Strengthening critical thinking with a content-first approach: How Amplify CKLA is closing gaps in an elementary classroom

Hear from an elementary classroom teacher about using knowledge-based curriculum and the Science of Reading to improve comprehension skills and critical thinking.

By Kathe McCormick-Evans, First Grade Teacher, Arlington VA | February 5, 2024


In my first-grade classroom, we’ve been studying early world civilizations. My students and I have pretended to hop in our time machines and travel back—first to ancient Mesopotamia, then to ancient Egypt. We’ve written our names on clay tablets in cuneiform and learned what it means for a religion to be polytheistic. We’ve compared and contrasted early farming systems and places of worship. As I prepared to read aloud another lesson a few days ago, I mentioned to the class that it was the eleventh lesson in the unit of study, prompting widened eyes and a chorus of “Already!?

I teach eighteen six- and seven-year olds in a Title I school, where half of the students are low-income, 75% are non-white, and over half are multilingual/English learners or speak another language at home. In my job, I’m honored to empower students who schools and society have not always served well. I became a teacher to help end that inequity—to close the knowledge gap and ensure that low-income, non-white, and immigrant children receive the tools they need to build a bright future. A growing body of research tells us that a strong base of content knowledge is essential for student growth and success in literacy. We also know that students who come from low-income backgrounds are less likely to come to school possessing the academic background knowledge of their peers, presumably because they have more limited opportunities to come across this type of knowledge at home. For this reason, I’m grateful that around a year and a half ago, my district adopted the knowledge-based literacy curriculum CKLA.

Scenes from a knowledge-based curriculum

What does knowledge-based learning look like in practice? Here’s one powerful example of how a knowledge-forward lesson helped my students succeed in practicing an important literacy skill. We were reading about Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who wanted to locate Tutenkhaman’s tomb. The lesson lends itself well to one of our state’s curriculum standards for the quarter: to make and confirm predictions about nonfiction text. Part one of the Read-Aloud ends on a cliffhanger: After a years-long search with no success, encountering dead ends and tomb robbers, Carter uncovers a hidden door marked with a royal seal.

“A prediction,” I explained, “is a careful guess about what you think might happen, based on the clues you already know. Think about what you know from the story, and predict what Carter might find behind the door.” We quickly reviewed some of the main points as I scribed on chart paper: Carter had been searching for Tutenkhaman’s tomb for six years, pharaohs were often buried with treasure or gold, the door they found was in the last possible place to look in the Valley of the Kings. I handed out papers I’d prepared with sentence frames for students to record or dictate their ideas. We hadn’t yet spent much time this year explicitly practicing prediction-making—in fact, I wondered how many of my students even knew what the word prediction meant—but I could see the wheels already turning behind most of my students’ eyes as they wiggled with excitement, envisioning gold, ghosts, King Tut’s tomb, or a pile of bones.

“Maybe nothing,” one student—a six-year-old who speaks primarily Spanish at home—told me with a shrug as I helped him write down his ideas. “Maybe the tomb robbers took it all.”

How to improve critical thinking—with knowledge

Even though my students might or might not have been familiar with the literacy skill of making and confirming predictions, the rich and meaty Read-Aloud set them up for success. It was rife with topics of interest to many a six- or seven-year-old—exploration, tomb robbers, golden treasure, mummies—which kept them engaged. And it included plenty of details through which they could actually draw a meaningful inference about what Carter might have found. I had to explain only once that a prediction should be based on information you already have—not a random guess—and every one of my eighteen students successfully generated a plausible idea.

This is the magic of a knowledge-based curriculum. It levels gaps in learning by generating a rich, shared base of content knowledge that supports the development of key literacy skills. My students were successful in plausibly guessing what might happen next in the story because they had a strong grasp of the information about Howard Carter. I might have chosen to teach an entire mini-lesson on prediction-making first and then asked my students to apply the skill to a less thoughtfully selected text, or to an independently selected book on their own, but if they weren’t already familiar with the topics it covered, my guess is that they would have been far less successful.

The curriculum standards for literacy in both the Common Core and Virginia (my school’s state) emphasize critical thinking skills and specific comprehension strategies, such as inferencing, over content knowledge. This is understandable: Students must learn to make meaning of a text in front of them, not just read the words on the page. But as Natalie Wexler puts it, “The ability to think critically…is inextricably linked to how much knowledge you have about the situation at hand” (The Knowledge Gap, 39). How could my students make a prediction about a future event in a text if they didn’t understand the textual clues they were given in the first place? Especially given that students from low-income homes are likely to possess less background knowledge about the curriculum they will encounter in school, a focus on teaching skills in isolation can contribute to a far-from-level playing field.

Teaching “comprehension skills” first and then expecting students to apply them is common practice in the method of literacy instruction frequently referred to as balanced literacy. Though the conversation about literacy is, thankfully, moving toward a research-backed approach focused on the Science of Reading, we still have a long way to go. While student teaching during my education master’s program less than three years ago, I was encouraged to teach mini-lessons on topics such as “finding the main idea” and “using topic headings to understand,” which students would then practice with independently selected texts. This approach is not supported by research as a best practice—and it assumes a shared base of cultural knowledge. In that way, it entrenches inequality by privileging students who may already possess more background knowledge, allowing our most vulnerable learners to fall even further behind.

By contrast, a knowledge-based curriculum creates that base together, giving all students a better chance at success. My own experience confirms the research. CKLA empowers my students to take ownership of their learning, expand their vocabularies, make connections, and passionately engage. I’m grateful to use an evidence-based curriculum designed to ensure that every student—including those too often left behind by our schools and other institutions—can learn to read.

More to explore


Early literacy Literacy instruction Reading curriculum Science of Reading curriculum

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