Photo:Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

A shorthand saying holds that until third grade children are learning to read, and after third grade they are reading to learn. Research, however, shows that it’s not that simple. Children’s background knowledge – their understanding of how the world works – is the key ingredient of learning to read with comprehension as well as fluency. And building background knowledge begins in early childhood.

This is what Nonie Lesaux, a literacy expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told us in 2010 when we commissioned her to write “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success.”

And it’s embedded in the Common Core State Standards’ approach to literacy, “in which,” Education Week reports, “fluency and comprehension skills evolve together throughout every grade and subject in a student’s academic life, from the first time a toddler gums a board book to the moment a medical student reads data from a brain scan.” (See “New Literacy Research Infuses Common Core.”)

Massachusetts is among the 46 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have adopted the Common Core. Massachusetts has also aligned its pre-kindergarten standards in English and math with the K-12 standards.

“In our knowledge-based economy, students are not only going to have to read, but develop knowledge-based capital. We need to help children use literacy to develop critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills, making distinctions among different types of evidence,” Susan B. Neuman, an education professor and expert in early literacy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, tells Ed Week.

“The Common Core State Standards is privileging knowledge for the first time. To ensure they are career-and-college ready, we have to see students as lifelong learners and help them develop the knowledge-gathering skills they will use for the rest of their lives. That’s the reality.”

The new understanding goes further than the steps to reading success outlined in the landmark 2000 report of the National Reading Panel — “Teaching Children to Read.”  Peggy McCardle of the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development calls a more sophisticated understanding of comprehension “the next great frontier of reading research.”

“While we don’t have reading comprehension completely figured out in every way,” McCardle tells Ed Week, “we have it much more figured out than we did in 2000.”

The result is an emphasis in the Common Core on complex text and vocabulary at younger ages. There is increased emphasis on non-narrative, informational text rather than an overwhelming reliance on narrative texts. The Common Core, Ed Week reports, “puts into practice research showing that there is no bright line for when students start to read to learn, Ms. McCardle said. Setting one would be ‘an artificial distinction,’ she said, ‘because the ramp up to learning from reading starts earlier and is just that, a ramp-up, not a quick switch or a dichotomy.’”