So I was pretty stoked when I found a link to Willingham's video Teaching Content is Teaching Reading at Julie Niles Petersen's TWRCTank site (TWRC rhymes with “work” and stands for think, wonder, reflect, and connect).
Using some simple yet effective examples and statistics, Willingham shows that background knowledge is really key to raising comprehension.
If that's not enough evidence for you, E.D. Hirsch came to pretty much the same conclusion regarding content knowledge, as expressed in his N.Y. Times Op/Ed piece Reading Test Dummies (and he uses the same example of students with baseball knowledge which Willingham mentions in the video). While I don't always agree with every little thing Hirsch has to say, I'd still be shoulder to shoulder with him when it comes time to choose sides.
So what does this have to do with teaching novels?
This emphasis on content knowledge seems to support the practice of providing students with some fundamental context of a novel's historical period, genre attributes, author, and themes.
Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, for example, takes place in Warsaw's newly built Jewish ghetto. The Nazis have restricted Polish Jews to a walled section of the city where they're forced to live, work, and survive by any means. Young Misha, already an experienced thief and scrounger, struggles to find an identity in a world in which he's known by many names: Stopthief, Jew, Gypsy, Runt.
While students could read this novel "cold," with little or no prior understanding of the Holocaust, I think some background knowledge of the ghetto's social complexities would really add to the story's plot, as well as help to explain many of the characters' actions and reactions to the story's events.
For this particular novel I'd recommend Children in the Ghetto, an interactive site which describes itself as
"...A website about children, written for children. It portrays life during the Holocaust from the viewpoint of children who lived in the ghetto, while attempting to make the complex experience of life in the ghetto as accessible as possible to today’s children.
Along with the description of the hardships of ghetto life, it also presents the courage, steadfastness and creativity involved in the children’s lives. One of the most important messages to be learned is that despite the hardships, there were those who struggled to maintain humanitarian and philanthropic values, care for one another, and continue a cultural and spiritual life."
Once they've completed this exercise, students will have a mental bank of sites, sounds, stories, and symbols from which to draw upon, greatly increasing their understanding and appreciation of the novel.
Other ways to build background knowledge? Primary accounts, guest speakers, articles, web sites, picture books, video clips, personal stories, artifacts, field trips, and images. Better yet, ask the students to become the researchers. What materials can they find to construct their own knowledge?