Our blog post title above is in quotation marks because it is quoted from an article hot off the online press. Here are three quotations from that article:

  • To help students master nonfiction reading, we must design instruction that builds their background knowledge.
  • Prior knowledge affects comprehension—in many cases, far more than generic “reading skills” do.
  • The ability to build knowledge by reading and to learn from texts is a crucial driver of student success. … It is crucial to equity because many students’ lack of background knowledge causes them to fall further and further behind.

The source? “How Knowledge Powers Reading,” in the February 2017 issue of Educational Leadership, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). The author? Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, the book about effective teaching that has grown into a professional development movement.

If you’re familiar with Core Knowledge, then Lemov’s statements will strike you as eminently sound. Indeed, Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has been making the case for the importance of prior knowledge and the need for knowledge-based reading instruction since the publication of Cultural Literacy in 1987.

Lemov’s ASCD article offers guidance to teachers asked to incorporate more nonfiction in their reading instruction. He notes that “many language arts teachers approach nonfiction structurally. They perceive it as a genre and strive to help their students develop an overarching structural knowledge of that genre. They reason that, if students understand how information is presented, they will understand what they read.”

Lemov clearly explains that “how information is presented” is less important than what students know, since the text assumes (as all texts do) prior background knowledge. Lemov goes on to offer practical suggestions for “ways to weave prior knowledge into our students’ reading of nonfiction throughout the process of engaging them with texts.” (For more teaching strategies, see Lemov’s 2016 book from which his ASCD article is derived, Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction.)

One suggestion: “Ask knowledge-based questions.” Lemov is aware that many teachers have been “trained to think of such questions as second-rate or ‘not our job’”—after all, they’re at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy, mere facts as opposed to the higher-order skills of making inferences or interpreting motivations, right? Not quite, says Lemov. Through thoughtful examples, he shows how well-crafted “fact-based questions are actually surprisingly rigorous.”

Moreover, says Lemov, “if we don’t ask any such questions, we may be tacitly socializing students to believe that facts are irrelevant. By asking some fact-based questions, we can chip away at the knowledge deficit and teach our students how to unlock knowledge from what they read.”

Demonstrating by example that facts are relevant. Chipping away at the knowledge deficit. Filling in gaps in prior knowledge. These, we agree, are truly ways to teach like a champion.

24 comments on ““Why Knowledge Counts More Than Skill””

  1. 1
    Will Fitzhugh on February 1, 2017

    Finland is dropping all separate academic subjects, so History is going bye-bye there, while it is only dying as it tried to morph into civics here.

    1. 2
      Jeanna Grabuskie on April 28, 2017

      They are integrating all subjects into lessons. So if you are learning about an industry, you would learn the history, economics, etc. We do a lot of that in homeschool when we use Unit Studies. I completed one on Chocolate. We covered multi-cultural significance, geography, plant biology, the growth of industry, market study, manufacturing and such.

  2. 3
    patrick gustafson on March 20, 2017

    I would like to comment on the first premise raised in this blog. “To help students master nonfiction reading, we must design instruction that builds their background knowledge.” This is essential work as we seek to make meaningful changes in how we incorporate more nonfiction reading in all areas of the curriculum.

    E. D. Hirsch’s work, Cultural Literacy, has been around for thirty years. In that time, what progress has been made? Are we effectively using nonfiction text better today than a generation ago? What can we specifically point to that measures the impact of Cultural Literacy on education in America? I would be fascinated to learn more about this.

    Lemov states, “Many language arts teachers approach nonfiction structurally. They reason that, if students understand how information is presented, they will understand what they read.” This is a powerful statement. It is my opinion that we also need to allow for more student choice when selecting what nonfiction text to include in all areas of the curriculum.

    Lemov also states that “how information is presented is less important than what students know, since the text assumes prior background knowledge.” This is a key point often overlooked when teachers develop lesson plans.

    Finally, Lemov points out that there is a real need for “asking knowledge-based questions.” I would take this a step further and offer that teachers need professional development for how to ask knowledge-based questions. It is easy to say, but that does not necessarily translate into the classroom.

