The Science of Reading: How to Build Knowledge for Beginning Readers

 //  Feb 8, 2022

The Science of Reading: How to Build Knowledge for Beginning Readers

Dr. Elfrieda Hiebert is a vocabulary acquisition expert and lead researcher and author of Scholastic W.O.R.D. In this post, Dr. Hiebert discusses why and how young children greatly benefit from developing vocabulary and background knowledge to strengthen reading skills.

Young children are bursting with curiosity about the world around them. A flock of birds flying overhead, the sound of a train, the taste of a kiwi—almost anything can ignite young children’s curiosity. Through answers to their questions and experiences, young children amass a treasure trove of knowledge.

Schools are where this treasure trove is nurtured and extended. Books are central to this process, since books are where humans have stored their knowledge over the ages. Books provide access to places, people, and objects that can be far from children’s experiences. Many of these worlds can be visited as children listen to adults read books aloud to them. Reading on one’s own, however, is essential for full participation in the careers and communities of the 21st century.

A meme that frequently surfaces in conversations about reading instruction is, “First, you learn to read / then you read to learn.” While catchy, this conveys an inaccurate view of the relationship between reading and learning. When reading acquisition is viewed as a preliminary stage to learning with texts, books can be nonsensical—books where gnats sit in vats and yaks eat yams. Children may be able to make the sounds associated with the words yaks, yams, gnats, and vats but, without knowing what they are, they cannot be said to recognize words. Word recognition means that a reader knows what a word means.

For word recognition to develop, young readers need texts where the majority of the words are in their oral language. Young children may not know about yaks and yams but they know about many things that a skillful author can craft into compelling stories and informational texts. For example, books can be about pets such as cats and trips in buses and jets. Such texts support word recognition development, while, at the same time, supporting knowledge extension. Knowledge extension means that books include ideas about the topic that may be new to young children. For example, young children may know about cats but not about the typical relationship between cats and dogs. Even a simple book such as I See a Cat by Paul Meisel can convey to young children the manner in which dogs love chasing cats.  

The earlier observations about nonsensical texts of the yak-yam variety should not be interpreted to be a blanket statement against inventive and fanciful books, such as the Pete the Cat series. Words in books such as these can enrich students’ vocabularies with new labels for characters’ emotions, such as frustrated and grumpy in Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly Dean, or motions such as strumming, spinning, and revving in Pete the Cat’s Groovy Imagination by James Dean. Unlike gnats in vats and yaks with yams, these words occur in a context of ideas that is familiar to children’s experiences.

Visual records of the words that children are learning and follow-up discussions of these words can also support children’s word recognition and knowledge building. Charts can include words that share target letter-sound patterns that children are learning (e.g., fat, mat, sat, rat, that in connection with cat), topically related knowledge (parts of cats: whiskers, paws, claws), and words that describe how cats (and people) can seem (e.g., frustrated, grumpy). While young children are learning to read, they are learning about the world around them. Just as learning to recognize words is foundational, acquiring background knowledge through texts is fundamental to proficient reading.

Every child is at a different point in their reading journey and how explicit literacy instruction is essential to becoming a skillful reader. Scholastic provides a variety of instructional solutions based on the science of reading to help give students the support they need to flourish as lifelong readers and writers. Visit to learn more.