In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Knowledge Development in Early Childhood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Definitions and Conceptions of Knowledge
  • The Origins of Knowledge
  • Knowledge Development and Educational Outcomes

Education Knowledge Development in Early Childhood
Ashley Pinkham, Laura Herold, Susan B. Neuman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0100


Children’s knowledge is undeniably important. Knowledge is essential for conceptual development and long-term academic achievement. Children who possess greater knowledge exhibit stronger oral language and reading comprehension skills, critical reasoning, and learning across academic content domains. Research has demonstrated that it is crucial to provide children with a strong foundation of content knowledge for at least three reasons. First, knowledge is both cumulative and exponential: children with rich knowledge bases are more successful at learning new information. Second, prior knowledge helps scaffold the encoding and retrieval of new information. Third, knowledge facilitates critical thinking by assisting working memory and freeing up resources that can be devoted to comprehension and analysis. Clearly, children’s knowledge base is a critical component of their educational success. But while researchers from a variety of disciplines now acknowledge that knowledge acquisition needs to be a primary goal of early childhood education, recent surveys have reported a striking lack of instruction focused on developing children’s general world knowledge, as well as their knowledge of core concepts and domains. This is a critical oversight, as disparities in content knowledge in the early years may ultimately contribute to reading comprehension difficulties or higher-order thinking difficulties in older children. It is thus the goal of this article to highlight the importance of knowledge development, consider how children acquire knowledge in the real world, and address strategies that can help build children’s knowledge bases in the classroom and beyond.

General Overviews

The resources highlighted in this section provide general overviews of the key issues related to knowledge development in the early childhood years. Over the past decade, a number of works have addressed how the breadth and depth of children’s background knowledge may have long-lasting implications for their literacy development, academic achievement, and lifelong success. Most of the resources included in this section are intended for a general audience of researchers, students, and practitioners interested in educational research and policy. The American Educator special issue on background knowledge (Hirsch 2006b) is an excellent introduction to the area of knowledge development. It is concise, features work by leading scholars, and is highly accessible to a wide audience. For those interested in a more in-depth discussion of knowledge development, Pinkham, et al. 2012 is an edited volume, with each chapter addressing sources of children’s knowledge and how those sources can be integrated into classroom settings. McMurrer 2007 and Pianta, et al. 2007 each provide valuable information on the state of current practice, documenting the lack of instructional time devoted to the content-rich subject areas that are foundational for building children’s background knowledge. Limited attention to fostering children’s knowledge development in school settings may be a contributing factor to so-called knowledge deficits or gaps. Building on this possibility, Kamhi 2007 provides a concise, compelling argument for why knowledge development should be a primary goal for education. For those seeking a more comprehensive analysis of this argument, Hirsch 2006a and Neuman and Celano 2012 provide thought-provoking overviews detailing the emergence of knowledge gaps, particularly focusing on the implications of such deficits for long-term academic achievement. Readers interested in educational and classroom implications are also referred to the second section of Pinkham, et al. 2012, which discusses instructional strategies for promoting knowledge acquisition, and Guthrie, et al. 2004, which provides illustrative examples of supporting disciplinary conceptual understanding in the classroom.

  • Guthrie, John T., Allan Wigfield, and Kathleen C. Perencevich. 2004. Motivating reading comprehension: Concept-oriented reading instruction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Book focuses on disciplinary conceptual understanding, particularly how content knowledge, reading strategies, and student motivation interactively support reading instruction. Provides examples of hands-on science activities supporting reading comprehension and illustrative vignettes and case studies connecting reading instruction to content areas and children’s real-world observations. Valuable resource for students and practitioners.

  • Hirsch, E. D., Jr. 2006a. The knowledge deficit: Closing the shocking education gap for American children. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

    This book explores providing elementary-school children with a knowledge-based core curriculum. Schools focus on teaching the basic skills of reading without also conveying the knowledge needed for reading comprehension. Socioeconomically disadvantaged children especially lack opportunities to build content knowledge, leading to socioeconomic status related deficits. Useful resource for students and teachers.

  • Hirsch, E. D., Jr., ed. 2006b. Background Knowledge: The Case for Content-Rich Language Arts and a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for the Early Grades. In Special issue: American Educator 30.1.

    Special issue of this publication of the American Federation of Teachers. Leading scholars, including E. D. Hirsch Jr., Susan B. Neuman, and Daniel T. Willingham, discuss the importance of background knowledge for long-term academic success and the impact of knowledge deficits on the achievement gap. Valuable resource for a wide audience.

  • Kamhi, Alan G. 2007. Knowledge deficits: The true crisis in education. ASHA Leader (29 May): 28–29.

    Suggests knowledge acquisition should be a primary goal of education. By redefining comprehension and reasoning as domain-specific skills taught through information-rich content, focus can shift from reading proficiency to addressing difficulties students have in learning specific content areas. This thought-provoking commentary should encourage discussion in introductory courses and upper-level seminars.

  • McMurrer, Jennifer. 2007. NCLB Year 5: Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era. Washington, DC: Center for Educational Policy.

    Policy report examining the allocation of instructional time devoted to core academic subjects since the enactment of No Child Left Behind. Schools increased time spent on language arts and mathematics while reducing time for science, social studies, and other content-rich subjects. Of interest to students, researchers, and policymakers.

  • Neuman, Susan B., and Donna Celano. 2012. Giving our children a fighting chance: Poverty, literacy, and the development of information capital. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Recent book by leading researchers describes a decade-long investigation into two communities with drastically different economic resources. Disparity between affluence and poverty creates a knowledge gap, which has serious implications for academic achievement, economic prosperity, and social mobility. This comprehensive analysis will be of interest to educators, policymakers, and reformers.

  • Pianta, Robert C., Jay Belsky, Renate Houts, and Fred Morrison. 2007. Opportunities to learn in America’s elementary classrooms. Science 315.5820: 1795–1796.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1139719

    Multistate, longitudinal observation of elementary-school classrooms. Teachers focus instructional time on basic skills instruction in reading and math. Science, social studies, and opportunities for cooperative learning are rare, especially in schools serving low-income communities. Explores implications of inequity to high-quality, content-rich educational experiences for children’s long-term academic achievement. Available online by subscription.

  • Pinkham, Ashley M., Tanya Kaefer, and Susan B. Neuman, eds. 2012. Knowledge development in early childhood: Sources of learning and classroom implications. New York: Guilford.

    A comprehensive examination of knowledge development with a cross-disciplinary approach. Leading scholars discuss the processes by which young children acquire knowledge through firsthand experiences, interactions with other people, and knowledge-building supports. Instructional strategies for promoting content knowledge and literacy development are examined. Useful book for education researchers, students, and teachers.

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