Blog:  Expert Corner

Knowledge Equals Literacy

Expert Corner blog post by Ginny Osewalt
Sep 30, 2014

Siblings on a ride in an amusement park

Summer memories are often a jumping-off point for back-to-school activities.

As a teacher, my heart skips a beat for great books about summer, like The Raft by Jim LaMarche and The Summer My Father Was Ten by Pat Brisson. Books like these delight my students and invite them to share their own experiences.

Their enthusiasm is contagious and I love it.

But making summer memories isn’t just fun. It’s also a cornerstone of how kids learn to read.

Good readers use their prior knowledge.
Literacy—in reading, writing, speaking and listening—is supported by what your child already knows. Teachers call this prior knowledge. To quote master teacher Debbie Miller:

“[Prior knowledge] is all the stuff that’s already inside your head, like places you’ve been, things you’ve done, books you’ve read—all the experiences you’ve had that make up who you are and what you know and believe to be true.”

Solid research tells us that how well a child reads is strengthened by all the background knowledge he has about the world. So when students can connect new ideas and new information in personal ways, the power of literacy is unleashed.

For example, if your child’s ever played on a baseball team or spent a Sunday afternoon watching a doubleheader with Grandpa, he’s more likely to engage with novels like Skinnybones by Barbara Park and In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord.

If he’s had his fair share of childhood trials and tribulations, picture books like Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber can help him to see old things in new and amusing ways—and also learn that he’s not alone.

Does your child love to garden or dig for worms? Nonfiction books like A Handful of Dirt by Raymond Bial can give him a darned good excuse to get his hands even dirtier!

Tapping into prior knowledge does more than boost your child’s reading comprehension and his ability to retain new information. Prior knowledge also builds confidence. And you won’t be surprised when I tell you what happens next: Motivation and participation improve.

You can help your child build knowledge.
I give parents lots of tips for helping their children become better readers. High up on the list is providing your child with a wide variety of experiences outside of school. Experiences build your child’s prior knowledge. That, in turn, supports his literacy.

It’s not hard to find rich experiences. And you don’t have to be rich! Here are just a few ideas:

  • Grow a small garden or hike a nearby trail.
  • Take a trip to the city on a beautiful day.
  • Make paper airplanes and fly them.
  • Volunteer as a family by serving those in need.
  • Check out an arts program for your child.

Every time your child experiences more of the world, he gets a leg up on reading. It’s the prior knowledge your child gets that supports him on his path to literacy.

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About the Blogger

Portrait of Ginny Osewalt

Ginny Osewalt is certified in elementary and special education, with experience in inclusion, resource room and self-contained settings.

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