Knowledge Building with Multiple Informational Texts

Janice A. Dole, Brady E. Donaldson, and Rebecca S. Donaldson

Abstract

The authors share information and applications on the topic of their recent book, Reading Across Multiple Texts in the Common Core Classroom K-5. They emphasize the importance of developing deep, organized knowledge and of providing multiple texts to build the knowledge base on which students' future learning can be constructed. They briefly describe a first grade unit and take the reader step by step through a successful upper grade unit, providing graphic representations as well as discussion questions and charts.

We begin this article with an experience that Jan had several years ago. This experience best represents the ideas we want to discuss. During a visit to an elementary school, Jan happened to visit two first-grade classrooms which were both conducting a thematic unit on bears. But these classrooms looked very different.

Ms. Merlon asked her first graders to bring in their teddy bears. They had show and tell about their various and sundry experiences with their teddy bears. They drew their teddy bears. They talked about their teddy bears. Ms. Merlon read aloud stories like The Teddy Bear (McPhail, 2005) and Teddy Bear's Picnic (Kennedy & Day, 2000). She displayed students' pictures of their teddy bears along with their written stories about bears on one of her bulletin boards.

Ms. Becker's unit on bears was very different. She wanted her students to learn about bears. She made extensive use of the Internet to show students videos about different kinds of bears. She read books about bears—all kinds of bears—books like Pandas! A Kids Book About Pandas (Shye, 2013), Bears: Amazing Pictures and Fun Facts on Animals in Nature (de Silva, 2013), and Bears: Polar Bears, Black Bears and Grizzly Bears (Hodge & Stephens, 1996). She used one of her bulletin boards to display pictures and student illustrations of different kinds of bears in their natural habitats. A picture of each kind of bear was displayed along with information about where it lived, what it ate, and how it lived and adapted to its environment. The class compared and contrasted the characteristics and uniqueness of each kind of bear. Students drew bears, and they read about, wrote about, talked about, and learned about the different habitats and ecosystems in which the bears live.

Ms. Merlon's unit was on a topic familiar to her students, and the related activities reinforced what these young children already knew. Ms. Merlon and her children were revisiting what they knew about bears, especially their own teddy bears. Her students were using their listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills with their bear unit. Ms. Merlon may have even been very pleased that her young charges were practicing so many reading and writing skills.

Ms. Becker's students also used listening, speaking, reading and writing skills for their bear unit. But Ms. Becker used informational texts, likely above the children's reading level, as well as the Internet, to build her students' knowledge about bears. Ms. Becker's students moved beyond what they already knew to establish a knowledge base about animals and bears, a knowledge base that could be used to provide a foundation for further learning about animals and bears. Most of this knowledge will be useful as Ms. Becker's students enter middle and high school and learn more about plant and animal science. The purpose of this article is to show teachers how they might have their students read multiple informational texts to build their knowledge base about the world.

Recognizing the Importance of a Knowledge Base

Building a knowledge base will help students' reading comprehension in the very short term as well as long term as students move up the grades. Without knowledge, students struggle to understand the many kinds of texts placed before them. The more knowledge they have, the more they will learn from the texts they read.

Reciprocal nature of background knowledge. Most teachers understand the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. They understand that students' background knowledge is one of the most important determiners of their comprehension. This finding has been established across studies conducted in reading over the last 50 years (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Although the original developers of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2010) initially questioned the importance of background knowledge, saying that everything readers need to know exists within the "four corners of the page" (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012), it is a well established fact that readers always bring their background knowledge into any and every reading of a page (Pearson, 2013).

However, what has generally been less appreciated is the fact that background knowledge has a reciprocal relationship with texts. While students' background knowledge influences their comprehension of the texts they read, it is also true that the texts students read can build their background knowledge. We know that the more students read, the wider and deeper their knowledge will be (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998).