    1. 4
      Glenise Lyles on March 26, 2017

      I also strongly agree that professional development is the key to asking thought provoking questions that will allow learners to recall their prior knowledge in pursuit of new knowledge. Asking the right questions and incorporating meaningful activities provide the pathway for learners to process information and come to a new understanding. Bloom’s taxonomy was presented in the original post, and knowing and understanding the levels of thought and knowledge building at each level and how to incorporate the right questions purposely during instruction will take learners from assessing prior knowledge to the construction and analysis of new knowledge. For this reason, Bloom’s taxonomy is a great topic for professional development.

  3. 5
    Samantha Mumford on March 20, 2017

    You bring up a lot of excellent points, some that I have not thought about much before. If a student is a struggling reader, and they are being required to read a passage they have no background knowledge about, how are they expected to understand what they read and improve their reading skills. And taking it one step further, how are they supposed to answer questions about what they read? For example, if a student has never seen the ocean before and they read a passage about someone being lost at sea, are they fully going to be able to grasp the intensity of that situation or understand the meaning if they don’t know some of the vocabulary associated with oceans.

    Does anyone have any suggestions for teachers to work on this problem within a lesson? It is close to impossible to ensure that every new book or reading passage will contain a familiar subject for all students. Students do need to learn to read something that they don’t have background knowledge of and draw conclusions from it regardless. Real-life situations call for that ability frequently. Being able to quickly analyze a situation and respond appropriately is an important skill to have. But for those struggling readers, how do you plan lessons to teach for reading comprehension, not just reading the words? In an article by Mood, Wold, and Francom (2017) called Enhancing Reading Comprehension with student-centered iPad Applications, numerous iPad apps are discussed to help with reading comprehension are listed and the benefits of each. With so many schools using more and more technology, is this a smart way to go to help students read for comprehension?

    In my band classes, the students are learning to read music for the first time, which feels like learning a new language. When we are learning new skills, I often time work to draw in analogies to things they see in their day to day lives. For example, if the beginning of the note sounds airy, fluffy, or unsupported, I tell them to throw their air like a dart. If the dart is thrown with very little force, it will not make it to the dart board, but fall to the floor. Giving the students a visual for the sound always helps produce better results. When reading a new book or excerpt in any other class, I would imagine that visual imagery would work the same way to help with reading comprehension.


    Moon, A., Wold, C., & Francom, G. g. (2017). Enhancing Reading Comprehension with Student-Centered iPad Applications. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning, 61(2), 187-194. doi:10.1007/s11528-016-0153-1

    1. 6
      Megan Valentine on March 22, 2017

      I agree with you completely that it is really hard for a student to fully grasp a concept or a situation if they are lacking prior knowledge and/or experiences with the topic at hand. Because we cannot be certain that every text a student reads will contain some piece of familiar subject matter, I think it is important to include before reading strategies to prepare students for the text. Students can journal about a topic and then share, they can fill in KWL charts, or the teacher can lead a discussion about the topic. Pictures, videos, and graphics are also a great way to start pulling from that prior knowledge. You gave the example of the ocean, and if a student doesn’t know what that word means, then they will have a really hard time grasping the concept of lost at sea. Maybe for some students they actually do know what an ocean is, but they didn’t have the right word associated with it. This is where using some kind of visual representation can really help your struggling learners. I also think it is important for students to learn skills that help them puzzle through a text with no prior background knowledge. In the real world, outside of the classroom, students are not always going to get the prereading strategies or visuals to help them better understand something they read. Teaching how to use context clues to figure out the meaning of words or ideas they don’t know is a skill they should know how to use. Additionally, students should know how to use the resources available to them – mainly the internet – to enhance their reading experience. I am all about Google, and I tell that to my students all the time – if you are reading something and you just don’t get it, go onto Google! Use those resources to help you figure things out. I think it is imperative that we prepare our students for the classroom, but also for the real world. They need to know how to problem solve outside of the classroom setting.

      PS – I think your sound/picture association is awesome! Keep it up!! 🙂

    2. 7
      Samantha Mumford on March 22, 2017

      Hey Megan-
      Lots of great ideas. Our brains seem to think in visuals, so I think including visual representation for new concepts whenever possible can be helpful. So your Google tactic is helpful for that. Do your students have access to devices during the school day? Our students have very limited access, so it makes it tough. I do a lot of hooking my phone up to the smart board to display things. I wish my students had iPads, it would open up a lot of learning opportunities and save money on resources in the long run.

