About the Experts

C.C. Bates

David Liben

David Liben has taught in public and private elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as community college and teacher preparation courses. He founded two innovative model schools in New York City and developed the Family Academy curriculum, which he has presented to educators at workshops nationwide. David received a Masters in Educational Administration from Columbia University

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Episode Transcript

Announcer: This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.

Kevin Carlson: In this episode of Teacher's Talk Shop: Knowledge Building.

Dr. David Liben: What we've been talking about here is actually the most effective way to grow Tier 2 vocabulary, which is really nice, because anything we can make more efficient in education, we need to grab on to like a freaking life saver.

Kevin Carlson: That is. Dr. David Liben, educator, school leader and literacy curriculum expert. Recently, he spoke with author and educator Patty McGee about growing knowledge, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. In this episode, the effectiveness of knowledge building as a core part of literacy learning, the research behind it, and how creating and implementing a general knowledge curriculum can get results at even the lowest performing schools. I'm Kevin Carlson, and this is Teachers Talk Shop.

Patty McGee: Hi everyone. Welcome here today with a focus on background knowledge, on building knowledge as a core part of literacy learning. Before we start getting into this concept, David, could you just share a little bit about your background?

Dr. David Liben: Well, to begin with, I'm extraordinarily old, and I've been teaching over 50 years, every grade from kindergarten to graduate school, in some form or another. And most of my teaching has been grades 3 or 4 to 9, but I've also worked with K to 2. I was a principal of a school in Harlem, and, to give a sense of why I've become a literacy guru kind of guy, my wife and I started a school in Harlem. We proceeded after a couple of years to get the lowest reading scores in the city of New York, which you should be impressed by—there's very few people who got the lowest reading scores in the city of New York, and there was one actually every year. Somebody's got to be at the bottom! Most of those don't talk about it, however. So what we did, we got the lowest reading scores in the city of New York, we changed from what was then called a “whole language curriculum” to a more systematic phonics curriculum, and over a period of time, we also developed our own knowledge curriculum, which we'll talk about, I think, and also our own close reading curriculum.

And so over a period of years—you never turn around everything in one or two years, unless you cheat, it takes years—over a period of years, we did quite well. And I got a call as a principal at a school from somebody working for the chancellor of the city of New York asking if I would talk to principals. I said no, because I can't do much in 45 minutes. But that person came to the school and spent two days at the school looking at everything, including the knowledge curriculum. And that was one of the lead writers, David Coleman, of the Common Core Standards—though at that time, that was before the standards, this was in the mid-90s—he contacted Meredith, my wife, and myself, and so we worked on the standards, and I synthesized the research that was in Appendix A for the Common Core Standards. And working primarily, my wife led the group of cognitive scientists who determined what the levels of complexity are for each grade—well, what is complex in second grade? What is complex in third grade? And so forth. And ever since that time, I've been working with states and districts and publishers on literacy and literacy curriculum.

Patty McGee: So interesting, so many facets in that, so much history there. Can you tell us more about that knowledge curriculum that you're talking about?

Dr. David Liben: Sure. When we realized we needed a knowledge curriculum, because once we abandoned whole language and got a systematic phonics program and a fluency program—all of which is in our book, Know Better, Do Better, our first book. We're working now on a second. Unless you're prepared to suffer for long periods of time, don't endeavor to write a book. We realized that even when our kids could read something quite fluently, there would be times that there were ideas or concepts or events or institutions or people in the text that threw kids off. And you'll see from this example, it didn't have to be informational text. Our fourth graders were reading Cynthia Rylant, “Boar Out There.” And it's an intriguing little story, and they really didn't get it. The shortest distance between two points in terms of diagnosing why kids don't understand something is something extremely radical—ask the kids. And it became clear that they were reading the story differently because the story talked about a ball with a golden horn, and they didn't know that there was not such a thing as a ball with a golden horn. So their sense of that text and where it was going was completely different than the author intended. And that's an example of, if you don't have knowledge, it throws you off. So we developed our own general knowledge curriculum. This was the mid-90s. There was no such thing as knowledge-based ELA programs, which there are now. The closest thing was E.D. Hirsch. Some of you may know core knowledge, what every second grader should know, what every third grader should know. But that was way too Eurocentric for our school, which was at that point the largest school in Harlem, K to 8.

So we made our own general knowledge curriculum, and it was in the early days of the Internet, but we used a lot of online text. We made sure that the full-length works we were doing were not just fiction, but nonfiction. And that's primarily the way we had the general knowledge curriculum, but we also made it part of the culture of the school. So, for example, if the third grade was studying for three weeks West African kingdoms, then the hallways were covered with what they learned from West African kingdoms, and the artwork was from West African kingdoms—a lot like the knowledge building curriculum that exists now, which didn't exist then. We also had what we called Knowledge Jeopardy, where each of the five classes in each grade competed against each other to answer questions about the topics for that month. If the topic for that month in the third grade was space, everybody got together in the auditorium and each class, every kid got to go up to the to the stage, and just like Jeopardy, they had to answer questions about space, and whoever got the most points, that class won. The kids are pretty good about it. The teachers got a little competitive and would sometimes start saying, “Well, Mr. Liben”—I made all the questions—"I don't think that was a fair question.” I was worried that we were going to start yelling at each other. But that's good, because what it meant was that the idea of knowledge, of growing knowledge, became embedded in the culture of the school, and that's what these new knowledge-based programs are trying to do.

