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    Jill Sweeney

    I thought that this chapter was very informational in a way that is easily applicable to teaching and writing lesson plans for classes. I thought it was important for the author to point out the way that the brain works with reading comprehension, understanding ideas in context rather than simply understanding the idea on its own. I was interested in the idea of memorizing facts and data and how it affects our learning later in school. I found it interesting that the author talks about how memory is the way that we think. Our brains are retrieving information about the task at hand from our already formed memories. I really liked how to author talked about how if you are interested in a topic, reading about it will not bore you but you will become an expert about it. I think this is such an important thing to remember as a teacher. Engaging your students with lessons that revolve around things that they are interested in is the best way to keep them on task and engaged. As a teacher, it is important that we make sure that knowledge is always meaningful. Our curriculum should not be made up of mindless busy work, but it should be made up of challenging learning that helps our students to grow.

    Quote that I found interesting:
    “Not only does background knowledge make you a better reader, but it also is necessary to be a good thinker.”

    Jared Tschohl

    A lot of this chapter I think can be linked to the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) strategy utilized with English Language Learners (ELLs). [Sidebar: I took a class on SIOP last spring semester and wonder why we aren’t teaching some of the elements to all teachers?] One of the most important components of SIOP would be comprehensible input. With any students, regardless of language barrier, if there is no background knowledge, how can we expect them to understand information?

    Comprehensible input is the idea that we provide enough background knowledge to a learner, so they can gain more understanding of new information. For example, when the author mentioned how some people can walk into a pantry and instantly make a meal. Think of your ingredients as all the pieces of a learning puzzle. Comprehensible input is when I provide you the recipe to show you how all the pieces fit. In a way, it is like a scaffold.

    I think we take for granted what we assume our students to know and not know. Many times we think, how do you not know that?! (I am hugely guilty of this myself!) Think about a native English speaker who grew up in the US versus a student who moves to the US from a foreign country. Most students in fourth grade Virginia Studies have already learned that George Washington is the first president of the US. That is a long-term fact. But what about that new student? I doubt they were taught George Washington in their native country, yet the expectation is “they should know it already” needs to be erased. If we take five extra minutes to give them extra information, to set them up for success later in the lesson, students feel more confident and we as teachers become less frustrated.


    I really enjoyed the way this chapter began. I also found myself agreeing with many of the author’s statements and ideas throughout. His emphasis on intertwining facts with understanding is a key part of school and a student’s success. If you have every detail about the scientific process memorized, but do not know how to apply the steps of the process on your own, then how useful is the information? I have had many recent experiences that have led me to believe that school systems are attempting to address this gap between factual recall and understanding. My high school was converting to a system that relied on final projects and presentations, rather than simple final exams. A teacher I observed last semester made his students journal upon the completion of each lesson he taught as a means of digesting the knowledge and making it applicable to their lives. The background knowledge piece that the author discusses in depth plays into this application. Having adequate knowledge on a subject before attempting to understand and apply it is essential. I agree with Willingham then when he states “thinking critically and logically is not possible without background knowledge”.
    I still love the way he ends each chapter with the “implications in the classroom” section. Similar to what the chapter is actually about, the format of it lends itself to the “learn background knowledge, and then apply it” principle!

    Sarah Reich

    I thought that this chapter was very interesting. I fall into the category of people who hate standardized testing and saw little value when I was tested on minute facts or details. But, after reading this chapter I do see how these small facts are necessary to put the bigger picture together. “Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills that teachers want for students—such as the ability to analyze and to think critically-require extensive factual knowledge”(Willingham). With this said, it does show the value of students learning facts. For example, the kids in my class practice spelling and writing their names onto paper everyday. They would not have the motivation to do this if didn’t know that when we write letters or other “older tasks” we need to have our name on it. Eventually they will be able to put more letters together, to spell more words.

    I still hate standardized testing.

    Jen Newton

    Sarah, I’m with you on that. I still struggle with this idea because I think it’s both/and. He makes a clear argument to me that background knowledge is critical. Yet I still don’t see value in testing for it . . . so I’m working on that still. I prefer applied experiences that demonstrate the knowledge and then put it into action. He’s making me think, for sure.


    While reading the chapter, I found myself relating to a lot of what Willingham mentioned. When he began to talk about the standardized tests, and how many children fall behind after 3rd grade, I was instantly brought back to memories of taking these types of tests, and when reading certain passages, I found myself looking at some words very confused. “Background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension,” (29). I realize this now how someone assumed that we all had the prior knowledge/exposure to certain vocabulary. I remember tests such as the Gates, that had the same passage in it for years, and the same words we never learned. I found myself relying on memory as I progressed through school, breezing through the tests easier and easier.
    I used to love doing standardized tests because of the rewards, and the fact that I knew I would be in the high scoring range, but I can see I didn’t;t get much content out of them because I eventually resorted to relying on just memory to complete them. I didn’t see how they could determine where to place me, knowing I had a strong memory and the the tests were predictable.
    As a future teacher, I’m stuck on knowing when to use those results, because you may be focused on catching kids up who didn’t score high, but forgetting that the ones who did may just be relying on memory. Where do we as teachers find that common ground?


    Overall, I found this chapter to be very informative. On page 35 when describing the study about students who read the baseball passage, I was not necessarily surprised that the students who had background knowledge of baseball had higher comprehension…this made sense to me. But it did bug me how Willingham described students as either “good” or “poor” readers. I know that these labels came from their standardized testing results, but a big part of comprehension has to do with being interested in the subject. Maybe it is just me being overly sensitive, but I feel like there was a better way to describe the students.
    My favorite quote from this chapter comes from page 49: “It is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value. It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge.” These sentences serve as a reminder that if we want our students to be successful in using the skills we teach them we need to make sure we give them the appropriate background knowledge.

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