    3. 8
      Ellen Kita on March 27, 2017

      It seems you’ve gotten a lot of great suggestions for making connections to students’ prior knowledge before reading. Last year, I took my class on a field trip every single month. Field trips are a fun, engaging, interesting way to add to children’s schemas. As a result of these trips, my students had a lot more information, knowledge, and experience to “pull from” to make connections while reading.

  4. 9
    Ellen Kita on March 22, 2017

    I certainly agree that having some background knowledge about a topic before reading about it, especially in the case of non-fiction, is highly beneficial. However, I also think it is important not to constantly try to “activate student’s background knowledge” every single time they read. If we are preparing them for real-life, we need to provide them with some opportunities to read about topics in which they know very little, or possibly even nothing. As an adult, I read a great deal material about topics that are new to me. I have to be able to navigate that new information – create connections, make associations, etc. on my own while I am reading. Material that students can make strong connections to are incredibly valuable when they are learning to read. This allows the reader to focus on skills and strategies to hep them decode, comprehend, and improve fluency. Texts with brand new information can be very valuable when students are reading to learn. Some “structured frustration” can be a good thing. I would also worry that a focus on background knowledge would turn learners off to reading to learner new information, possibly thinking that if it is not connected to them, it is not relevant, important, or interesting, A balance, albeit heavy on the prior knowledge side, would be ideal.

    1. 10
      karie cooper on March 24, 2017

      I like your perspective on “structured frustration”. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. My students lack experience, so I am constantly trying to connect. Discussions around loss of understanding might be a beneficial tactic to helping kids think deeper rather than feeding them information.

  5. 11
    Glenise Lyles on March 22, 2017

    I know how important it is to include before reading strategies to prepare students for learning information from a book. Our young students do not formally read, but they picture read as well as read from memorization, such as a narrative story or informational book that we read and reread for enjoying the book as well as model reading strategies and developing awareness of concepts of print. Nursery rhyme books and books with repetitive text are also great for teaching reading. Students cannot picture read if they have no prior knowledge of the pictures presented in the book.
    With informational books as compared to text books for upper grades, I incorporate many pre-reading strategies to develop students’ prior knowledge of the topic so that they can make real-life connections to the topic and establish a basis for learning and building knowledge. I use KWL charts and lead discussions about a topic. I also use picture cards, real objects, and videos and pictures from Google and You Tube on the Smart Board to start activating students’ prior knowledge. Activating prior knowledge is so crucial to building knowledge. Students must have a bridge to connect what they know to what they need to know. We are learning about seasons this week. From their perspective, they cannot learn about the seasons if they do not know what a season is.
    Also, it is very difficult to build alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness using picture cards or real items if the child does not know what the picture or object is. For example, when building knowledge of letter Bb and the /b/ sound, one student had the picture of the butterfly. The student did not have a response during the activity because he did not know that the picture was a butterfly. When given another picture card the child had prior knowledge of, he could successfully demonstrate and build knowledge in the activity. The student needed knowledge to build the skill.

  6. 12
    Karie Cooper on March 22, 2017

    “Demonstrating by example that facts are relevant. Chipping away at the knowledge deficit. Filling in gaps in prior knowledge. These, we agree, are truly ways to teach like a champion.” How do we decrease the knowledge gap? Everyone engaged in hands-on experiences in every aspect of learning every day. Acting, modeling, creating, building, experimenting, testing, researching, developing for every aspect of our curriculum. This is how we create knowledge rather than just feed information. This, side-by-side with the internet with visual and auditory information at hand for students to draw upon and connect with. Linking all text with experimentation or visual and auditory input will create background knowledge for future academic attachment. Simply reading, without connections or experiences, is not reading. It is simply reciting words. Unless there is brain growth, knowledge is not being created. Thank you for your insightful blog!

