Whose Knowledge Matters in Literacy Instruction?


Our guest author today is Dr. Courtney Hattan. Dr. Hattan is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Literacy Education in the School of Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University.

Knowledge is inarguably crucial for reading comprehension. What students know, including their academic knowledge and personal experiences, will influence what they understand and remember from texts. Therefore, recent efforts that call for building students’ knowledge base during elementary literacy instruction are important. Attention to knowledge-building enriches the conversation about reading science and helps bridge the research-to-practice gap. However, what’s missing from some of these conversations is a consideration of whose knowledge matters and what perspectives should be centered in the texts that students read.

In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop stated that students need to read texts that serve as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. Windows expose students to new ways of thinking and seeing the world, while the sliding glass doors provide opportunities for students to be immersed in those new worlds and perspectives. Mirrors allow students to see their language practices, histories, and values represented in the characters and experiences that are communicated through texts. Providing students with multiple perspectives allows them to consider various points of view, grapple with potentially conflicting information, and draw conclusions about what they believe to be true.

I would therefore encourage educators to consider whose knowledge is valued in school settings. Are students only exposed to books that are designed to maintain dominant authorities or power structures? Or are they also exposed to the voices of people who come from historically minoritized communities? These questions are especially important in light of a recent study by Rigell and colleagues, which found that one knowledge-building curriculum centers whiteness in its text selections and instructional supports. Given the value of providing all students with both windows and mirrors, educators would do well to interrogate the texts and curricula they put in front of students. This can help ensure that all students have opportunities to read texts that amplify the experiences, joy, and valued knowledge of people who come from historically minoritized communities. We can shift the canon of texts and ideas that are typically shared with students.

As teachers analyze their curricula, they might consider the following questions:

  • Who wrote the texts that are included in my school’s curriculum?
  • What voices are represented in these texts?
  • What voices are left out?
  • What texts should I eliminate from my instruction?
  • What supplemental texts would enhance students’ knowledge and provide additional perspectives?

No curriculum is perfect. Yet, asking teachers to create their own curricula is a labor- and time-intensive task. Given the ever-increasing demands that teachers face, teachers could find ways to modify and supplement their curricula, rather than starting from scratch. In doing so, curricula can become culturally and contextually flexible, providing space for varied voices.

Additionally, modifying curricula can provide opportunities to center the needs and values of a particular community. Here are several examples of contextually appropriate content and perspectives that could be shared with students.

  • Local farming practices: How agricultural runoff can pollute local waters, but students could also consider why those pollutants exist.
  • State prison: How the presence of a prison influences job opportunities and the economic health of a community, while also interrogating the fact that Black men are disproportionately incarcerated.
  • Government guidelines: How local, state, and federal requirements impact students’ everyday lives, such as whether they need to wear a mask to school.
  • New sports stadium: How a new stadium could provide local jobs and increase spending through tourism, but the taxes used to pay for the stadium may be an undue burden on local residents.

The inclusion of contextually flexible content builds students’ knowledge while also making texts personally relevant for students. This allows students to make meaningful connections to texts and supports their motivation for reading.

However, thinking critically about text selection is just one piece of the puzzle. It is also important to consider the knowledge that students bring with them to a reading experience and to find instructional supports that help leverage that knowledge. What do students already know about the to-be-read topic or subject area? How does what they learned yesterday connect to what they will be reading about today? What cultural or linguistic knowledge do they have? What personal experiences might shape the way they construct meanings from texts? Students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled. Instead, they have knowledge and assets that can act as anchors for future learning.

So, what could educators do to make “window” texts more personally relevant? How can teachers support students in grappling with disconnections?

One option is to use targeted questioning that supports meaningful knowledge activation before, during, and after reading. These questions are based on my research with rural 5th and 6th-grade students who were tasked with reading “window” texts about ancient Rome.

  • How is this text similar to something I already know or have experienced?
  • How is this text unusual or unexpected in comparison to something I already know or have experienced?
  • What about this text is completely opposite of something I know or have experienced?
  • What about this text could not be seen, read, or heard today? (Particularly useful for history or science fiction texts.)

In my research, students responded to these questions in meaningful ways that supported knowledge-building and text comprehension. For example, they noted that the Roman Coliseum is similar to professional sports stadiums. Yet, they also grappled with the fact that gladiators fought to the death, which is not something that could be seen today in professional baseball or football games. This type of questioning can help students make sense of newly presented information in light of what they already know or have experienced.

In conclusion, if educators, researchers, families, and policymakers are willing to rethink literacy instruction through a knowledge-building framework, let’s be thoughtful about what knowledge is being built and how we respond to students’ needs. Teachers can: (1) build students’ knowledge by providing both windows and mirrors; (2) adapt curricula based on the cultural and contextual needs of a school; (3) leverage students’ assets and make learning personally relevant; and (4) provide opportunities for students to grapple with both connections and disconnections to texts.

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