As we discussed in a previous video post, Connections Under Fire, discussions about the role of background knowledge and making connections have taken a controversial role in conversations about the Common Core. David Coleman has labeled text-to-self connections as a culprit responsible for perfunctory or casual readings of text. Teachers, on the other hand, maintain that activating schema and making connections are integral to meaning making and student engagement. So, which perspective is “right”? Of course, we think both.
In the opening pages of Fountas and Pinnell’s Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children, the authors define guided reading and begin to explore the teacher’s role in a guided reading session. This text lists many teacher roles during guided reading including, “…support each reader’s’ development of effective strategies, introduce the text, work with students while reading independently, and teach one-two points to support reading growth …” (p.2). In thinking about a question such as “According to this text, what is the teacher’s role during guided reading?”, we see relevance in a number of roles listed in the quote above, but are inclined to include vocabulary work, as well. In spite of what the Fountas and Pinnell text says, we often pick out a few words that we anticipate children will have trouble with and teach them prior to beginning a book. So our response to Fountas and Pinnell’s ideas about guided reading is to quickly descend into a discussion of vocabulary instruction. Our posture as we approached the text was evaluative when we intended to read for information, which means we didn’t really listen to the authors.
This text-to-self connection is an example of experience getting in the way of a close, careful reading of the text. So, do such expansions along the lines of our schema push us away from a true text-based reading? As readers of a lot of text related to literacy, we do tend to read in ways that assimilate the text with our prior knowledge. What are the benefits of this? What are the drawbacks?
On one hand, some might argue that our discussions of how we integrate vocabulary reached beyond the text, adding depth to our thinking about our reading. The flip side, however, is that by talking about what we already know, we are skirting the work of really thinking about what is written on the page. The new information seems dwarfed by our experience. While we may garner nods of agreement and affirmation from peers who have had similar experiences, our understanding of the new information actually remains limited by our experiences.
People read for a wide variety of reasons, but when it comes to non-fiction, the motivation for reading is often new information. When readers use their background knowledge as a sounding board for what is written on the page, formulating questions about new information and identifyIing examples and non-examples based on their own experiences, then a symbiotic relationship between building knowledge and making connections is forged. Background knowledge works best when it is integrated with new information. If it supercedes what is written on the page, then we trade off close reading for connections, which we think is necessary sometimes, whether the reader is a first-grader or a literacy consultant. We are also interested in closely reading for purposes of understanding what the author actually had to say. Once again, we are working toward an elusive balance in the way we approach text.
Fountas, Irene C., and Gay Su. Pinnell. Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996. Print.