Curating Text Sets to Build Background Knowledge and Boost Reading Comprehension

This post is a part of a series I’m writing about the evidence based instructional practices I implemented in student teaching. This is post #2. You can read post #1 here: Simple, Not Easy: How giving my students space to think improved engagement and learning.


Because of the power dynamic in schools,  students often think that whatever the teacher presents, especially in language arts, is “good” or unproblematic. With a widely contested novel such as Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, calls to ban it from classrooms for being outdated, racist etc, you have to treat it for what it is: A canonical piece of literature with problems. As I wrote a few months ago, critical analysis is key to teaching this novel because reading the text as-is is the issue, not necessarily reading of the text in general. In addition to numerous political and social issues, the text is dense and the writing style unfamiliar to most novice readers. As reading comprehension is driven by background knowledge, an easy way to both aid in reading comprehension and  critical analysis is through creating text sets that slowly build student knowledge over the course of the novel.

Bridging the Comprehension Gap

Novels are influenced by and written within a certain historical context, so students need access to that knowledge.

Let’s look specifically at a passage from chapter 15 of To Kill a Mockingbird to see how this applies:

“In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. Shadows became substance as lights revealed solid shapes moving toward the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from view.
“He in there, Mr. Finch?” a man said.
“You know what we want,” another man said. “Get aside from the door, Mr. Finch.”
“You can turn around and go home again, Walter,” Atticus said pleasantly. “Heck Tate’s around somewhere.”
“The hell he is,” said another man. “Heck’s bunch’s so deep in the woods they won’t get out till morning‘.”
“Indeed? Why so?”
“Called ‘em off on a snipe hunt,” was the succinct answer. “Didn’t you think a’that, Mr. Finch?”
“Thought about it, but didn’t believe it. Well then,” my father’s voice was still the same, “that changes things, doesn’t it?”
“It do,” another deep voice said. Its owner was a shadow” (202)

Imagine being an 8th or 9th grade student reading this passage.

If you use your isolated close reading skills, you understand that there’s a group of men coming to get Tom, the African-American man on trial for the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, a white woman. You know that the sheriff is gone, and that it is night time. Essentially, you get that *something* is happening, but the text does not explicitly tell you why the mob is there. 

According to Daniel T Willingham, “writing contains gaps–lots of [t]hem” (Willingham 23). Thus for an expert reader and/or someone with significant knowledge of the Jim Crow south, it’s clear that the mob of men are there to lynch Tom Robinson. Since it is unlikely that 8th graders have been exposed to what lynching is, their comprehension of this passage would be limited due to this gap. The teacher must ensure to provide the knowledge required for comprehension, otherwise the understanding risks being rote or at the very best, shallow. 

Applying the cognitive principle that “factual knowledge must precede skill” (Willingham 19),  I curated a set of articles to fill in those knowledge gaps, aid in critical literary analysis, and assist in learning the deep structure of the novel.

As I planned curriculum, I asked myself this series of questions to determine what knowledge the writer assumed that the reader (e.g. my 8th grade students) had:

  1. What do I know about this passage that isn’t explicitly stated?
  2. How can I ensure students have knowledge to comprehend the historical context while acknowledging and dispelling harmful stereotypes?
  3. How can I emphasize deep knowledge of the text versus surface level facts?

To achieve this, I used embedded non-fiction articles as Doug Lemov writes in Reading Reconsidered, compared a poem with the text, and taught vocabulary as Marzano  suggests in Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. As long as the text aided in deepening knowledge of the novel, and related to the essential questions for the unit, that was the starting point for planning. 

Deep Knowledge & Critical Thinking with Text-Dependent Questions

After reading a chapter and corresponding related readings, students have surface knowledge, which is a limited understanding of the complexity of the material e.g. Calpurnia code-switches, The Scottsboro Boys’ case is similar to Tom Robinson’s etc.

Moving beyond the surface is difficult because it means students “understand everything— the extraction and the examples, and how they fit together” (Willingham 74). Moving toward deep knowledge would mean that  students not only understand that code-switching happens, but that it happens due to structural racism in the Jim Crow era.

For example, when students were asked, “How does Harper Lee show that Calpurnia knows what she is and is unable to do as a result of her race?”, many of the were able to correclty cite evidence in the text that supported the claim. A potential follow-up question, a daunting, “Why does Calpurnia have to do this” would normally have students stumped, and the teacher could receive answers like “because she lives a double life” or “because she’s Black” because at this point, student knowledge is inflexible, and shallow. What I did instead was model my thinking process using retrieval of facts from the time period:

Teacher: What era is this novel taking place in?

Student: The 1930s

T: What was happening in the south in the 1930s?

S: The Depression and Jim Crow

T: What did Jim Crow laws say/do?

S: It said that no matter what, a Black person was less than a white person.

T: So, since Calpurnia is Black, and she speaks one way with white families and another with her own people, and the Jim Crow discrimination laws are there, why does she have to code-switch? What would happen is she didn’t?

Instead of leaving students to construct their own and perhaps incorrect meaning with minimal guidance, we should demonstrate how an expert reader ties together information from multiple sources to reach a conclusion. Student responses varied in which evidence they used to answer the “why”, but overall were able to tap into the deep knowledge.

Curating the Text List

Common lit has pre-curated text lists which are a solid starting point for finding non-fiction articles, but using my expertise and training in literature was most useful in selecting a final set.

I’ve copied some information from my unit plan below. When reflecting on final student outcomes, they seemed to benefit from this approach.

Guiding unit questions

How does our identity influence our notions of what racial progress looks like?

How do our life experiences influence our notions of right and wrong?

To what extent is equality possible in Maycomb and modern times?

The (shortened) List

How do you build knowledge in your course?

I’m on twitter.






  1. Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Grand Central Publishing, 2012.
  2. Lemov, Doug, et al. Reading Reconsidered: a Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction. Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand, 2016.
  3. Marzano, Robert J. Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. Hawker Brownlow Education, 2005
  4. Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students like School?: a Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Notes About To Kill a Mockingbird

Lee has Calpurnia code-switch, but the way in which Lee represents this is incorrect. We would never call another person a nigg-r in the derogatory manner that Calpurnia does with Lula. If you’re teaching the book and want to discuss other misconceptions in order to teach the book better, feel free to contact me using the “contact” tab.








  1. […] “Building background knowledge is key to making something relevant,” writes Ms. Jasmine. “If students don’t have sufficient knowledge to comprehend a text, this will often get mistaken for boredom, and the choice-police will come to the rescue with low-level young adult literature.” […]


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