An Evidence-Based Hallmark of Bridges to Readiness
A student's ability to meet benchmarks on college entrance exams for reading is often a matter of background knowledge.
The importance of background knowledge clicked early on for us when we started tutoring. We were in a tutoring session with a student debriefing a text we just read: Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s address to the 1869 Woman Suffrage Convention. The student had just gotten 100% on the passage's questions and was able to clearly articulate Stanton's central idea: that “the male element” has led to civil, religious, and social disorganization, a fundamental assumption underlying Stanton's argument for women’s enfranchisement.
So we asked the student: what drove your success on that passage?
"The passage made more sense to me because I had background knowledge on the subject. I read about the woman's suffrage movement in my AP US History class," the student said. "I struggle with the passages about other topics, like neuroscience, because I've never read about that in school."
A typical college entrance exam test prep curriculum involves cycling through practice tests involving different genres and knowledge demands:
This leaves limited opportunities for students to build knowledge in a coherent way. We started thinking differently about our curriculum and what our students needed. We started to arrange our sessions like this:
Each Bridges to Readiness tutoring lesson takes students through similar types of texts, representing similar genres and knowledge demands. Through one-on-one instruction, students develop their abilities to read, interpret, and critically analyze various kinds of complex texts, and, in the process, learn appropriate academic practices, vocabulary, and background knowledge.
We have identified topics and knowledge demands that frequently appear on college entrance exams.
At Bridges to Readiness, we align our tutoring approach to the research behind building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. This serves to build schema to support comprehension when confronted with complex college & career-level texts. Here are the topics we organize around:
American History: Slavery to Civil Rights
“Our daughter needs support with reading because she doesn't read much outside of what she reads in school, and we've learned that her school doesn't provide her with the level of texts she sees on the ACT and SAT"
-Bridges to Readiness Parent
The Importance of Background Knowledge
Bridges to Readiness families and students are the first to tell us that many times, when a student needs support in the reading section of college entrance exams, they say they need help with the knowledge demands of the texts.
Our qualitative data is supported by research in the science of reading and cognitive science that demonstrates that students need background knowledge in order to become effective readers. Daniel Willingham (2006) explains that “the ability to read a text and make sense of it is highly correlated with background knowledge (Kosmoski, Gay, and Vockell, 1990). If you know more, you're a better reader."
However, instead of prioritizing learning the content of what they are reading, many test prep providers and tutoring programs try to isolate skills that are divorced from the meaning of the text (e.g., "process of elimination") and organize their curriculum around test-taking tricks rather than helping students make meaning of topically-connected texts. This lack of a coherent content-rich curriculum has resulted in a “knowledge gap” wherein students who have access to the most academic knowledge and vocabulary perform better on standardized tests.
Background knowledge gives readers the vocabulary and context needed to make inferences. It is an access point into the passage that allows a reader to “chunk” recognizable information in order to free up space in the brain to attend to other aspects of the text, such as the key ideas and structure. In addition, it allows the reader to remember new information better, as it can connect to familiar information that is already stored in an existing network (Willingham, 2006).
Recht and Leslie's baseball study (1988) is a critical example of how this plays out for students. In the study, a group of middle school students composed of good and struggling readers as well as those with and without knowledge of baseball were given a text describing half of an inning of a baseball game. After reading portions of the text, researchers assessed comprehension by asking students to use a replica of a baseball field to reenact what they had read. The researchers found that students who had background knowledge of baseball outperformed those who did not, regardless of whether or not they were strong readers.
“I always had an issue with timing in reading the passage. Before the sessions, I thought I needed to learn quick tips and tricks for my timing issue. But now I realize that it’s not about tips and tricks but about better understanding the text. And when I do that, not only does my timing get better but so does my accuracy.”
-Bridges to Readiness Student
Our Lesson Framework
Our lesson framework organizes texts around these topics using practice tests in addition to authentic supplemental texts to scaffold knowledge and vocabulary building that will serve as a foundation for students as they approach the texts on their assessments. This will increase student confidence in their ability to make meaning in the text while helping them make inferences, “chunk” familiar information to free up room for new connections, and assist in helping them remember what they read the first time they approach the passage.
In addition to building knowledge, our framework also prepares students to be able to answer the types of questions asked on college readiness exams, not by using strategies or gimmicks, but by unlocking meaning from complex text using college- and career-readiness standards as a foundation. In short, we teach students to let their comprehension of the text guide their answer choices, rather than allowing the answer choices to drive comprehension.
1: Attend to key understandings in the text by identifying the big ideas and key evidence.
2: Synthesize evidence to identify central ideas and purpose.
3: Use the structure of the text to decipher what matters most. Within each subject domain, readers will find similarities in the structure of the texts.
At Bridges to Readiness, we believe that a knowledge-rich tutoring curriculum accelerates all students’ learning and advances educational equity for students from historically marginalized backgrounds.
Our Text Playbooks
For every topic, we've assembled what we call "text playbooks" that outline the central idea of the text, how the author supports the idea, and how the passage is structured. We've also thought critically about what the knowledge story is behind each text.
For each text, we've unpacked specific details the author uses to establish a central idea. Each lesson pushes students to write about what they're reading as a way to help them make meaning of a complex text and continue to build knowledge.
Within each subject domain, readers will find similarities in the structure of the texts. Our approach exposes students to a large volume of complex texts, allowing them to get comfortable with common structural elements and patterns. Students can use their understanding of the text structure in order to identify how the author communicates ideas to the reader.
By preparing students for the demands of accessing complex text through building knowledge and close reading, students will feel confident when they sit for college entrance exams.
Through our lessons at Bridges to Readiness, students build knowledge and vocabulary through our playbooks and use strategies grounded in the college- and career-readiness standards to guide comprehension on the test, they will be successful in analyzing any text regardless of topic.
We also implement practice outside of sessions that allows us to track data across time and continue to target particular text genres or areas of difficulty in reading complex texts. We know our students have big dreams, and their college entrance exam scores can begin to unlock the futures they desire for themselves. As their scores rise, students gain access to scholarships and programs that they may have not had access to previously. They become less likely to need remedial coursework, which increases the likelihood of persisting to obtain a postsecondary degree. Our approach emphasizes core knowledge and skills that equip students not just for the test, but to realize their dreams in college and their career.