  7. 13
    Tina Bear on March 23, 2017

    I agree with that the way to decrease the knowledge gap is to include lots of hands-on activities for the students to do. We know that most people learn more when they actually do something. This article brought to my mind a quote from Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember , Involve me and I learn.” This as true today as it was when Benjamin Franklin said it. I realize the importance of prior knowledge to a students learning, but we cannot only rely on that. We have to help build that knowledge so that the student’s prior knowledge will be able to be built upon and I truly believe to do that the items listed in the post above are very important. Modeling, creating,building and experimenting are how students will learn.

    1. 14
      karie cooper on March 25, 2017

      Dr. Patricia Wolfe (Laureate, 2009) explains the importance of your thoughts regarding creating connections for children when they are not there. She asserts that the more modalities teachers use to engage children in learning, the more avenues children have to access the information for future use. If we only teach verbally, students can only access verbally. However, if teachers have students creatively interact with information, it enters the frontal lobe and occipital lobes as well as the temporal lobes, creating more synapse connections. This neuroscience understanding has vast implications in the classroom. Awareness of synapse connections and how to grow them is extremely exciting and optimistic for me as a teacher!


      Laureate Education (Producer). (2009). Understanding the brain [Video file}. Baltimore, MD: Author.

  8. 15
    Leia Williams on March 24, 2017

    The idea of utilizing “knowledge based questions” and encouraging students to take notice of facts while reading informational texts is important. When conducting a literacy lesson on an information text, I have found it to be essential to tap into students’ schema on the topic. When I find that students have a lack of knowledge on a particular topic, simply showing a short video or an image seems to help them process the information more. Students are then able to read and discuss the information on a deeper level. This past year, my school have urged teachers to engage students in what is called Close Reading. This style or teaching and reading urges students to closely analyze all aspects of a text, including main ideas, structure, author’s view, utilizing context clues, questioning, etc. to further grasp the concept. I must say students’ reading comprehension has improved over the course of this year because students are thinking deeper about the texts they are reading and paying close attention to the details and facts in the texts.

  9. 16
    Jeanna Grabuskie on April 28, 2017

    I am just a simple home educator but I feel that this article is right on in expressing what is wrong with our children’s reading comprehension. I own several anthologies (twaddle) and have left them to pursue more meaningful novels tied to history or science lessons. The goal to use one subject while building knowledge for the other. I also have tried to use the supposed KWL charts as a student and home educator, most the time I sat there trying not to look dumb, as a home educator I find myself directing what to do. I have found with my students that a picture/powerpoint of main ideas or things they may experience in the text is very powerful and meaningful. My personal time is valuable, busy work is [not helpful] for both homeschool and public school. I see the boys paying attention and when they read quite often they will call out that they got to the part I prescreened for them. One example of the importance of building knowledge being one of the single most important tasks is in the case of my 20-year-old son. When he was in 4th grade he was tasked with reading Bud, Not Buddy. The teacher called me and told me he was not doing his reading and falling behind on his novel study. As a concerned parent, I grounded him and made him read to me out loud. I found out he was reading, however, he could not understand the text because he knew nothing of the era or the cultural norms that are depicted in this book. He was frustrated and felt stupid. We went to the library, I gave him a quick primer on the era. We read the book over the weekend. On Monday, the teacher got a piece of my mind because many of his fellow students had the same problem. Lack of student preparation caused by poor teaching.

  10. 17
    George Leiva on May 29, 2017

    Prior knowledge is one of the key factors for a successful learning environment. I firmly agree with this article as knowledge is more important than skills. Throughout my teaching career, It has been my professional experience as a teacher to use student’s prior knowledge as a tool for student engagement and involvement in the classroom. Prior knowledge provides a significant advantage when it comes to comprehension any subject. Prior knowledge opens the door for new insights to be above. Teachers should be able to use this tool to gain insight on what students know. It is crucial teachers acquire and assess pupils knowledge Furthermore, prior knowledge on a certain topic in class is one of the greatest factors
    that influence what students will and will not learn on the subject (Alvermann, Phelps, & Gillis, 169).

    Alvermann, Donna E., Phelps, Stephen F., & Gillis, Victoria Ridgeway. (2010). Content Area Reading and Literacy: Succeeding in Today’s Diverse Classrooms (6 th ed.). New York: Pearson Education Inc.

