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Comprehension and Building Knowledge: From Acquiring Knowledge to Actively Using It

Comprehension and Building Knowledge: From Acquiring Knowledge to Actively Using It

Picture this: a classroom buzzing with the energy of discovery—where each lesson leads to new learning and every discussion contributes to deeper understanding. Content-rich classrooms making learning irresistible. Kids are asking questions, inferring, discussing, debating, creating, and generating new ideas. 

Comprehension is a Knowledge Building Activity

As kids continue to learn about and comprehend the world, their comprehension is strengthened by existing and new knowledge. When kids build their knowledge store, it’s thinking and learning intensive. 

As teachers, we don’t ask kids to read to simply amass information. Instead, they read to tackle real problems, explore authentic issues, and puzzle through ideas to make sense of the world. This is what we mean when we talk about using comprehension strategies to acquire knowledge and actively using it. 

CompToolkit_2024_NTL_Cycle-of-Knowledge-Building-Blog_Graphic1Adapted from Cervetti, Jaynes, and Hiebert (2009)

As this figure illustrates, knowledge building is a reciprocal process. As students build their knowledge through reading and thinking, they create a foundation that in turn supports ongoing learning and understanding. P. David Pearson (1996) calls this a “virtuous cycle.”

Comprehension skills, such as analyzing, inferring, and synthesizing information, enable students to delve deeper into the content. In return, the more content knowledge students acquire, the more background knowledge they have for understanding new information. It’s a reinforcing cycle where skills and knowledge continually enhance each other.

Literacy specialists Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis touched on this in their recent webinar, “Content Literacy: Teaching Comprehension Strategies Across the Curriculum.” 

Access a free webinar presented by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis

Understanding How Kids Build Knowledge

Comprehension strategies enable students to engage with, understand, and make sense of information they read, transforming it from simply facts and details to meaningful knowledge. 

We live in the information age, but we are not sure that kids always understand the difference between information and knowledge. If kids don’t think about and actively use information, they are unlikely to learn, understand, and remember it.  


The Role of Comprehension in Knowledge Building

When we think of comprehension in the classroom, it’s often in the context of “reading” as defined by deciphering the words on a page and making meaning. But let’s expand that view. 

Reading is all about thinking and learning strategies, which are the tools that lead to a deeper level of engagement and understanding. It’s what makes learning stick, turning fleeting facts into lasting understanding. 

Harvey and Goudvis emphasize that effective comprehension instruction goes beyond just understanding on a literal level. It involves grasping not just the “what,” but the “how” and “why” as well. It’s about connecting new information to existing knowledge, asking probing questions, drawing inferences, visualizing concepts, and reflecting on the implications of what has been learned. 

Incorporating comprehension strategies into all areas of learning has several key benefits:

  • Encourages Active Learning: Instead of passively receiving information, students are actively involved in constructing their own understanding. Furthermore, students need to actively use the information and ideas they are learning.  
  • Builds Critical Thinking Skills: Comprehension requires students to analyze information, draw conclusions, and synthesize ideas from various sources. This not only deepens their understanding of the content but also sharpens their critical thinking skills.
  • Supports Independence: As students become more proficient in comprehension strategies, they become independent learners with a sense of agency. This means they approach new content with confidence, knowing they have the skills to understand and analyze the material.
  • Enhances Retention: When students comprehend material at a deeper level, they’re more likely to retain that knowledge over time. This retention is crucial for building a solid foundation of content knowledge.

In the classroom, this means integrating comprehension strategies into every lesson and content area, especially science, social studies, and history.  Acquiring knowledge is a powerful jumping off point, but it’s not enough.  

As Costa (2008) suggests, content literacy is about what kids do with their new knowledge—how they make sense of it and use it in their daily lives. To explore the multiple ways that knowledge and experience interact, it is helpful to think about a continuum of understanding. 


This continuum runs the gamut—from answering literal questions to using knowledge to taking action. The five comprehension processes described here include the teaching language that is characteristic of each column on the continuum.  It’s a brief, practical guide for discussion during comprehension instruction. 

Content Knowledge and Comprehension Work Together

Content knowledge provides context and background essential for making sense of new information. Think of it as a tapestry of understanding: the more threads of knowledge a student has, the easier it is for them to weave new information into this tapestry. This is especially important in complex subjects where prior knowledge plays a crucial role in understanding new concepts.

Here’s how comprehension and content knowledge work together so students learn, understand, and remember content:  Together, they:

  • Provide Tools for New Learning: When students monitor comprehension and leave tracks of their thinking, infer themes and visualize concepts, and summarize and synthesize important ideas, they learn and remember content information and concepts. In turn, when students have a solid foundation in content topics, they can more easily connect new information to what they already know and build on it. As David Pearson (2006) so aptly says, “Today’s new knowledge is tomorrow’s background knowledge.” 
  • Boost Agency, Confidence, and Engagement: Students who feel well-versed in a subject are more likely to participate in discussions, ask insightful questions, and explore topics more deeply. When kids have a repertoire of tools for making sense of challenging texts or new concepts, they are more likely to take on difficult tasks with a “can do” attitude.
  • Enable Higher-Level Thinking: A strong content foundation allows students to move beyond basic understanding to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Students can then engage with content at a higher level, leading to more meaningful learning experiences.  Students may also take the initiative in taking their new learning public and sharing it with others.
  • Facilitate Cross-Disciplinary Learning: Content knowledge in one area can enhance comprehension in another. For example, understanding historical context can deepen the appreciation of genres like historical fiction or biographies. Strategies like asking questions can carry over from science to history, for example, because kids are reading with a critical eye and a skeptical stance.
  • Create a Variety of Options for Thinking and Responding in Content Areas: Writing essays, creating charts and posters, crafting editorials, engaging in discussion and debate. All these response options and many more provide kids with opportunities to synthesize their learning and share it with others.  

By leaning into this kind of learning, educators can create a classroom culture that embraces curiosity, wonder, and inquiry. When kids are part of a classroom environment that continually challenges their thinking and supports dynamic learning experiences such as these, comprehension and content knowledge thrive. 

It’s not just “doing school” but building a foundation for lifelong learning. That’s how students become thinkers, innovators, creators, and thoughtful citizens.

Topics: Engagement, Knowledge, Literacy Instruction, The Comprehension ToolKit, Webinars, Anne Goudvis, Comprehension, Comprehension Going Forward, Comprehension Toolkit, Stephanie Harvey, Comprehension strategies, Knowledge Building

Date Published: 04/10/24

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