About the Experts

Gina Cervetti

Gina Cervetti is a professor of literacy, language, and culture at University of Michigan's Marsal Family School of Education. She studies language and comprehension development, especially in the context of content-area and other knowledge-enriching instruction. Dr. Cervetti received her doctorate in educational psychology from Michigan State University.

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Episode Transcript

Gina Cervetti: Much of my work has taken place in the context of thinking about literacy learning in content area learning. I started my work as a fairly traditional literacy person who thought a lot about English Language Arts instruction. But the more I thought about the kinds of experiences that support students' literacy development, the more interested I became in contexts like content area contexts.

And in particular, I've worked a lot in the context of science instruction—the knowledge-enriching context that is provided by learning literacy in science, so having access to more complex texts because you bring a lot of knowledge to those texts, the opportunities to connect reading to firsthand experiences in the world, actual phenomena and scientific inquiry. So not only experiencing the world, but investigating the world as scientists do, using the reading and writing skills that are inherent to science.

One consistent finding around literacy is that the more that students are engaged in a way that surface big ideas, right? So that they're asking and answering higher-level questions rather than just surface-level questions—that really supports their reading comprehension development. And one way to do that is to be using the reading and writing to inquire in the world. So there are just so many benefits to thinking about those connections. I didn't start my work in that place, but very quickly became interested in that and have pursued that. And that has led to other kinds of investigations, just trying to understand some of those specific pieces. So what is the relationship between knowledge and reading development? What is the relationship between knowledge and language development? That's where my work has resided over the last couple of decades.

Patty McGee: Could you just shed a little bit more light on what you've been focusing on, in terms of reading development and knowledge, and also language development and knowledge?

Gina Cervetti: We've known for a long time, since at least, probably, a hundred years, but at least since the 1970s, there have been a lot of investigations into the relationship between knowledge—the knowledge that students bring to the text—and students’ comprehension of those texts. And as you might expect, if you know something about the topic of a text, you typically understand that text better. But I've been really interested in the idea that that relationship actually might be even more fruitful than that. So that, not only thinking both about knowledge in a more complex way—so that knowledge is in part school knowledge and disciplinary knowledge and knowledge of the kinds of the topics that tend to appear in school text, but that knowledge also includes the repertoire of experiences that students bring from their lives outside of school. And that knowledge, too, can be leveraged to support their comprehension. So thinking more broadly about what knowledge is and what knowledge matters can provide an opportunity for students to gain momentum in understanding texts. So that's one aspect of knowledge.

But I've also been really interested in the possibility that knowledge does more than just support students' comprehension of the text in front of them. I've been interested in the idea that when students are developing knowledge as part of English Language Arts instruction or content area learning, it also provides an opportunity for them to learn more words, for example, around the texts that they're reading—so acquire more knowledge of words incidentally, as they read. I'm actually doing a study right now, which I'm hoping will provide some additional evidence for this idea, that when students are reading texts where they bring some knowledge to those texts, or they're accruing knowledge through text, that they actually engage in more sophisticated forms of comprehension. So that they're able to maybe use a broader repertoire of comprehension strategies as they read, or they're able to form more connections within and between texts. Knowledge is actually perhaps even more powerful than just having it and applying it as you read, but developing it while you read actually can have some additional benefits for students.

Patty McGee: Let's pause on this and dig a little bit deeper for a second. Three [things] that are standing out to me: cultural relevancy, the knowledge that kids bring to school with them from their life experiences; reading development; and language learning, all wrapped up in knowledge. Can you unpack that for us a little bit? The knowledge building and the way that cultural relevancy, reading development, and language learning interplay?

