This post is published with permission from Amplify, the Core Knowledge Foundation’s publishing partner for the Core Knowledge Language Arts® program. This post, subtitled “How two Wisconsin researchers discovered that the comprehension gap is a knowledge gap,” examines an experiment that yielded interesting, and perhaps unexpected, results.

In Norway, Wisconsin, as in much of the state, cold winters are a way of life. People allow extra time to bundle up and then waddle through town like Michelin men edged with fur. For the few months that grass is visible, it is tightly shorn. Lake Michigan, 20 miles to the east, makes the climate a little milder, so that the first freeze comes with the end of the baseball season, and the last freeze with the start of the next. Houses appear recently painted, and the low-slung school buildings sprawl as if the architect was unsure how to fill such a generous plot of land.

In one of those buildings in 1987, two young researchers from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, ran an experiment elegant in its simplicity but profound in its implications. They took over an empty classroom and created an 18 by 20-inch replica of a baseball field furnished with four-inch wooden figures. Over several days, they invited 64 students to enter the room one by one. Leslie silently handed each student the same story narrating half an inning of a made-up baseball game. They were asked to read the story and use the model to reenact the action. The passage began in the middle of the action:

Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.

All day long, Recht, dark-haired and ruddy, took copious notes, while Leslie, fair with eyes that expect you to try your best, ran through the task with a student. One 12 year old after another studied the passage and acted out the play:

The ball is returned to Claresen. He gets the sign and winds up, and throws a slider that Whitcomb hits between Manfred and Roberts for a hit.

Each student read carefully, laboring over every line, straining to capture each detail of the action.

Dulaney comes in and picks up the ball. Johnson has scored, and Churniak is heading for third. Here comes the throw and Churniak is out. Churniak argues but to no avail.

Every day, four-inch figures were pushed and pulled across the field, each motion representing the turning of the wheels in students’ brains as they worked through the play. Eventually, Recht gave each student a quiz designed to assess his or her baseball knowledge, while Leslie reset the pieces and ushered in the next kid.

It took two full weeks to work through the 64 students and another month to compile their scores and analyze the results before they were able to pinpoint who did best at correctly reconstructing the story. Was it:

  • Strong readers;
  • Kids with good knowledge of baseball;
  • It made no difference?

Pause for a moment to make your prediction before reading further.

To their surprise, Recht and Leslie found that reading ability had little impact on how well kids understood the story. But knowledge of baseball did. In fact, those who were weaker readers did as well as strong readers if they had knowledge of baseball.

“Prior knowledge creates a scaffolding for information,” explains Recht. “For poor readers, the scaffolding allows them to compensate for their generally inefficient recognition of important ideas.”* If those same kids were taking a state test, the SAT or any other standard test of comprehension, and the passage just happened to be about baseball, they would outperform everyone else. But if they encountered a passage on a topic they knew little about, they would fare much worse.

High-stakes tests don’t contain passages on baseball precisely because that would be unfair to kids who don’t follow the sport. But they do contain passages on the founding documents of the United States, animal ecology, and space exploration. (In [another article in this issue](/blog/article/the-10-knowledge-domains-that-will-give-your-students-an-advantage-on-parcc), we present analysis of over 100 PARCC and SBAC passages, showing the prior knowledge that would give students an advantage.) Beyond test taking, others have identified the prior knowledge necessary to succeed in college and life. Beyond school, writers of newspaper articles, magazine pieces and books all make assumptions about basic knowledge shared by readers.

What Recht and Leslie showed was that knowledge counts much more than we think in understanding text. They point out that an emphasis on teaching reading strategies—such as finding the main idea and summarization—has become very prevalent in US classrooms based on evidence that they help weak readers. But practicing these strategies over and over has diminishing returns—and comes at the cost of a crucial missed opportunity; building knowledge is at least as important.

It is hard to find the “main idea” of a piece of writing if you aren’t really understanding any of the ideas. Is a kangaroo rat large like a kangaroo or small like a rat? How does a rainforest feel when you are wearing a wool uniform like the English schoolboys did in Lord of the Flies? Prior knowledge can transform a poor reader into a capable one and a poor writer into a fascinating one.


*Recht and Leslie published their research in Recht, D.R. and Leslie, L., 1988. Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(1), p.16.

16 comments on “The Baseball Experiment”

  1. 1
    Mary Hanks on December 3, 2017

    This is so true. I taught World History in an inner city school in Houston. When reading about Sumer the students did not know what irrigation meant. When studying the Reformation students asked what the reference to Rome meant.

  2. 2
    RANDY CONTINENZA on December 4, 2017


    I am having trouble locating the blog article cited above regarding the 10 knowledge domains. Can you send me a link to that blog?

    1. 3
      Jamie Talbot on December 4, 2017

      Thank you for letting us know about the link—here is the full URL to that Amplify blog post:

      Jamie Talbot
      School Support & Curriculum Specialist
      Core Knowledge Foundation

  3. 4
    Clarissa Burns on January 20, 2018

    As a science teacher I have found this to be very important. I always do some sort of pre-reading strategy about the content before beginning the reading. I have also noticed differences in engagement of a reading based on understanding. Just the other day we were reading about solar energy and the history of gasoline production. Part of the reading contained a segment on Rockefeller and Ford and their work together to increase sales by using gasoline engines. Being from Michigan, Ford is a big name and a huge part of our state history. When we read the paragraph student’s didn’t make the connection to Ford motors and Henry Ford and overall seemed disinterested. However once I helped them make that connection it was like the class lit up with discussion. Reading is much more interesting and engaging when students can make real life connections.