Development of deep, organized knowledge.It is wide and deep knowledge that typically leads to good comprehension. Many years ago when knowledge building was first studied, researchers conducted a line of research to examine the knowledge difference between experts and novices in a variety of fields—like chess, physics, math, and even teaching (see Willingham, 2006, for a current review). Researchers recorded two important findings (Chase & Simon, 1973; Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1981). It is true that experts had more knowledge than novices, but that was not an important finding.

A more important finding was that experts had more organized knowledge than novices. While novices had some knowledge, the knowledge was fragmented and piecemeal. Experts, on the other hand, had knowledge that was organized around a set of principles of main ideas. Researchers also found that experts worked according to a set of principles to think about their fields. These principles were deeply embedded within their knowledge structures and guided the decisions they made. So instead of solving a problem through trial and error, experts have a set of principles they use to problem solve. This makes the problem solving more efficient. Therefore, they can think through and solve a problem more efficiently and effectively.

Perhaps an example will clarify the point. We can compare our reading as experts with first-graders' reading. As expert readers, if we come across a word we don't understand, we know what to do. Our knowledge is systematic and organized—break it down and chunk it, read the rest of the sentence to see if we can figure it out, use context clues to try to make sense of the word. Those of us who have worked with young and sometimes struggling readers know that when they encounter a word they don't know, they often get stuck; they don't know what to do. Our knowledge about what to do when we get stuck on a word is organized and efficient. We will try one of several strategies to repair the breakdown. We have a set of organized strategies to solve our problem.

How does this research help us understand our students and their reading? The goal of school is to help our students develop wide and deep knowledge about the world. This knowledge will help students better understand what they read. Further, the more they read, the wider and deeper their knowledge will become. So their knowledge will become more organized, and they will be able to solve problems more efficiently and effectively with this knowledge base.

We cannot stress enough the importance of building knowledge starting at the earliest age, kindergarten or before. Building background knowledge is the key to learning vocabulary and the one of the most important keys to improving comprehension. Indeed, it is the key to making our students "college and career ready" by the end of high school.

The first section of this article described two classrooms working on units about bears. Clearly the students in Ms. Becker's classroom were engaged in learning activities purposefully designed to build their knowledge about bears. The remainder of this article describes how intermediate-grade teachers might develop a series of lessons using multiple informational texts.

The following examples of lessons are organized around the tragic sinking of the Titanic. Brady developed this set of lessons and has used it successfully with fourth-fifth graders. (For more ideas like this, see Dole, Donaldson, & Donaldson, 2014).

Building Background Knowledge Through Reading Multiple Texts

In these lessons multiple genres of informational texts—from personal accounts in dairies, to printed texts, to newspaper articles available on the Internet—have been used to help students build a deeper understanding of the events that led up to this disaster in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. The following steps came together effectively.

  1. Make a list of the texts and other resources to be used. For this lesson, three texts were selected. The first text was a book, TITANIC: Disaster at Sea (Jenkins & Sanders, 2008), which provided background knowledge about the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. In order to compare firsthand accounts of the survivors, we selected two firsthand accounts. The first, "Titanic Survivor Esther Bloomfield Hart Recalls Tragic Sinking" (Hart, 1912), provides the point of view of a passenger. The second account consists of two articles written for the New York Times by the wireless operator on the Titanic, Harold Bride: "Thrilling story by Titanic's surviving wireless man" (Bride, 1912a) and "Titanic's surviving wireless man describes wreck" (Bride, 1912b).
  2. Determine the lesson objective(s).These should come directly from the grade-level standard(s) on which you want the students to work. The standards for Grades 4 and 5 include the following:
    • RI4.7. Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
    • RI5.9. Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.
  3. Identify the grade-level reading and writing strategies that you want to address in the unit.The strategy for this lesson was that "students will compare and contrast multiple points of view."
  4. Create a writing prompt for students aligned to the lesson objectives and strategy.After students have finished working through the texts, they will write a response to this prompt. For the unit on the Titanic, students responded to this prompt: "How are the firsthand accounts of two survivors of the Titanic similar and different, and what new insights do we learn from them?"
  5. Have students read and learn from each text separately.This step is the heart of the lesson. This is where students will read and build knowledge from the texts and discussions. The purpose of reading the first text, TITANIC: Disaster at Sea, is to build background knowledge about the people and events associated with this event by reading, discussing, and charting information. Focus on those pages that deal with the experiences of those on board the ship by asking questions like the following:
    • What was the role of the Marconi operators (wireless radio technology)?
    • What impact did the actions of the Marconi operators have on the outcome?
    • What choices did other crew members make, and how did their choices impact the event?
    • Describe reasons passengers had for sailing on the Titanic. What factors influenced a person's chance of survival (e.g., male, female; child, adult; first-, second- or third-class; crew member, passenger)?
    • As a consequence of the Titanic tragedy, what modifications were made to make travel safer?
      What was Esther's purpose for sailing?

