From the Field

Research Notes: How Subject Knowledge Strengthens Reading Skills

Studies have shown that people understand a written text more deeply when they are already familiar with the topic at hand. But what happens when educators deliberately cultivate students’ knowledge and vocabulary in an academic subject over a period of years?

A new study suggests that a curriculum that promotes science learning over time not only increases students’ science vocabulary and ability to read science-related texts, it enhances their general reading comprehension and even their mathematics achievement.

Researchers from Harvard University, North Carolina State University, and the American Institutes for Research investigated the effects of a curriculum intervention called the Model of Reading Engagement (MORE). MORE was designed to help children in grades 1-3 build their knowledge of social studies and science content and vocabulary.

The experiment involved 2,870 students across 30 elementary schools. Primary-grade students were randomly chosen to participate in a full experience of MORE, with lessons in grades 1-3 plus summer reading, or in a partial experience of MORE, only experiencing lessons in third grade. The partial experience of MORE was considered the control group.

Students in the experimental group used MORE to build science knowledge and vocabulary over time by studying topics like animal survival, the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, and how living systems work. MORE emphasizes building vocabulary and helping students create mental models, or schema, that help them integrate new learning into what they already know about a topic.

Students in the treatment group showed greater science vocabulary knowledge across all three grades. And students in the treatment group showed small but persistent effects on science reading, general reading achievement and math achievement in third grade. These effects continued into fourth grade, as measured by a 14-month follow-up.

The study’s findings indicate that using a knowledge-building curriculum over time can help primary students grow into stronger readers by third and fourth grade, key grades for mastery of reading.

But the study implemented the curriculum as part of an experiment, with strong guardrails to ensure it was implemented as intended. As the researchers noted, “It will be critical to study the implementation of the full MORE spiral curriculum in new school districts, to determine if the treatment effects replicate in other contexts.”

Time to Transfer: Long-Term Effects of a Sustained and Spiraled Content Literacy Intervention in the Elementary Grades

September 2023

James S. Kim et al.