Gina Cervetti: Many of the studies that have been done on the relationship between knowledge and reading comprehension have been done with one of two types of knowledge. It's been either academic knowledge of, sort of disciplinary knowledge, and school-type knowledge. So if kids know something about biology, can they read biology texts better, understand them better? And the answer is, yes they can, and that is broadly applicable. It's students of all ages and it applies to both being able to recall texts, but also being able to do things like make inferences around texts. And then some studies also looked at the kinds of out-of-school knowledge related to students' hobbies. There were a series of studies on baseball knowledge or soccer knowledge, and could students understand texts better on those topics if they had experiences outside of school related to those things? And in fact, there was research that showed not only that they could, but also that when they were reading texts that were on these familiar topics, they actually were better able to learn other things.

For example, Gaultney, in 1995, showed—this was the study of fourth-grade boys who were poorer readers, they were less skilled readers, but they were also baseball experts. And so they studied comprehension strategies, either in the context of baseball texts or non-baseball texts. And they were better able to acquire those strategies and retain their use of those strategies if they learned those strategies using the baseball text. And you can understand why, right? We have limited attention. And so being able to have some purchase into the text frees up enough attention to allow us to actually learn and practice the use of these comprehension strategies.

Gina Cervetti: In 2017, Clark reported on studies that looked at the effects of culturally relevant texts on reading development among African American children who were enrolled in an after-school program. These students were in Grades 1 through 5, and they participated in a program that was designed to support their word-level reading, but also their reading comprehension. They were doing word study, and they were also responding to reading, and they were either using exclusively culturally relevant texts or exclusively non-culturally relevant texts. And in this study, culturally relevant texts meant texts that featured African American families and African American themes and African American communities. And Clark found that the students who read culturally relevant texts made greater growth than their peers who were reading the non-culturally relevant texts in both word recognition and context—so their word-reading skills and also their reading comprehension. More and more we're learning about the value of providing students the opportunity to read texts where they have an experiential sort of purchase into the themes and content of those texts.

Patty McGee: That is really compelling and important research to share and just shows us just how human teaching is, right? It's not just about the academic learning, but it's about the people, the students that come to us and who they are as human beings, their experiences, their lived knowledge that they come to us with and then are able to leverage that to become stronger and stronger in so many different areas.

Gina Cervetti: I was just going to say, you can imagine why this is the case. These texts that are of greater interest—we're much more likely to read them with more attention, right? But also, the limits of our attention mean that we can potentially pay attention to other aspects of the text. If we know something about the topic, we might notice the words in the text, or we might be able to notice something about the structure of the text, or we might be able to make connections to other things that we know or form connections within a text.

When a text is brand new to us and we're just trying to make sense of it, we don't have a lot of additional attentional resources to devote to other aspects of literacy learning. So you can imagine why this is true. And it's just, you know, the fact that it turns out that it is as true with the cultural knowledge that we bring as it is with the academic knowledge that we bring means that we can legitimate more forms of knowledge in school, and that also connects to students' engagement and motivation.

Patty McGee: Yes. So, what do you mean by “more forms of knowledge”?

Gina Cervetti: I mean academic knowledge and experiential knowledge and cultural knowledge and—that really all of the things that we know, all of the experiences that we have, these are all resources for our literacy development. So we should, as teachers, get to know our students and, of course, attend to the kinds of academic knowledge that we're supporting in school. But also think of students as full of rich, experiential, and cultural resources that they can bring to their own literacy learning, and try to find ways to form those connections for the sake of engagement—but also, it turns out, for the cognitive benefits that come from being able to form those connections as they read.

Patty McGee: Where does vocabulary come in?

Gina Cervetti: Many decades ago, we learned that students who have a lot of vocabulary knowledge tend to not only be better readers of the texts that they're reading now, but they actually tend to make greater growth in reading over time. And many studies demonstrated this, and so I think for that reason we became really interested in trying to grow students' vocabularies. There have been many, many programs that have tried different approaches to growing students' vocabularies. And they've been very successful at growing students' knowledge of the words that they teach. There have been lists of academic words which are words that tend to appear a lot in the text that students encounter in schools, and these studies have been very successful at showing that if you teach these words in particular ways, students tend to learn them and they also tend to retain them. But we've been less successful at the task of trying to grow students' vocabularies in general. There have been lots of programs where they've tried to teach large numbers of academic words and hoped that doing so would transfer to students’ general vocabulary knowledge, so that when you gave students a standardized test of vocabulary knowledge that they would make greater gains than students who didn't receive that instruction. But that's actually been harder to do, for a few reasons.