    After reading and discussing the text, have students work in small groups to create a timeline for the events that occurred during the final hours of the tragedy. Next, have students read a second text, a digital text which is a first-person account written by a second-class passenger, Esther Bloomfield Hart (1912). Note and discuss the differences between this text and the first text, which was written in the third person. Chart the events and personal feelings of Esther's experience. Ask questions like these:

    • How did she feel about making the voyage, and what words did she use to explain her feelings?
    • Why did she get a spot on the lifeboat and when others did not?
    • How did Esther's life change as a result of being a Titanic survivor? What hardships did she face?
    • How did the use of first-person point of view influence your understanding of and feelings about this event in contrast to the third-person point of view used in TITANIC Disaster at Sea?

After they have read Esther Hart's account, have students work with a partner or in small groups to write a summary of the events and Esther's feelings about those events. As an extension, have students listen to and discuss an interview by the BBC with Eva Hart (Hart, 1987), the daughter of Esther Hart, who was also a survivor.

The third text to be read by the students consists of the two articles written by Harold Bride, one of the Titanic's Marconi operators, and published by the New York Times back to back on the same page on the same day: "Thrilling story by Titanic's surviving wireless man" (Bride, 1912a) and "Titanic's surviving wireless man describes wreck" (Bride, 1912b).

As students read and chart information from these firsthand accounts, have them think of how the experiences of the two survivors were similar and different.

To facilitate the comparisons, ask questions about Brides' accounts similar to or the same as those asked about Esther's experience.

  • What was Harold's role on the Titanic, and how did he feel about this job?
  • Why did Harold get a spot on the lifeboat when others did not?
  • What words did he use to explain his feelings?
  • How did his life change as a result of being a Titanic survivor?

After reading and discussing the text, have the students summarize the events as described by Harold. Ask students to describe the differences between reading Harold's personal account and the first text's third person description of events and people. As an extension, have students view a video that depicts Harold's experience (Lynsky, 2011).

Place the charts of both personal accounts side by side and review the experiences of Esther and Harold. Have students look through both lists for similarities and differences. Help students understand that although both people survived the same event, their experiences were different. Chart students' responses.

6. Have students write a compare/contrast paragraph to respond to the writing prompt question (see Step 4). This will be the culminating experience for the unit. Focus students' attention on the information they put on the charts for each text. Students who need additional scaffolding may benefit from the following paragraph frame.

Esther Hart and Harold Bride both survived the sinking of the Titanic. Their experiences were similar in some ways. According to Esther Hart, "_______________." According to Harold Bride, "__________." Even though they lived through the same event, their experiences were also different. For example, Esther Hart __________. She said, "__________." She also __________. She also said, "________." On the other hand, Harold Bride ________. He said, "_____."He also __________. He said, "__________."

Applying Graphic Organizers to Multiple Texts

In order for students to learn to read and write about multiple texts, they need learning strategies to help them. Many learning strategies are particularly effective for reading informational text. One of the most important points here is that we want students to use multiple texts to deepen their learning. This requires not only reading texts, but also viewing digital information, including graphs, charts, diagrams, illustrations, and so forth. We present an important and useful strategy.

