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Conditional Knowledge

A third influence on learning and using reading comprehension strategies is conditional knowledge, which often relates to knowing when, why and how to use declarative and procedural knowledge (Alexander, 2008). In the case of reading, conditional knowledge is used to mediate reader-text interactions, and it provides executive control over the strategies for constructing meaning (Bakracevic-Vukman & Licardo,

2010). For developing readers, managing reading comprehension strategies can be a taxing proposition. There is only so much bandwidth (working memory resource) for students to determine what strategy (or strategies) to use, deploy them and then monitor their appropriateness and success, and gain declarative knowledge. A result is that developing readers have much to attend to as they endeavor to learn new content, new reading strategies and the means to manage their acts of reading.

Conditional knowledge is reflected in a readers situational understanding of reading, and involves metacognition, as decisions are made to set goals, calibrate performance, apply strategies and assess progress (Baker, 2009). Conditional knowledge reflects a students understanding of why a strategy is important and when it should be used (Paris et al., 1983). Conditional knowledge is necessary to inform student readers’ increasingly independent actions—as they initiate reading, monitor comprehension and conclude acts of reading (Dinsmore, Alexander, & Loughlin, 2008). In addition, conditional knowledge is necessary for students’ appropriate framing of the epistemological nature of reading—if a text or author is to be challenged, or if the contents of text is trustworthy. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards, and with increasingly complex reading and reading-related tasks demanded of students, the centrality of conditional knowledge for success is apparent.

Epistemic Knowledge

A fourth type of knowledge is epistemic knowledge. Kuhn and Park (2005) describe four levels of epistemic development, and related stances towards knowledge. The realist stance assumes that “knowledge comes from an external source and is certain”—a reader assuming this stance has no need for critical thinking and related strategies. The absolutist stance assumes that “knowledge comes from an external source and is certain but not directly accessible, producing false beliefs.” Accordingly, critical thinking strategies are a vehicle for comparing assertions to reality and determining their truth or falsehood. The multiplist stance assumes that “knowledge is generated by human minds and therefore uncertain,” and readers’ critical thinking is irrelevant. The evalu-ativist stance assumes that “knowledge is generated by human minds and is uncertain but susceptible to evaluation,” and critical thinking strategies are necessary for readers to construct and evaluate meanings (Kuhn & Park, 2005, p. 113).

The development of student readers’ critical and evaluative reading strategies must be accompanied by epistemics: an understanding of the nature of knowledge (Cho, Woodward, & Li, 2018; Elby & Hammer, 2010; Greene, Sandoval, & Braten, 2016). Specific to reading, epistemic knowledge helps the reader develop an appropriate stance towards texts and tasks, and this stance influences reading strategy choice. Epistemic knowledge also helps readers “frame” their approach to both texts and tasks.

Consider the interactions of reading strategies with epistemic knowledge related to two texts: political propaganda and a chapter about an unfamiliar topic. Students, using conditional knowledge, must determine the strategic and epistemic approach they will adopt with each text. Skepticism related to propaganda may trigger a student reader to take an evaluative stance with a series of analytical strategies that focus on constructing meaning and determining if there is evidence to support a series of outrageous claims. With the second text containing unfamiliar content, student readers are reduced to using comprehension strategies to construct literal understanding, and information will be taken at face value. Students are unable to conduct critical appraisal of text because they have an insufficient declarative knowledge base with which to make judgment of the text’s accuracy and trustworthiness, and their epis-temic stance-taking is therefore limited.

Disciplinary Knowledge

The fifth and final type of knowledge that figures in reading comprehension strategy use is disciplinary knowledge. This knowledge may be required of students when they read in school content areas. For example, history as a school subject and discipline has evolved in some classrooms to include “reading like a historian”—wherein students focus on interpreting different texts, identifying text sources, determining the trustworthiness of the texts, constructing understanding within and across texts, and making judgments about which historical accounts contained in the text are most reliable. Students’ ability to do so is tied to the strategies particular to the discipline:

Successful readers of history are aware of the intertextual nature of history and are adept at noting conflicting accounts, reconciling contrasting views, and synthesizing information from complementary sources.

(Aftlerbach & VanSledright, 2001, p. 697)

Disciplinary knowledge guides this inquiry—student readers employ reading comprehension strategies in accordance with the culture and established practices of the discipline. The more “true” to the discipline, the more need for discipline-specific reading strategies. And, the more discipline-dependent, the more we should expect curriculum and instruction to help acculturate students to the discipline (Moje, 2015). Goldman et al. (2016), reporting on their work with reading comprehension and disciplinary knowledge, describe this as such:

[t]he members constitute a discourse community and share a set of conventions and norms regarding valid forms of argument and communication. These norms reflect the field’s epistemology—the nature of the disciplinary knowledge and how new knowledge claims in that discipline are legitimized and established ... Thus, in addition to knowing the concepts and principles of their discipline, community members have knowledge about their discipline that supports engaging in the reading, reasoning, and argumentation practices.

(p. 6)

Disciplinary knowledge is based on students’ experiences and learning, and represents the broadest set of understandings that student readers must have and use to be successful with reading comprehension strategies. Disciplinary knowledge involves declarative, procedural, conditional and epistemic knowledge. For example, beginning a unit on ecosystems, students must have a rudimentary knowledge for science—a bridge between what students already know and what they must learn in the unit. Procedural knowledge is evinced as students use the scientific method to investigate predator-prey relationships in a nearby pond. Conditional knowledge assists students in choosing appropriate strategies, using them as necessary, and monitoring the construction of meaning and the related task work. Epistemic knowledge guides students as they approach science—is the content of reading selections comprised of undisputed facts, models and examples of predators and prey?

In summary, different types of knowledge operate in concert with students’ reading comprehension strategies, and this knowledge is necessary in all acts of reading. Our theoretical perspective suggests that identification and characterization of these different types of knowledge will benefit reading comprehension strategy instruction. Each of these types of knowledge develops as students learn. Thus, determining the presence of these types of knowledge and their level of development is essential for reading success.

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