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18 Mar 2009

Increasing Opportunities to Acquire Knowledge Through Reading

Gina N. Cervetti, University of Colorado, Boulder
Carolyn A. Jaynes, California State University, Sacramento
Elfrieda H. Hiebert, University of California, Berkeley

Book Chapter

Cervetti, G.N., Jaynes, C.A., & Hiebert, E.H. (2009). Increasing opportunities to acquire knowledge through reading. E.H. Hiebert (Ed.), Reading more, reading better: Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy (pp. 79-100). NY: Guilford.


The way in which students spend their time in American elementary classrooms has changed substantially over the past decade as a result of new educational policies (NCLB, 2001). The nature and magnitude of these changes is evident in the findings of two recent studies that report that students are spending more time in reading/language arts and mathematics instruction than was the case a decade ago (Dorph, Goldstein, Lee, Lepori, Schneider, & Venkatesan, 2007; McMurrer, 2008). Whereas elementary teachers had previously been devoting an average of two hours a week to science instruction, 80% of the teachers studied by Dorph et al. (2007) reported allocating an hour a week to science and another 16% reported spending no time in science. The gap between the literacy proficiencies of many American students and the complex literacy demands of the information age has resulted in a decade of policies that require more time spent in reading/language arts instruction for students not meeting standards. If students aren’t reading well, policy-makers reason, they should be spending more time learning to read. The phase of learning to read has been conceptualized as primarily a narrative experience and an experience that centers on the learning of linguistic content (e.g., phonemes) and of reading strategies (e.g., summarizing main ideas).

The perspective that we will develop in this chapter is counter to this commonplace interpretation of what beginning and struggling readers need. We will argue that an important part of the reading experience for all students, but particularly struggling readers, is to read to acquire knowledge. We are not suggesting that beginning and struggling readers do not require exposure to and experiences with information about the alphabetic system, nor are we suggesting that narratives have no place in the early reading curriculum. But we will argue that acquiring knowledge is an important, and currently neglected, part of reading development. Acquiring information through text, we will demonstrate, serves as a powerful incentive for reading and writing. Increasing the amount of instructional time devoted to reading skills while decreasing opportunities to use reading and writing to learn about the physical and social world may serve to decrease involvement and expertise in reading. In addition, knowledge is critically important for continued reading, learning, and school achievement, and so reading instruction should be viewed as one context in which to build this knowledge. Delaying involvement with the compelling information of science and the social studies until students can “read well” may have the unintended consequences of making the poor even poorer, while the rich get richer (Stanovich, 1986). We suggest that the integration of literacy and content-area instruction is a potentially effective way to create an engaging, knowledge-supportive context for learning to read as well as necessary for students’ acquisition of critical bodies of knowledge.

In this chapter, we develop a model of integrated content-area and literacy learning in three phases. First, we review scholarship to establish how knowledge acquisition affects comprehension and how it is affected, in turn, by reading experiences. The second section of the chapter presents prior efforts in which language and literacy processes have been integrated or combined with content-area learning goals. Finally, we present theory and research for integrated instruction where knowledge acquisition is in the foreground and reading processes are developed in service of that knowledge acquisition.

For more information about this edited volume, please visit the publisher's (Guilford Press) website.