Building literacy foundations through background knowledge

Knowledge children build by learning content deeply can help improve reading comprehension more than learning isolated reading strategies. It makes good sense and mirrors the spirit and some practices of Tools teaching.

The challenge


What we heard from teachers and administration at after implementing Tools at

Building literacy foundations through background knowledge


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The process

Committee search to choose the right curriculum

Selection of Tools of the Mind curriculum & professional development

Tools training and implementation for all relevant staff

Teaching and learning review and outcomes

“The idea of ELA being about something is a really good one.”
- Professor Gina Cervetti, Marsal Family School of Education, University of Michigan

Background knowledge matters

Foundations are important. The taller the building, the stronger a foundation it needs. Foundational learning is much the same. Learning can truly take root when the strength of its connections to prior learning and knowledge are strong. 

In Tools, each theme unit begins with creating a foundation for children to build background knowledge through books, field trips and other shared activities, like working together to build thematic props to use in centers. We might see a Tools grocery unit open with a field trip to a grocery store, a place most children are already familiar with from shopping trips they’ve taken with their families. Tools teachers give children the opportunity to explore and experience the store in a new way, with all of their senses, introducing new vocabulary and observing the processes and interactions taking place with intention and purpose. This deepens children’s knowledge of the theme, better preparing them to engage in mature make-believe play, which requires a true understanding of the roles they will take on and the possible scenarios they may encounter. Without a foundation of content knowledge related to the unit, children have little on which to layer the new learning and skills they will gain interacting with each other through play. 

Learning skills in context

According to an article recently published in EdWeek, building a foundation of content knowledge is equally important when learning to read. Despite the instinct to teach children the skills of reading first, giving students content to apply those skills to can better prepare them to use reading strategies when they are struggling. Focusing on a reading comprehension skill (e.g., inferring) out of context can make learning to read more difficult because the unfamiliar content of the text may distract students and make it less likely they will be able to apply the strategy they’re learning. For example, returning to our grocery store theme, if a child is unfamiliar with the ingredients needed to make vegetable soup, it may be difficult for them to infer that a character buying those ingredients in a story is planning to make soup when they get home. Children learning to read do better when they can build a ‘mental model’ where they can apply new learning to related content they already know. 

In the upper elementary and middle grades, English language arts (ELA) curricula that focus on knowledge-building and provide instruction by growing children’s knowledge of a specific topic and teaching literacy skills within the context of that topic are becoming more popular. “The idea of ELA being about something is a really good one,” says Professor Gina Cervetti, who studies literacy at the University of Michigan’s Marsal Family School of Education. She explains that learning literacy through content can “help students think more deeply about big ideas, make connections across topics, and show their understanding through their writing.”

Practices that promote comprehension

In Tools, units are organized into themes rather than content topics, but Tools activities share similarities with knowledge-building curricula, including:

  • teaching children explicit vocabulary related to content/theme 
  • promoting a common language and understanding between classmates by pairing children for shared reading 
  • providing time for children to talk with each other about their learning

And, importantly:

  • challenging students of all levels to work together, engaging in content that may be a bit above a child’s independent level but falls within their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) 

For more on how Tools can support reading skills and comprehension, see The science of reading? We've got that!