An article today in The New York Times, “A Field Trip to a Strange New Place: Second Grade Visits the Parking Garage,” emphasizes the importance of teaching background knowledge in order to teach reading skills.
Writer Michael Winerip summarizes the challenge:
Experiences that are routine in middle-class homes are not for P.S. 142 children. When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher, asked her students recently how many had never been inside a car, several, including Tyler Rodriguez, raised their hands. “I’ve been inside a bus,” Tyler said. “Does that count?”
When a new shipment of books arrives, Rhonda Levy, the principal, frets. Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge, and cars are not the only gap at P.S. 142. Many of the children have never been to a zoo or to New Jersey. Some think the emergency room of New York Downtown Hospital is the doctor’s office.
Therefore, teacher Dao Krings takes her students on field trips to places considered mundane to most. They build prior knowledge by looking at signs, reading parking meters, and visiting public garages.
After all, it’s much easier to understand a story involving a car ride if you’ve been on a car ride.
At the end of the article, however, Winerip writes that some teachers and principals do not consider the field trips worthwhile, especially because they take a lot of time. I see their point. But the alternative that many schools have adopted — more test prep — doesn’t work to build prior knowledge. Test prep assumes a shared experience.
Field trips may be costly and cumbersome, but they’re a great way to help students connect what they know to what they read.
Another option? Lots of voluntary reading and lots of conversations. If students read voluminously and then share their knowledge with their peers, the whole classroom builds its prior knowledge.