In an interview with Deseret News, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham elaborates on the importance of background information in the development of reading comprehension skills.
DN: You talk a lot about “background information” as a key reading skill. This seems to be an enormously important concept that is not often discussed?
Willingham: I strongly agree. Once you spell it out it is sort of obvious to people that in all communication — speaking as well as writing — that we don’t make explicit every detail needed to comprehend. If you did, communication would take forever. You assume that your reader has certain knowledge.
We have to connect ideas, sometimes within a sentence or across sentences, and very frequently information is omitted. If you don’t have the right information in a voice conversation, it’s not that big a problem. You can ask them to clarify, or dumb it down. But when you’re reading you don’t have that option. And what will happen is you will just stop reading because you don’t comprehend.
Nonfiction reading is important in building background information.
DN: You write that we are shortchanging our reading by focusing so heavily on language arts. What do you mean by that?
Willingham: That’s absolutely true in the early grades. There is very little time devoted to science or civics or history or drama or art. English language arts focuses very narrowly on narrative fiction, and a lot of the time they’re not even reading. They are doing writing and spelling. It’s not that these things are not important, but we have to recognize that later on, in middle school and high school, the lack of background knowledge is going to come back and bite our kids.
Schools have an even greater obligation to teach background information to low-income and minority students.
DN: This seems to have important implications for closing the achievement gap suffered by low-income and minority kids?
Willingham: Absolutely. The kids coming from wealthier homes have much richer resources to acquire that broad background knowledge. They’re much more likely to be immersed in it at home, and their parents have more money, which they can use to provide experiences that are rich in information.
Willingham’s latest book is “Raising Kids Who Read”. Among other recommendations, he advises that parents avoid using baby talk with their children.