  4. 5
    Monique Owens on March 21, 2018

    The baseball experiment conducted was very insightful into the importance of background knowledge being a catalyst for reading comprehension. I teach English Language Learners and background knowledge is crucial to not only comprehension but learning a second language as well. This week I conducted a read aloud with my 5th-grade students by reading a picture book to immerse students into the introduction of what was included in memoirs to begin a new writing process. The author of this book was remembering his summers spent at his grandparents’ house on a farm. I periodically stopped to have students discuss what they learned from the reading during a turn and talk. The author mentioned that he went to the stable to pet Sally and Helen often but had to be careful because they would bite people sometimes. My question for the turn and talk was what type of animal was in the stable and why would they bite people? Well, as I walked around the room to listen to conversations, students were telling each other that the animals were dogs, rabbits, and pigs. I then realized that many of them had no idea what a stable was and its purpose on a farm. After I explained stable uses, the conversations immediately turned to horses. The discussion became meaningful when some of the students shared their personal experiences with horses on their family farms in other countries. The word stable was a stumbling block to comprehension until sufficient knowledge was gained to access the material being read. Lent (n.d.) states that picture books have more rare words than television or conversations by college graduates and they are great sources to build background knowledge because of the single concept focus. I believe that what students already know and experiences they bring to school unlocks the meaning of simple and complicated texts that help students learn new information and make connections to each other and the world.


    Lent, R.C. (n.d.). Background knowledge: The glue that makes learning stick. Retrieved from[email protected]

  5. 6
    Amy Kohl on March 23, 2018

    I believe that Recht and Leslie represent teacher leaders. They identified an issue and created a study to gain a better understanding of the problem. Through their work, they made a discovery that can positively impact the way we teach our students reading comprehension skills. This simple, yet profound experiment sheds light on a major concept in education: the importance of prior knowledge. As an English teacher, I have seen first hand the significant impact that prior knowledge has on student achievement. Let’s compare this idea to elements of a story. If an author does not provide enough detailed background information in the story, the reader will have a hard time understanding what is going on throughout the novel. This background information is prior knowledge.

    After reading through the details of this baseball experiment, I was not surprised with the results. Knowledge is a key factor in understanding text. Though students need to learn basic skills, it is important to recognize that teachers must also allow time to help students build their knowledge. It takes both knowledge and academic ability to succeed in the classroom.

  6. 7
    A>Nichols on May 1, 2020

    It’s hard to think that prior knowledge is holding kids back from being stronger readers. Unfortunately, I work with low-income families that don’t have a lot of experience or background knowledge on some of the reading subjects we teach. It is important to know that a lot of that knowledge is built FROM reading and that many kids have to learn about that experience from a text and are not allotted that opportunity or experience in real life. While we can work to give them those experiences, it can often be a hard gap to fill, especially when you have a full class of 26–30 students.

  7. 8
    Why FIT Academy is moving to the Core Knowledge curriculum - FIT Academy on July 8, 2020

    […] The baseball experiment – A case for prior knowledge. Read article here […]

  8. 9
    Linda on July 12, 2020

    I agree that there is a knowledge gap. I’m looking forward to learning more about Core Knowledge and how they decided what knowledge students needed in order to be successful.

  9. 10
    Palmira Reyes on August 3, 2020

    I work in a Title 1 school where 100% of the students are on free lunch. The majority of my students are second language learners and I see the great impact that both language and lack of prior knowledge and experiences have on their learning. I am looking forward to exploring Core Knowledge and using it to help my students bridge that gap between them and their more affluent and English Speaking peers so that they too can have higher education opportunities open to them.

  10. 11
    Is it Time to Drop ‘Finding the Main Idea’ and Teach Reading in a New Way? – Literacy on August 5, 2020

    […] The landmark baseball study from Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, for example, found that struggling readers who knew a lot about baseball did better on a reading comprehension test about it than strong readers who knew nothing about the sport. And in another study, high schoolers who met a basic knowledge threshold on a dense topic like ecosystems had much stronger performance on a reading test about ecosystems than those who didn’t. For low-income students and students of color, these disparities were particularly pronounced. […]

  11. 12
    Reading knowledge — Joanne Jacobs on August 6, 2020

    […] The landmark baseball study from Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, for example, found that struggling readers who knew a lot about baseball did better on a reading comprehension test about it than strong readers who knew nothing about the sport. […]

  12. 13
    Madhu Bhargava on August 26, 2020

    The baseball study has answered many questions and I think more exploration should take place. It’s very interesting to see that such a vital point was missed out. I get a better reading response using than, the study explains the why of this. Very helpful!

  13. 14
    Kendra Kelley on September 23, 2020

    I agree totally with this article. Prior knowledge makes all the difference in the world. If you have no clue about the article or text you’re reading all the strategies in the world will not help you understand what you just read.

  14. 15
    Reading Comprehension Is Not A "Skill." - ECNT on December 3, 2020

    […] a little (and sometimes a lot) about the topic you’re reading about. This insight has been validated time and again by cognitive science. Ostensibly “weak” readers appear quite strong when reading about familiar […]

  15. 16
    Taking a Day (or More) to Build Background Knowledge - Naomi O'Brien - Read Like a Rockstar on October 12, 2021

    […] is study conducted by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie illustrates the power of background knowledge so well. […]

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