One important way to compare and contrast informational texts is through the use of graphic organizers. There are several different types of graphic organizers students can use to organize and summarize information from individual texts. By using graphic organizers, students can more easily figure out the important information in a text than they can without this type of visual representation. They also can more easily summarize a text. They can then use the graphic organizers and/or summaries to compare and contrast two or more texts. Following are examples of several graphic organizers that could be used for comparing information from multiple texts.

Question/answer graphic organizers. For this kind of organizer, you can pose general questions and have students find the answers in the different texts. You can have some groups find answers in one text and other groups find answers in a different text. Intermediate-grade students can directly quote from the texts and use citations. This gives students an opportunity to see how they can use information from more than one text to come up with good answers to questions posed about a topic on which they read multiple texts. Combining this information helps students learn more about a given topic than they would through reading just one text. In addition, students can see how different texts cover the same subject in different ways.

Question: At the moment when the Titanic hit the iceberg, what did the passengers feel?
Titanic 1—The Titanic: Disaster at Sea (Jenkins & Sanders, 2008) Titanic 2—"Esther Bloomfield Hart Recalls Tragic Sinking" (1912) Titanic 3—Newspaper articles by Harold Bride (1912)

1. "feeling as if the ship had just run over a thousand marbles" (p. 23)

2. "Lucy Duff Gordon said it was as though someone had drawn a giant finger along the ship's side" (p. 23).

Esther Hall: "a dreadful tearing ripping sound—the sound of great masses of steel and iron being violently torn, rent and cut asunder" Harold Bride: "I hardly knew it had happened after the Captain had come to us. There was no jolt whatever."
Conclusion from passenger responses: Passengers felt and heard different things at varying degrees when the ship hit the iceberg.

Cause/effect graphic organizers. Several different graphic organizers can depict cause and effect. As students consider an event like the Titanic sinking, cause and effect organizers become very important for identifying what happened and why. While you could use a sequence of events organizer to show what happened, the sequence of events in itself does not clearly identify what happened as a result of a specific cause. As shown in the following example, we can read the different accounts of the sinking of the Titanic and determine the causes and effects of that event.

Problem/solution graphic organizers. With problem/solution organizers, students can look at an event and interpret it through a problem/solution structure to determine what the problems were and how they were solved. If we look at the sinking of the Titanic through the lens of problem/solution, we might construct the following graphic organizer.

ProblemSolution
1. The Titanic started to sink.   

a. The watertight doors in the bulkheads had begun to close (Jenkins & Sanders, 2008).

b. "All the men are at the lifeboats, it's only a lifeboat drill" (Esther Hart).

2. The passengers knew that they must abandon ship. 

a. "Their job was to ensure that the boats were manned, load passengers into them, and see them safely launched, while at the same time keeping order and making sure that panic did not break out" (Jenkins & Sanders, 2008).

b. "I heard the hoarse shouts of 'Women and children first,' and then from boat to boat we were hurried, only to be told 'already full'" (Esther Hart).

c. "Then came the Captain's voice: 'Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it's every man for himself'" (Harold Bride).

d. "I walked back to Phillips. I said the last raft was gone" (Harold Bride).

Compare/contrast graphic organizers. This structure lies at the heart of Standard 9, and there are many different ways that the compare/contrast structure can be represented graphically. Each way helps students distill the important information from the multiple texts they read, as shown in the following two examples.

Jenkins & Sanders, 2008

Presents many voices of passengers and crew members

Gives a detailed account of the whole event, from when the Titanic was designed and built to the aftermath of the event and its effects on future ships 

Esther Hart Account, 1912

Presents voice of Esther Hart in a personal narrative account of her experiences on board the Titanic

Gives a personal narrative of the time just prior to when Esther boarded the Titanic until she was rescued by another ship 
 

Jenkins & Sanders and Hart

Both give quotes from the passengers who were there when the Titanic sank.

Both show the personal anguish and fright of the passengers.

