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When teachers are talking about improving reading comprehension, you’ll often hear the term literacy knowledge. What does that even mean? How do you teach knowledge, and why do our students need it to improve reading comprehension? This blog post is going to cover what it is, and why students with disabilities and struggling readers need explicit instruction in order to master it.
Literacy Knowledge sounds so fancy, maybe even too fancy to consider teaching to children.
If I’m being honest when I first heard the term literacy knowledge I thought it meant knowledge of how we develop literacy. It’s the kind of thing you expect to be taught in a university, not in an elementary classroom.
However literacy knowledge is actually much simpler than that, and in this post, we’re going to cover what it is, why it’s important and how to teach it.
If you’re interested in the subject goes beyond the simple and you want a more in-depth look at literacy knowledge and all the other components that go into reading comprehension, make sure to check out The Reading Comprehension Blueprint by Nancy Lewis Hennessy
But in the meantime let’s cover the basics.
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What is Literacy Knowledge?
Literacy Knowledge is a part of Scarborough’s Reading Comprehension Rope. To learn more about this tool and way of thinking, check out this blog post!
The basic idea behind literary knowledge is that students need to have some kind of knowledge of how a text is structured in order to improve their comprehension.
For instance, let’s consider how I’ve structured this blog post.
This blog post is a work of nonfiction, and therefore has a more complex set of text features and structures, than fiction does. It is divided up into sections that help separate out the information to make it easier to read.
Because you have good literacy knowledge you looked at the title of this section and knew that it was going to be about the fundamental definition of literacy knowledge.
As you progress through the other sections, you’ll connect information you learned from this section to the next and so on. In the end, you’ll be able to link all that information together into a larger picture.
What about fiction?
Fiction also requires some level of literacy knowledge. It’s typically considered easier for students to gain this knowledge.
Common elements of fiction you need to understand include
- Story Structure
- Intro to characters, problem, escalation, resolution, and so on
- And more
Children have typically already been exposed to all these elements through natural reading with their parents, though they might not have the formal names for them.
Why is it important?
Literacy Knowledge allows you to use text features and structures in order to understand how the information relates to each other.
Without literacy knowledge, you won’t be able to connect the concepts you learned in the first part of this blog to the parts you are reading now.
Additionally, when reading fiction, having an understanding of how stories typically progress is a kind of background knowledge in a way.
Possessing background knowledge is always an advantage in improving reading comprehension.
So while students might not need Literacy Knowledge to physically read the text, without it their comprehension will always be impeded.
How to Teach it
Teachers tend to gloss over skills in the language comprehension component of reading comprehension. Many of the concepts seem so simple. We expect our kids to just pick up on them.
And some kids do.
I also think we tend to gloss over them because it’s easier to address a problem with phonemic awareness in a student with special needs than it is to address a language comprehension problem.
No judgment from me though. I’ve done it too, so let’s all make a pack be better teachers and focus more on those language comprehension skills.
That is why I recommend explicitly teaching students literacy knowledge skills like text structure, common plot progressions, and definitions of formal words.
And then expect them to use those skills constantly.
Before we read I always ask my kids to identify the text features in nonfiction or the setting or narrator in fiction.
We use graphic organizers and go on scavenger hunts for each element we’re looking for, and over time your students do get better at it and start making connections.
I’ll never forget how amazing it was when one of my students looked up at me and said, “The main idea of nonfiction is always in the title,” as though it was a revelation.
I never taught him that concept! He noticed the pattern by himself because he used his literacy knowledge to help him make an inference!
It was chef’s kiss kind of delicious, and I want you to have that experience too!
That is why I always recommend giving explicit instruction and practice time for your students to build their literacy knowledge!
It’s frustrating to teach reading comprehension because we have to do the same thing day in and day out and wait for our students’ skills to grow.
It can feel like you aren’t making as much progress as in a subject like math.
These are vital skills your students are learning. The reason it takes so long is because they have to build new neural pathways to do it! Their little brains are working so hard and learning to grow!
However, if nothing has changed after a very long period of time, you might want to change your approach.
That’s why I always say the most important thing a special education teacher can have is an open mind!