Research Zeroes In on a Barrier to Reading (Plus, Tips for Teachers)

By Youki Terada for edutopia.org

By now, you’ve probably heard of the baseball experiment. It’s several decades old but has experienced a resurgence in popularity since Natalie Wexler highlighted it in her best-selling new book, The Knowledge Gap.

In the 1980s, researchers Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie asked middle school students to read a passage describing a baseball game, then reenact it with wooden figures on a miniature baseball field. They were surprised by the results: Even the best readers struggled to re-create the events described in the passage. 

“Prior knowledge creates a scaffolding for information in memory,” they explained after seeing the results. “Students with high reading ability but low knowledge of baseball were no more capable of recall or summarization than were students with low reading ability and low knowledge of baseball.”

That modest experiment kicked off 30 years of research into reading comprehension, and study after study confirmed Recht and Leslie’s findings: Without background knowledge, even skilled readers labor to make sense of a topic. But those studies left a lot of questions unanswered: How much background knowledge is needed for better decoding? Is there a way to quantify and measure prior knowledge?

A 2019 study published in Psychological Science is finally shedding light on those mysteries. The researchers discovered a “knowledge threshold” when it comes to reading comprehension: If students were unfamiliar with 59 percent of the terms in a topic, their ability to understand the text was “compromised.”

In the study, 3,534 high school students were presented with a list of 44 terms and asked to identify whether each was related to the topic of ecology. Researchers then analyzed the student responses to generate a background-knowledge score, which represented their familiarity with the topic. 

Read more here.

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