Using content knowledge to build connections
The Classroom

Stories From The Classroom: Using Content Knowledge To Build Connections

Annie Grabowski
Mar 27, 2023

The other night at dinner my youngest niece turned to me out of nowhere and asked “what phase is the moon in tonight? Is it waxing gibbous or waning gibbous?”  When I told her I had no idea, she quickly replied, “just look it up on your phone.” 

Kids only know a world where these magic boxes we carry around in our pockets hold the answers to any question they could ever have. Don’t know how something works? Just look it up on your phone. Don’t know the meaning of a word? Just look it up on your phone. Anything they don’t understand can be answered with a simple Google search.

But what if they don’t know what to search for? 

For High School English Teacher, Sarah Becker, she knew her students would need to build a frame of reference for the world that William Faulkner created in As I Lay Dying. Yoknapatawpha County is foreign to them, in a time period where technology, society, and the everyday pressures that the characters face, were not familiar to the teens she was teaching in Arlington, Virginia in 2023. She says it’s critical to pre-empt what students might not know about a novel or a text they’re reading with content knowledge. Without content knowledge, students miss significance of plot points, context, and critical concepts that aren’t explicitly explained in the text. Sure, they can Google vocabulary or references they don’t understand, but political atmospheres, cultural traditions, mythology and allusions–those are harder to capture in a search bar.

Sarah shared her lesson on the Newsela Community, and we thought it was one of the best examples of  leveraging Newsela ELA to give students the background knowledge they need in order to seamlessly understand the book.

We asked Sarah to share a bit more about her process for using Newsela to create lessons focused on building content knowledge. Here’s what she had to say:

What were you intending to do with this lesson?

I really wanted to help students “situate the novel within a global and national scope that provides context beyond the author's setting.” I tried to do this in a couple of ways:

  • Framing the lesson with essential and supporting questions to guide students’ thinking

  • Supplying students with a graphic organizer to capture their thoughts

  • Including clear instructions on how students should engage with the selected Newsela texts 

  • Providing extension resources for students to further build their understanding

How do you help students build content knowledge?

We build content knowledge through a multimedia, and even sensory, approach. If we consider how we immerse ourselves in a topic outside of academics, we frequently engage through many different angles: literature (of course), news and current events, history, music, art, popular media, and even food. For As I Lay Dying, we watch videos of discussions of the book, examine political cartoons, and more. 

What benefits do you see from taking the time to build students’ content knowledge while diving into fiction texts– do any ‘aha moments’ stand out when students made a connection or better understood something?

What I notice most is the individual and group engagement that comes from them feeling ownership over their learning. I love that moment when a student cautiously offers an inference or connection to the text based on their personal culture or identity. They’re not hung up on what they don’t know, but able to more quickly make connections from their own lives to what they’re reading. It validates the time spent creating that shared context and broadening our collective understanding of a text, when they feel confident enough to offer that piece of themselves to our classroom community. 

How does Newsela ELA help you create opportunities for building content knowledge in your classrooms?

When building content knowledge, creating opportunities for student voice and choice can be difficult. I love that using a text set with many different resources offers these chances and also allows for students, regardless of Lexile level, to engage in meaningful interactions. The article  “In the Aftermath of World War I, Nations Were Forever Changed,” can be read at different reading levels and even in Spanish, to ensure that students can understand the background needed to make connections to the characters and setting of As I Lay Dying

One of the best things that Newsela ELA provides is the ability to effectively differentiate content for students.

To learn more about how Newsela ELA supports content knowledge, visit us here.

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