What does literacy teaching look like in a knowledge-rich curriculum?

In what will likely be a series of posts on the connections between powerful knowledge and literacy, we begin by asking the question, “What does literacy teaching look like in a knowledge-rich curriculum?”

One of the positions taken by proponents of knowledge-rich curricula is the focus on building children’s understanding of the “word and the world” (Hirsch, 2003), rather than teaching them the skills to ascertain knowledge on their own. With a heavy focus on the teaching of skills and strategies, the English Language Arts (ELA) is often devoid of content. Rather, ELA is typically seen as the opportunity to teach children the skills needed to access and negotiate text.

As Hirsch (2003) points out, this view of literacy teaching leaves many children without the necessary knowledge to comprehend text. While they may be able to decode words on a page, many children lack deep vocabulary knowledge, making it difficult to understand non-fiction text in particular.

Hirsch (2003) implores teachers to move away from a heavy focus on teaching reading comprehension skills and instead provide children with a heavy dose of vocabulary related to the specific domains taught in school, which scaffolds background knowledge, an element essential to reading comprehension.

Similar to Hirsch (2003), Nell Duke (2000) reports on the scarcity of informational text in primary grades. In fact, Duke’s study demonstrated that on average children spent only 3.6 minutes per day engaged with non-fiction text. Given the amount of knowledge children must have in order to understand the domains of science, history, geography, etc., these findings are staggering.

It is not enough to expose children to vocabulary of the domain being studied, however. They must also have access to text that includes the domain vocabulary, as well as opportunities to read text throughout the school day. Significant consideration must be given to the type(s) and quality of text children are reading at school.

As a final note, while children’s access to non-fiction text should be considered by schools, this is not as a replacement for fiction text. Children require a healthy diet of both fiction and non-fiction text in order to understand both the world and the word.

Other questions in this series include:

What is the role of guided reading in a knowledge-rich curriculum?

Does whole class teaching of reading support a knowledge-rich curriculum?


Duke, N.K. (2000). 3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 35, 202-224.

Hirsch, Jr., E.D. (2003). Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World: Scientific Insights into the Fourth-Grade Slump and the Nation’s Stagnant Comprehension Scores. American Educator, 27(1).

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