Each of the graphic organizers we have presented helps students understand the Titanic disaster a bit more deeply. Comparing and contrasting experiences can give students a big picture point of view as well as a more personal one in which people's lives and deaths were on the line. Examining the events as a whole, viewing different perspectives of the people on board, examining the choices different people made and why they made those choices, and then looking at the consequences of those choices provide readers with a depth of understanding of the event that they could not obtain otherwise.

Conclusion

The CCSS and the Utah State Standards have raised a high bar for literacy for our students. Most teachers in Utah and throughout the country acknowledge the value of the CCSS and want to help their students to meet the high bar announced by the standards. Knowledge building is one very important way to help students accomplish the standards and at the same time provide them with reading and writing skills and strategies they can transfer to different subject areas. One of the most important goals of school is to build knowledge, and building knowledge through reading is one important way to get there.

Janice A. Dole, PhD, taught in elementary and middle schools before receiving her MA and PhD at the University of Colorado. She has since conducted research, published, and provided professional development to practicing teachers on comprehension instruction throughout the country as well as internationally.

Brady E. Donaldson, PhD, serves as a literacy coach in the Salt Lake City School District. He also enjoys teaching classes in reading and literacy for the University of Utah.

Rebecca S. Donaldson, PhD, is the ESEA Federal and Special Programs Coordinator at the Utah State Office of Education. She loves working with the many amazing and dedicated educators across the state.

Children's Books Cited

de Silva, K. (2013). Bears: Amazing pictures and fun facts on animals in nature. Seattle, WA: Amazon Digital Services.

Hodge, D., & Stephens, P. (1996). Bears: Polar bears, black bears and grizzly bears. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press.

Jenkins, M., & Sanders, B. (2008). TITANIC: Disaster at sea. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Kennedy, J., & Day, A. (2000). The teddy bear's picnic. New York: NY: Aladdin Picture Books.

McPhail, D. (2005). The teddy bear. New York, NY: Squarefish.

Schye, M. L. (2013). Pandas! A kids book about pandas. Seattle, WA: Amazon Digital Services.

References

Anderson, R. C., & Pearson, P. D. (1984). A schema-theoretic view of basic processes in reading comprehension. In P. D. Pearson, R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 225-253). New York, NY: Longman.

Bride, H. (1912, April 19a). Thrilling story by Titanic's surviving wireless man. New York Times. Retrieved from (http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archivefree/pdf?res=9E07E0DF153CE633A2575AC1A9629C946396D6CF).

Bride, H. (1912, April 19b). Titanic's surviving wireless man describes wreck. New York Times. Retrieved from (http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archivefree/pdf?res=9E07E0DF153CE633A2575AC1A9629C946396D6CF).

Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). The mind's eye in chess. In W. G. Chase (Ed.), Visual information processing (pp. 215-281). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Chi, M. T. H., Feltovich, P. J., & Glaser, R. (1981). Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices. Cognitive Science, 5(2), 121-152.

Coleman, D., & Pimentel, S. (2012). Revised publishers' criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/assets/Publishers_Criteria_for_3-12.pdf.

Stanovich, K. E., & Cunningham, A. E. (1998).

What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22, 8-15.

Dole, J. A., Donaldson, B. E., & Donaldson, R. S. (2014). Reading across multiple texts in the Common Core classroom K-5. New York: NY: Teachers College Press.

Hart, E. (1987). BBC Radio interview with Eva Hart. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/titanic/5058.shtml

Hart, E. B. (May 10, 1912). Titanic survivor Esther Bloomfield Hart recalls tragic sinking. Ilford Graphic. Retrieved from http://altnersandi.com/2012/03/25/titanic-survivor-esther-bloomfield-hart-recalls-tragic-sinking/

Lynsky, T. (2011). The last signals [Independent film]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUshzSTkJpA

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org

Pearson, P. D. (2013). Research foundations of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts. In S. Neuman & L. Gambrell (Eds.), Quality reading instruction in the age of Common Core State Standards (pp. 237-262). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Willingham, D.T. (2006). Cognition: The thinking animal. New York, NY: Pearson.