Kevin Carlson: After the break: Research around knowledge building. Stay with us.

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Patty McGee: Can you share, maybe, some examples of things that have shifted, not just in your thinking, but in, perhaps, any writing or research that's out there around knowledge building?

Dr. David Liben: Sure. There's two kinds of research. There's surveys of other research, and the most recent and the most extensive, I would say, is a study by Cervetti and Wright in 2020, in The Handbook of Reading Research, Volume 5, that synthesized all of the research going back 50 years on the importance of knowledge. And a similar study was replicated in Australia. So there's really good research on why knowledge is essential, and some of you may be familiar with Natalie Wexler's book, which also helped bring knowledge into the world, and of course, the Common Core Standards college and career ready standards in states now, whether they're Common Core or not, call for 50% informational text. That's moved the needle more into growing knowledge. Some of the specific research shows—this is by Dan Willingham, a cognitive psychologist—that knowledge builds on knowledge. So if knowledge builds on knowledge, the sooner you start growing knowledge, the better. And that means that this idea of growing knowledge is not just in elementary school, not just in grades 3 and up, or 3 to 8, etcetera, but right in K to 2 through read-aloud. Because the text that you need to grow knowledge in K to 2 when you're reading aloud, it would be through read-aloud. What Kindergarten and first grade students and even second grade students can read on their own is not going to grow the knowledge to the extent that read-aloud does. You can get some great examples of this in something called the Read Aloud Project, on the Achieve the Core website, from Student Achievement Partners, where Meredith and I worked for years. That's Achieve the Core dot org.

And the other thing that research showed that's very interesting is that to grow knowledge, you don't need to have necessarily beautiful text. In fact, more straightforward, simple text will work fine to grow knowledge. So growing students’ knowledge is best done through a series of texts at different levels. It can't all be grade level because not every kid is at grade level. That probably doesn't shock you. But if you have texts at a variety of different levels, that helps to grow knowledge, and those texts could be not only at different levels, some simpler, but they can be very straightforward text. They don't have to be beautiful text, necessarily, in order to grow knowledge. And that's some interesting research.

Patty McGee: So read-aloud for K to 2 or K-1, especially, obviously read-aloud everyone, but read-aloud to grow knowledge in the primary grades—and then you started to talk about having texts that are simpler and not as complex as others. Can you say a little bit more about that? What would that look like in the classroom, that simpler and more complex texts together?

Dr. David Liben: Yes. That research, it is based on the research by a variety of researchers, showing that the best way to grow knowledge—and we're going to also relate this to vocabulary, so don't let me forget about that—the best way to grow knowledge is to have a series of texts on a topic. Ideally, what you have is the text increase in complexity. So the first text supports the growth of comprehension in the second text. The second text supports comprehension in the third text. The third text supports comprehension in the fourth. And this is based on research by a guy named Tom Landauer, all the way back in 1996, I think, and was confirmed in other research, which I'll talk about more when we talk about vocabulary. So you have these things called text sets. And text sets are a series of texts on a topic. So let's say you have a series of texts on West African Kingdoms, and the first text supports the second and it's less complex, the second text a little more complex and supports the third. And that's what the research says is an ideal way to grow knowledge. And what you can do then, is you can have four or five texts, or three or four—there's no research saying exactly how many—93 would probably be a little too much. You have a series of texts and each one, as I said, supports the other. And then at the end of three or four texts or so, then you can have a grade-level complex text, and the students can master that grade level complex text because of the earlier texts that support the knowledge. And that's called text sets. And you can find a wealth of information on what is a text set, what's the research, how do you do it, what problems might you run into, again, on Achieve the Core. Just go to Achieve the Core dot org and do a search, they have a search bar for text sets, and you'll get all kinds of research.

Patty McGee: Super helpful. And I know that anyone who's listening right now who hears what you're saying, who understands the need for knowledge building and is also looking for just a step into it in a really significant way—read-alouds, text sets, both of those do that. And what you're also offering for us is, there's a clear body of research here, and we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We can simply turn to read-alouds and text sets as those places where we can build that knowledge. It doesn't need to be some kind of overly complicated experience. That's just really reassuring, I'm sure, for many of us that are listening.

Dr. David Liben: Yes, that's absolutely true. Teaching in itself can be overly complicated. So the simpler we make it, the better. And also, I would add, you could have something called like an apprentice text. It might not necessarily be an entire text set, but it could be one text which is simpler, whether it's a page and a half, two pages, etcetera, that supports longer and more complex texts, which is essentially the same as as a text set. And to Patty's point, a little bit simpler in some ways.

