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Background Knowledge and Where to Get It

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Wexler (2023) has pointed out that a reader’s background knowledge is a significant predictor of reading proficiency. She concluded that “greater background knowledge of the topic was correlated with better comprehension” and suggested that we “begin to more deliberately teach background knowledge.”

While it seems obvious that “deliberate teaching” will build background knowledge, there is another source of knowledge: self-selected pleasure reading. Stanovich and Cunningham (1993) is the breakthrough study in this area. They reported that university students who had more “print exposure”—were more familiar with popular authors (e.g., Maya Angelou, Isaac Asimov) and magazines (e.g., Forbes, Ladies Home Journal) did significantly better on a general knowledge test that included questions on science, social science, politics, current events, technology, and economics, among other subjects.

It is also well established that self-selected reading contributes significantly to language and literacy competence (e.g., vocabulary, spelling, writing; Krashen, 2004), and a recent study confirmed that reading also results in more knowledge of phonics (Krashen and McQuillan, 2023).
Of great interest: Stanovich and Cunningham also reported that higher grades (grade point average) in secondary school were a very weak predictor of how well the students did on the test of general knowledge.

Apparently, the hard study that results in better grades does not result in significant real-world knowledge, but reading popular literature and magazines does.

References
Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading. Libraries Unlimited.
Krashen, S., and McQuillan, J. (2022). “The Case for Acquired Phonics.” Language Magazine, 22, 2, 19–22.
Stanovich, K., and Cunningham, A. (1993). “Where Does Knowledge Come From? Specific associations between print exposure and information acquisition.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 2, 211–229.
Wexler, N. (2023). “Dramatic New Evidence That Building Knowledge Can Boost Comprehension
and Close Gaps.” Forbes. www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2023/04/09/dramatic-new-evidence-thatbuilding-knowledge-can-boost-comprehension-and-closegaps/?sh=2395e3617725

Stephen Krashen is professor emeritus, University of Southern California. He is active in language acquisition, bilingual education, literacy, and heritage language development and has published over 500 professional papers and books, many of which are available for free download at www.sdkrashen.com. Most important, he was the 1978 incline bench press champion of Venice
Beach, CA, and holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.



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