  11. 18
    Denneisha Griffin-Pinnock on July 20, 2017

    We need to look at the reality that as educators too many time we teach “in a vacuum” almost separating content from the students’ experiential background and then we wonder why the students are not able to relate. For many of us we cannot relate to something unless we have experienced it. As a Literacy Specialist, my approach has always been conducting assessments, gaining some formal and informal information about the students’ background and then carefully integrating aspects of this into lesson instruction (text selection, language, research, questioning etc.). It is also important that we gradually build on the students’ prior experience, text that are way out of their experience introduced too early may cause them to loose interest in reading. The reality is we need for students to be fully engaged in the learning process and if they are then they will be better able to distinguish fact versus opinion, respond to questions at the various levels and be able to “unlock the knowledge” no matter what it is they read.

  12. 19
    Mbbs in Philippines on August 23, 2017

    Knowledge is the most important, key factor for a bright future. Knowledge counts more than skills because if people have knowledge then they will never lose hope in any condition. But both are important positions for a successful future. “Knowledge is obtained through education, and skills can develop with practice”. So, keep reading and get knowledge from everywhere.

  13. 20
    Noelle on September 20, 2017

    I teach in a predominately low-income neighborhood. Their exposure to different experiences also hinders them from accessing non-fiction/expository text. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are given the prior knowledge neccessary for them to access material just like that of their well-traveled counterparts. If we don’t, they will not be engaged enough in the material to fully learn what is required to be taught. For example, last year our Englishs department decided to read “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry. It is about a little girl during the Holocaust. This was a fiction story but we understood as a grade level they needed to be exposed to in order to even understand the story. We gave a history lesson about the Holocaust from beginning to end. It was so much more beneficial for them and they made some real life connections to our political climate today…I’ll leave that for another post.

  14. 21
    Jane Hasik on November 19, 2017

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post. I teach English as a Foreign Language and we try to reference facts or content learning as much as we can to layer and give context to language. Without the facts and the content learned in other classes, this would be difficult. Conversely, we have found that when we venture into content areas they haven’t covered yet in their Czech curriculum, the curiosity and discovery in that content area AND in their second language results in deeper learning. Language learning as the fact itself falls flat and needs the other layers.

    I agree with your comment about Blooms’ Taxonomy. The facts lie at the bottom, but are necessary.

  15. 22
    Rebecca91 on November 14, 2018

    I agree with a lot of the points made in the article. I teach in a school with a high number of immigrants and ESOL students, so understanding their background knowledge on a topic and activating prior knowledge on a subject is key to help them grasp the content. Our students come to us with a wide variety of experiences and it is important that we teach in a way that allows all students to build understanding. We cannot expect a student to analyze a text they have no understanding of due to a lack of background knowledge on the topic. We must build understanding before we expect them to delve deeper, but that doesn’t mean understanding facts is less challenging.

  16. 23
    Shan on November 18, 2020

    I agree that background knowledge and fact based questions are important for student understanding. If students do not understand what a text is about or what it might be relating to, then how can they answer high level DOK questions? There is a balance between the different question types that should be given to students. There are also many ways to build background knowledge. Pictures, videos, and relating content to the personal lives of the students are all possible ways to help students understand the text they are reading. Even though the skill of reading and dissecting information is important, so is having background information and an understanding of the content.

  17. 24
    Arielle Smith on January 29, 2021

    The are many great points in this piece. Students are able to learn when they have something to connect the content to. If we are asking a student to read a passage that they have no background knowledge on, how can we expect them to understand what it is that they are reading and improve their skills?
    My content area is science. If I have my students work on a system of the body. If they are not familiar with the terms, they will struggle and never grasp the concept of what is being taught. Before giving the students the assignment, I must activate their prior knowledge so that they use that information to be successful. Students are able to retain information when we connect that information to something they know or something they’ve heard of. Those are the students we can reach.
    I guess my question is “how do we develop lessons to target those students that struggle with reading comprehension?” Most school districts included the district I currently work for, have the 1-to-1 initiative. Every child has an electronic device. It is stated that technology is the way to go to provide remedial instruction for those struggling students. I often like to question if those devices are useful when providing remedial instructions?

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