Kevin Carlson: After the break: Vocabulary and knowledge building. Stay with us.

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Patty McGee: So you started to mention vocabulary.

Dr. David Liben: Well, there's some fascinating research that shows that what we've been talking about here is actually the most effective way to grow Tier 2 vocabulary. Now, of course, you're growing Tier 3 vocabulary. If you read five texts about explorers or West African kingdoms or space, you're of course going to be growing Tier 3 vocabulary. But it turns out that that's the most efficient way to grow Tier 2 vocabulary, which is really nice, because anything we can make more efficient in education we need to grab on to like a freaking life saver. And this research is fascinating, it was done by Cervetti and Wright, and what they did is they took five texts on birds. They had five texts on birds, and then they had five texts that jumped around from topic to topic. So one was about birds, one was about trees, one was about plants, etcetera. But they did something really elegant and intelligent—they took 10 Tier 2 words, like “important,” “various”—well, you all know what Tier 2 words are, and they embedded those into the texts. So you had the same Tier 2 words in the set of five texts, all about birds, and the set of five texts that jumped around from topic to topic. And then they tested the kids to see which kids—the kids who read the five texts about birds or the kids who read the texts that jumped from topic to topic—which of those kids learned more of the Tier-2 words? And as you could probably predict from the way I'm going here, the kids who read the five texts about birds gained more vocabulary.

Now, those five texts were also what the authors called conceptually coherent. They made sense—the first text was an introduction about birds, the second text might be nest building, the third text might be migration patterns. And that's really fascinating, because it means when we do these things like growing knowledge, whether we're using something like an apprentice text or whether we're using a series of texts in a text set, or better yet, if we're doing both, then what happens is, we're not only growing knowledge, but we're growing vocabulary. And this is kind of like, some of you may have heard the term “the dinosaur effect” or “the horse effect.” Kids who spend all their spare time that they can reading about dinosaurs or horses, they have these amazing vocabularies—not just ankylosaurus and pterodactyl, but all kinds of Tier 2 vocabulary, because they've been reading one thing after another on text sets, on a topic. So it's really a bonus. This idea of a series of texts on a topic grows knowledge. Knowledge is essential to enhancing comprehension. It grows vocabulary. Vocabulary is essential to comprehension. And if we combine them in the way we've been talking about, then we enhance reading comprehension. That's a mouthful.

Patty McGee: Yeah, but it's a win. It's a win-win. Just supporting readers in becoming stronger readers in all the different facets that are needed. By thinking about these text sets and knowing that they'll do the work of both background knowledge, obviously Tier 3 vocabulary, but having that bonus of Tier 2 vocabulary learning in there as well, and most kids, and maybe sometimes it just depends on the topic, but most kids cannot resist informational text. It's just that learning is just absolutely magnetic for them, and so it's a win all around.

Dr. David Liben: That's absolutely true. And to that point, what would most parents want? How many kids are going to come home and talk about comprehension strategies? “Today we learned about visualizing, and the teacher promised me that tomorrow we're going to do main idea compared to dinosaurs or whales or monsters or sports or space.”

Patty McGee: Right. And then there's that instant reflection that's happening when they're talking about what they've learned, which we know is one of the best ways for knowledge and learning to stick. It's like the most fertile soil for all the things that can that can grow.

Dr. David Liben: That's so true. And it enhances kids’ sense of themselves. I was in a class that was studying space, and one of the things was, they addressed the question of, “Is it fair for all this money to go into exploring space when there are people who need help in communities around the country, such as yours?” There were kids who came from low income, middle income, etcetera, and they got into a real discussion about that. And at the end I complimented them on he depth of that discussion, on their ability to talk about an issue, and I said, “You know, most of the time, this kind of topic or this kind of controversy is not done with kids in fourth or fifth grade.” And they were incensed. “What do people think, we're stupid?” They were absolutely incensed that they couldn't talk about something this controversial. And they could talk about it intelligently, because they've been studying space for whether it was three or four weeks.

Patty McGee: Wow. Right from the mouths of students, saying it all. Well, thank you for taking the time with us today. Thank you for sharing your extensive experience, knowledge about knowledge, and the research that has driven your work and has inspired your work and your own work that's driven the research, and all that you shared with us today. It's not only inspiring, it feels actionable right away. So thanks very much.

Dr. David Liben: You're very welcome. And thank you.

Kevin Carlson: Thank you, Dr. David Liben. Thank you, Patty McGee. And thank you for listening to Teachers Talk Shop. In that conversation, David twice referenced the research of Dr. Gina Cervetti. We had Gina as a guest here in Season 2, Episode 1, “Leveraging Knowledge for Reading Success.” Go to Teachers Talk Shop dot com to check it out. Throughout this season, we talk with leading literacy experts to explore current understandings and nuances of teaching and learning literacy. Our aim is to present a 360-degree view of literacy that positions us to address the needs of all students in today's classrooms.

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