Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement
Publication Type:Web Article
Year of Publication:2004
Julie Dermody, a North Carolina teacher, reviews Marzano’s book about the importance of introducing students from poverty situations to necessary “indirect” background work such as subject-specific vocabulary and silent reading.
Citation: Marzano, R.J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
By Robert J. Marzano
2004 (220 pp., paperback)
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
$26.95 ($21.95 for members)
Reviewed by Julie Dermody
Mary Scroggs Elementary School
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Over 20 years of classroom experience has demonstrated clearly to me that poverty has a profound impact on academic achievement. What I didn't know was how to effectively build background knowledge in students coming from poverty so that they could more easily and quickly experience academic success. Thanks to Robert Marzano, I now have a plan that I'm sharing with my entire school so we can help close the achievement gap and enable all students to succeed.
Building Background Knowledge is the fifth book in the What Works for Schools Resources Series (which now also includes six audios, two videos, and a professional development online course.) The previous books, with their research-based strategies, have been top sellers for ASCD because of the specific action steps provided to implement what the past 35 years of educational research has demonstrated.
This book greatly expands upon the earlier vocabulary research presented in Classroom Instruction that Works (Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock, 2001.) Once again the message is clear: schools can make a difference. Marzano states that schools must be willing to dedicate the necessary time and resources to enhancing the academic background knowledge of students, particularly those who do not come from affluent backgrounds.
Marzano recognizes that schools are limited in their ability to provide direct experiences such as field trips for all their students, so he offers a combination of two indirect approaches — sustained silent reading and instruction in subject-specific vocabulary terms — to meet the goal of installing background knowledge in permanent memory. For each approach, Marzano provides a step by step process to demonstrate how the approach could be implemented in schools. Vignettes are provided for elementary, middle, and high schools to show how these approaches could play out in individual classrooms.
A five-step approach using sustained silent reading to enhance background knowledge involves students in identifying topics of interest, selecting the reading material, having uninterrupted time to read, writing about or representing the information in notebooks, and interacting with others about the information.
The six-step process for direct instruction in vocabulary in each discipline includes the teacher describing vocabulary terms; students constructing their own descriptions and nonlinguistic representations of the terms; the teacher providing opportunities for students to review and add to their knowledge of the terms; and students interacting with the terms, as well as, playing games involving the vocabulary terms.
One of the main points in this book (and where Marzano differs from previous authors regarding vocabulary instruction) is that while he agrees that dictionary definitions are not effective instructional devices and that word meanings need to be presented to students in everyday language, he feels the focus clearly needs to be on Tier-3 words (subject specific words) and not on Tier-2 words (those words that appear infrequently enough that the chance of learning them in context is slim). According to Marzano, word frequency is not a reliable indicator of a word's importance. "If the goal of direct vocabulary instruction is to enhance academic background knowledge, then what is clearly needed is a list of subject-specific terms." (pg. 89)
This book includes a list of 7,923 subject specific vocabulary terms culled from the national standards documents and other publications and organized into eleven subject areas and four grade-level categories.
Marzano's message is clear: "...if schools do not implement indirect approaches like those outlined in this book, they will continue to be a breeding ground for failure for those students who grow up in or near poverty." (pg. 16)