a pair of stories. When I got down to what is the question asking you to do? He had no idea. How is this student supposed to answer the question when he does not know what contrast means? Without help about understanding the question, we would have been unable to determine anything about his ability to really understand the passage.
We must acknowledge that background knowledge must be built. We can do this through paired texts. Newsela, ReadWorks, Reading A-Z, and the Virginia Department of Education are some sources of paired texts and lessons about them. We can build them ourselves. I have taken a high school history and science texts and found elementary trade books, PBS and history channel videos, and low reading level texts on the same topic. The students read the low level material. Examine video clips, maybe play an on-line game. They are introduced to vocabulary in a slow and controlled manner. Then, when we present the grade level text, it is manageable. We have built the background to understand the information they need for class. Just throwing them into the text means they probably won't read it at all and if they do, they will not understand it. We might teach them to copy sentences with key phrases from the questions to formulate answers but this is a mechanical task, not a learning one. We need to build literacy smartly, not throw them into the deep end hoping they will find our scaffolding, i.e. the ladder.