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IES Grant

Title: What Types of Knowledge Matters for What Types of Comprehension? Exploring the Role of Background Knowledge on Students' Ability to Learn from Multiple Texts
Center: NCER Year: 2015
Principal Investigator: O'Reilly, Tenaha Awardee: Educational Testing Service (ETS)
Program: Reading and Writing      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (9/1/2015 8/31/2019) Award Amount: $1,600,000
Goal: Exploration Award Number: R305A150176
Description:

Co-Principal Investigator: John P. Sabatini (Educational Testing Service), Danielle McNamara (Arizona State University)

Purpose: The purpose of this project is to explore the relationship between high school students' background knowledge and their reading comprehension. Research has shown that students with more background knowledge (i.e. the previously-learned knowledge that may help students understand what they read by providing extra information that is not included in text) are better able to comprehend what they read than those students with little background knowledge. While researchers know that background knowledge matters for reading, there are still questions about how much background knowledge is necessary to understand text, and whether general, broad background knowledge is enough or students need more specific, deep content background knowledge. In this project, researchers will use assessment items developed through other IES grants (Assessing Reading for Understanding: A Theory-based, Developmental Approach, Measuring the Development of Vocabulary and Word Learning to Support Content Area Reading and Learning, and Developing Reading Comprehension Assessments Targeting Struggling Readers) in a series of studies with 9th to 12th grade students to examine what types of and how much background knowledge is related to reading comprehension.

Project Activities: Researchers will begin this project by completing work on the assessments of background knowledge and reading comprehension. Then, in a series of four studies, the researchers will work with 9th through 12th grade students to explore: (1) what types of background knowledge (e.g. simple facts or more in-depth understanding of a specific topic) are related to each other; (2) the extent to which different types of background knowledge are associated with reading comprehension; (3) whether there is a level of background knowledge below which students have difficulty understanding what they read; and (4) if students with low or high background knowledge differ in how well they understand text that varies in the explicitness of connections between ideas.

Products: Products include preliminary evidence of associations between background knowledge and reading comprehension. Researchers will also produce peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study will take place in high schools throughout the United States.

Sample: Approximately 7,700 of students in 9th through 12th grade will participate in the various studies.

Intervention: In this exploratory study, the researchers are examining the relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension. Malleable factors include background knowledge breadth and depth, and the findings from the proposed study will provide critical information to develop better assessments of students' background knowledge and reading comprehension.

Research Design and Methods: Researchers will begin this project by completing work on the assessments of background knowledge and reading comprehension. They will select items from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Study Aid and Reading Assistant (SARA), and the global comprehension assessment will use items from the Global, Integrated, Scenario-Based Assessments (GISA) related to: life sciences, history, and non-academic vocabulary breadth and depth; and factual and conceptual knowledge in history and science. In Study 1, approximately 5,000 students in 9th through 12th grade will complete assessments of background knowledge and reading comprehension, and researchers will examine how different types of background knowledge (i.e. basic background knowledge vs. conceptual background knowledge) and different depth of subtopics (i.e. general vs. specific subtopics) relate to each other. Studies 2 and 3 will involve approximately 2,400 students in 9th through 12th grade to examine: the relationship between different types of background knowledge and different types of reading comprehension; and the amount of background knowledge necessary to comprehend text. Specifically, Study 2 will explore whether reading comprehension in history, life science, and non-academic subjects is facilitated by specific or general basic background knowledge (i.e. vocabulary, simple facts), and specific or general conceptual knowledge. Study 3 will examine whether there is a threshold of background knowledge below which students may have difficulty comprehending text. Study 4 will involve 330 students in 9th through 12th grade to explore whether students of differing background knowledge differ in reading comprehension performance when text cohesion is low or high. Students with both low and high background knowledge will be recruited, and then half of each group will be randomly assigned to receive a text manipulated to have either low or high cohesion. All students will receive a reading comprehension outcome measure.

Control Condition: Due to the nature of the research design, there is no control condition.

Key Measures: In this study, the researchers will design or adapt various measures of background knowledge and reading comprehension for this study. Basic background knowledge measures will include depth and breadth vocabulary items and simple factual items. Conceptual background knowledge will use items asking students to differentiate definitions, and released items drawn from released NAEP. The basic comprehension assessment will draw items from the Study Aid and Reading Assistant (SARA) and released NAEP items. The global comprehension assessment will use items from the GISA, and released NAEP items.

Data Analytic Strategy: Study 1 will use classical test theory and item response theory to identify background knowledge items that are problematic. Additionally, researchers will use parallel analysis (an extension of principal components analysis) to examine the dimensionality of the background knowledge assessments. The research team will also use regression analyses to explore the relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension in Study 2. Researchers will use piecemeal and quantile regression in Study 3 to identify the optimal range of background knowledge that is necessary to understand or learn from novel texts (i.e., knowledge threshold hypothesis). Finally, Study 4 will use a two-way analysis of variance where level of background knowledge (low or high) is crossed with text cohesion level (low or high).

Related IES Projects: Developing Reading Comprehension Assessments Targeting Struggling Readers (R305G040065), Measuring the Development of Vocabulary and Word Learning to Support Content Area Reading and Learning (R305A080647), and Assessing Reading for Understanding: A Theory-based, Developmental Approach (R305F100005)

Publications

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

McCarthy, K., Guerrero, T., Kent, K., Allen, L., McNamara, D., Chao, S., Steinberg, J., O'Reilly, T., and Sabatini, J. (2018). Comprehension in a Scenario-Based Assessment: Domain and Topic-Specific Background Knowledge. Discourse Processes, 55(5-6), 510-524.

O'Reilly, T., Wang, Z., and Sabatini, J. (in press). How Much Knowledge is Too Little? When Knowledge Becomes a Barrier to Comprehension. Psychological Science.

Sabatini, J., Halderman, L., O'Reilly, T., and Weeks, J. (2016). Assessing Comprehension in Kindergarten Through Third Grade. Topics in Language Disorders, 36(4): 334355.

Nongovernement report, issue brief, or practice guide

Deane, P., O'Reilly, T., Chao, S, and Dreier, K. (2018). Writing Processes in Short Written Responses to Questions Probing Prior Knowledge. (Research Report No. RR-18-39).


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