First of all, language is more than vocabulary knowledge, and so we probably need to think about other aspects of language development. When it was assessed and associated with vocabulary, that was probably more of a correlation, an association, than something that was strictly causal—it was an indicator of something else. And that might be broader language skills in general, or it might be that students who have a lot of vocabulary knowledge also have a lot of knowledge about the world. What we were actually uncovering was a relationship between all of the knowledge that students bring to school and their reading, both in the moment and also their growth over time.

I think it probably is helpful to think more broadly, both about what we mean by language development so that it's not just vocabulary—the knowledge of individual vocabulary words—but also to think about vocabulary as a kind of surface-level instantiation of what in fact is more conceptual knowledge. So having a lot of words about ideas, and that it may be the ideas, knowledge of the ideas, that matter more than knowledge of the words that matters. So again, this is a testable idea, but it's where I'm landing, having done a whole series of investigations to try to figure out what exactly is the nature of this relationship, and how can we grow students’ vocabularies and their language knowledge in general.

Patty McGee: How can we just start to dip a toe into this, though? So if there's a principal who's listening and they're like, “Yes, I hear everything you're saying, this is speaking to me, what can I do to support teachers in going in this direction?” Or a teacher who's listening and saying, “Yes, I hear everything you're saying. I want to leverage the knowledge that kids come with, along with academic knowledge and all of the ways that I can support my kids.” What's a first step that they can take here?

Gina Cervetti: I think there are a couple of really important first steps. One is to not lose time in the school day for content area instruction—that's really important. And English Language Arts has grown and grown and grown, and attention to content area instruction, especially in the elementary grades, has shrunk over time. So I think we need to rethink that. And as we think about reallocating the school day to provide more time for content area instruction, we need to be thinking about how we can use that to develop students’ literacy skills, especially their disciplinary literacy skills. That would be the first thing.

The second thing would be to think about English Language Arts also as a place where students can leverage the knowledge that they bring and also develop knowledge. So thinking about, for example, using English Language Arts to dive deeply into themes that maybe complement the content area instruction that's going on elsewhere in the day. Or to develop cohesive sets of texts around particular ideas that students are engaging in in English Language Arts, so that every day isn't a whole new set of content, [so that] they're not reading about different things day after day—about thinking about making sure that every day, students have an opportunity to pursue aspects of their identity and interests in school. So thinking about English Language Arts as a place where students can read self-selected texts and pursue their interests or bring their personal, experiential, and cultural knowledge into the classroom through their reading but also their expression, their writing and their creation inside English Language Arts instruction. Those are some really important first steps.

Patty McGee: Wonderful. Could we dig into one of those before we wrap up? The one that I'm feeling most curious about right now is having a parallel theme in ELA to something that's happening in the content area. What does that look like?

Gina Cervetti: One way to do that is to create opportunities to engage in—in science, I think about, sort of socio-scientific issues, right? So if you're studying weather and climate in science, you can be thinking about issues of human and human climate change in English Language Arts, or if you're studying issues of ecology in science, you can be thinking about how it is that we are stewards of the environment inside our homes, inside our school, and inside our communities, in English Language Arts. There are these ways in which we can actually apply some of the things that we're learning in science and social studies to our own lives. If you're studying government, you can be thinking about local elections or local initiatives. I think it provides a really nice opportunity not only to give students a chance to develop complementary knowledge, but also to bring some of the academic knowledge into their own lives.

Patty McGee: Yes, that sounds absolutely irresistible for students. Gina, thank you so much for meeting with us today and sharing.

Gina Cervetti: Sure. Thank you. Thank you for having me.