Public Education Speaker Series: The Role of Background Knowledge in Literacy

Thursday, June 2, 2016
9:30am to 11:30am EDT
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
1400 16th Street NW Suite 740
Most WRAG events are only open to our members. Please refer to the text at left for attendance eligibility.
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This is the second event in WRAG's 2016 public education speaker series

How do we ensure that students become excellent readers? Part of the answer is straightforward—we ensure that they are good decoders, that is, that they can turn letters and words into sounds. But not all good decoders understand what they read equally well. Why? From the elementary grades onwards the common assumption is that reading comprehension is a skill, that can be improved via instruction in comprehension strategies, disconnected from any particular body of knowledge.

However, according to Dr. Dan Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and an expert in the cognitive basis of learning, most of the differences in comprehension among students are attributable to differences in background knowledge—how much the student knows about the subject of the text before he or she starts reading. Low-income students enter school with far less background knowledge than their middle-class peers and, partly because of the focus on comprehension strategies in the elementary grades, the knowledge gap only grows larger the longer they stay in school. Join us to learn more about Dr. Willingham's research into the role of background knowledge, the data on reading comprehension strategy instruction from this perspective, and the implications for instruction and curriculum.

About the Speaker

Daniel Willingham earned his B.A. from Duke University in 1983 and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University in 1990. He is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. He writes the “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column for American Educator magazine, and is the author of Why Don't Students Like School?, When Can You Trust the Experts?, and Raising Kids Who Read. His writing on education has appeared in fourteen languages.


WRAG Members: Free. Please register online. You must be logged in to the website in order to access the registration button. If you don't have a password, you can request one here.
Non-Member Education Funders: $50. Please email Rebekah Seder, seder(at) to confirm eligibility and register.