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).

Developing a research partnership

One of the reasons we are attempting to make the Powerful Knowledge, Powerful Pedagogy project transparent is to highlight the importance of the research partnership in developing and maintaining a school-wide initiative. Cottenham Primary School (CPS) has been working towards implementation of a knowledge-rich curriculum for over a year. Because this is a relatively new goal for primary schools in the UK, classroom resources and professional development are sparse. We feel it is important to document what the school learns as they evolve, and to take a systematic approach to studying their evolution so we can make sense of it and revise along the way.

Formally, we have an Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between CPS and the University of South Florida. This MOU establishes:

Additionally, there are several factors that are essential for this partnership to thrive. In this post, we discuss Leadership, Trust, and Time.


It is no secret that strong leadership is essential for any initiative to thrive, and a research partnership is no different. CPS leadership is open to and supportive of the research and for the transparent approach we are taking to make it public. USF leadership is supportive of a faculty member serving as Scholar-in-Residence at CPS. USF faculty and CPS staff work together to implement the curriculum and the research, and we do so by acknowledging the strengths we each bring to the table and moving forward with our associated roles. Teachers are leading the implementation and will be the most powerful contributors to us understanding how to successfully implement the knowledge-rich curriculum. As such, they are taking on additional responsibilities by agreeing to participate in the research.


Because of strong leadership, we developed a relationship built on trust. Teachers are agreeing to participate in the research because they trust that time will only be asked of them in order to strengthen the good teaching they already do. Leadership at the school are willing to make the work public because they trust it will support other schools embarking on a similar path. And the faculty member trusts that consideration will be given and new ideas implemented based on the executive summaries provided to the school after each iteration of data collection.


This research partnership did not happen overnight. The trust and leadership noted were developed over an extended period of time and across two continents. CPS and USF have a longstanding relationship through the USF Cambridge Schools Experience program. Trainee teachers from USF become part of the school community for four weeks every summer. The consistency of this program, and of the program staff, connects the two organizations annually. Further, the school opened their doors to me during my research sabbatical in Spring 2016, and we continued to work together to establish a mutually beneficial partnership through the 2016-2017 school year.





Informed consent for research

Today we launched the Powerful Knowledge, Powerful Pedagogy research at the primary school. In doing so, we introduced the purpose of the study and the elements required of teachers and members of the senior leadership team (SLT) should they decide to participate. Although we hope all members of staff will participate in the research, it is essential for us to make it clear that participation is voluntary, and even if they do choose to participate they can always elect not to at a later date.

Because I am based in the U.S., we arranged a time for me to Zoom in to their inset to describe the research and answer any questions the staff had.

To participate in this research, teachers and SLT are agreeing to the following:

  • 2 interviews per year (one in the Autumn term and one in the Summer term)
  • Observations of teaching (4-5 each year)
    • Lesson plans
    • Examples of children’s work
    • Additional documentation related to the lesson
  • Focus group participation, if needed
  • Optional: Coaching cycles to support implementation of knowledge-rich curriculum

It is important that teachers and SLT understand they won’t be named individually in any reports. Rather, I will analyse each iteration of the data and offer an executive summary highlighting themes and next steps. (You can access our data collection and analysis plan here.)

The purpose of this project is to learn (1) how to successfully implement a knowledge-rich curriculum in the primary years, and (2) the types of professional development needed to make this successful. Thus, we are looking to understanding the school’s implementation and needs broadly, rather than at an individual teacher level.

We are happy to share our research protocols and consent forms with anyone interested.

What is Powerful Knowledge, Powerful Pedagogy?

We are using this space to document what we learn about implementing a knowledge-rich curriculum in the primary years, and the professional development needed to support staff and leadership to do so successfully.

Our intent is to share analysis from several iterations of research conducted during the 2017-2018 school year. We will also share resources that develop our understandings of what teachers should know and be able to do in order to best support children’s learning.

We encourage you to participate by commenting on our posts and sharing your own resources.