General Knowledge and Long Term Memory

General Knowledge and Long Term Memory

I recall a trip to Europe when I chatted with a cab driver about global politics, a waiter about global warming, a hotel concierge about the state of the middle east, etc. It boggled me how much the general population knows about politics, science and government affairs in other parts of the world. However, back here in the US, I see many high school students who cannot even tell me what Martin Luther King, Jr. was known for, what the capital of Italy is, where the first Olympic games were, etc.

An area where parents and teachers can clearly impact children’s learning in the US is the reservoir of information available in their long term memory. Long term memory serves as a platform for new learning and is critical to both attending to and understanding newly presented information.

An important component of being a thinking member of society and a successful student is the reservoir of culturally relevant general knowledge one possesses. Although no big fuss is typically made about this aspect of intelligence, which almost all IQ measures do in fact assess (general knowledge), this reservoir of knowledge is critical to learning and rising to higher levels of thinking (being knowledgeable and wise). It is not so much that you know more “stuff,” it is that you can see more relationships, patterns, and variations in themes when presented with challenges. While a great deal of resources are channeled into education to teach children to read and spell words, the same is not true for developing their reservoir of general knowledge.

On Sunday, November 26, 2017, The New York Times published an exert from The Reading Mind: A cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads by Daniel T. Willingham, A professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia (click here to see the full article:

Many Americans are good readers, but not good at comprehension. Willingham argues that America’s difficulties with reading predate digital technologies. Although educators in early elementary school, and on into middle school, create larger and larger blocks of time dedicated to literacy training (reading words and spelling), overall, we are not producing better readers. Willingham points out that scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test have not improved in 30 years.

In my experience being a specialist in learning disabilities, with my greatest interest in phonological and orthographic dyslexia, I see poor readers (i.e., they cannot easily decode or recognize words) who can comprehend. I also see many children who can recognize and sound out words from print, creating the illusion of being good readers; however, they have miserable comprehension skills.

Why do good word readers lack in comprehension skills? And when provided the opportunity to listen, why do good listeners have poor comprehension skills? In some cases, they lack the ability to generate mental imagery. However, many times, they just lack a foundation of long term memory knowledge to build comprehension around words.

These students comprehend very little because another critical part of the reading process is minimally addressed by our school and culture: general knowledge (science-how things work; civics-how government works; tools and building-how we make things; geography-where stuff is; history-what has and hasn’t worked and why). Factual knowledge is the critical missing variable in reading or listening comprehension.

All passages have factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. For example, in his book, Willingham cited the following example:

“I promised not to play with it, but mom still would not let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.”

The author has omitted 3 facts vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library; Rubik’s Cubes make noise; and children do not resist tempting toys very well. If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you miss why mom forbade the toy in the library.

Another example cited by Willingham to illustrate this point even more involved a study in which 3rd graders, some identified by tests as “good readers” and some identified as “poor readers,” were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were 3 times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as compared to the good readers who did not know much about the game. Although this may seem oversimplified, you need to know “stuff” (general knowledge) in order to gain comprehension from passages or have any interest in passages. Broad knowledge is the variable that creates a platform for learning, and to a large degree, creates intelligence to morph into wisdom.

In other words, parts of intelligence are not fixed. Intelligence is not general. Intelligence is not a thing. Intelligence is a dynamic, diffuse, and ongoing process. This finding fits perfectly with the earlier work of Mihály Csikszentmihályi and colleagues, who concluded that “high academic achievers are not necessarily born ‘smarter’ than others but work harder and develop more self-discipline.”

We can trick ourselves into thinking that measuring a person’s intelligence is like measuring the length of a table. But in truth, it’s more like measuring a 5-year-old’s weight. Whatever measurement you get applies only for today. The quality of the environment the child grows up in, as it relates to the right level of exposure to the right stuff, amplifies or diminishes IQ development as one ages.

Knowledge provides context. Making good readers at the level of comprehension is a clear function of a child’s opportunity to pick up general knowledge. Systematic building of knowledge should be a priority of curriculum design. According to Willingham, and myself, we should not blame technology, smart phones, video games, or fake news for America’s poor reading, listening, and reasoning skills. We should blame ignorance!

WHAT CREATES IGNORANCE IS THE LACK OF OPPORTUNITY TO LITERACY – Parents talking regularly to their children (starting in infancy), reading to them, exposing them to culturally relevant semantic knowledge, traveling, visiting zoos and museums, and so on, creates more foundations for learning.

A relatively famous study was initiated by Hart and Risley. They analyzed Head Start programs, which are run by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Head Start programs provide comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. Hart and Risley found that the reason Head Start programs were not effective was not so much the mechanics, but the timing. Head Start was not getting a hold of children early enough. Somehow, these children were getting stuck in an intellectual rut long before they got to the program; before they turned 3 or 4 years old. Hart and Risley set out to learn why and how this was happening. They wanted to know what was tripping up their development at such an early age. Were they stuck with inferior genes, lousy environments, or something else?

They devised a novel (and exhaustive) methodology: for more than three years, they sampled the actual number of words spoken to young children from 42 families at three different socioeconomic levels: (1) welfare homes, (2) working-class homes, and (3) professionals’ homes. Then they tallied them up.

The differences were astounding. Children in professionals’ homes were exposed to an average of more than 1500 more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes. Over 1 year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which by age 4, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words. They also found a substantial gap in the tone and complexity of the words being used. As they crunched the numbers, they discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement. “We were astonished at the differences the data revealed,” Hart and Risley wrote in their book Meaningful Differences. “The most impressive aspects [are] how different individual families and children are and how much and how important is children’s cumulative experience before age 3.”

In other words, the more stuff you know, the easier it is to learn more stuff; particularly when it is relevant to what you know (or have been exposed to by your caretakers). If the task you are exposed to in school undershoots what you already know, then you will likely be bored. If they overshoot what you know, you will likely be lost (this can look like apathy, avoidance, frustration, and poor attention).

Empowering young minds to gain general knowledge is nothing new. A clear visionary in this field was Glenn Doman, who created The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. This is a group of nonprofit institutes founded by Glenn Doman in 1955. They are internationally known for their pioneering work in child brain development, for their programs to help brain-injured children achieve wellness, and for well children to achieve excellence.

In short, Doman’s approach involved spending copious amounts of time with infants and toddlers, at a developmental time when absorbing and learning is at its peak, and exposing them to culturally relevant information through words and corresponding visual images. In other words, higher levels of learning are highly dependent on talking to your child a lot between birth and Kindergarten to build a foundation of knowledge and facts. Doman has created a host of materials that are still available through his website (please see the following link:

To some degree, intelligence can be compared to a bean plant. Planted in a typical growing medium, the plant will grow to an average height. Planted in a desert, it will not reach the height of an average plant. Planted in a rain-forest, it will more than likely grow to its fullest potential. While there are limits to the neuroplasticity of intelligence, providing the right environment and flooding children with culturally relevant knowledge is the “fertilizer” that fuels maximum cognitive development (i.e., IQ potential is maximized when the environment provides optimal stimulation).

Scores on general knowledge tests are highly associated with reading comprehension test scores. It is sad but true that 3rd graders typically spend 56% of their time on literacy activities and 6% each on science and social studies. Civics is not even a component of many elementary school curriculums.

If you want to make your children smarter and better at reading comprehension, listening comprehension, and demonstrating common sense, do not count on school. Count on your relationship and time with your child. More importantly, count on how you spend your time with your child, particularly from birth to 5 years of age.

Click here for more books and teaching materials:

At Child Provider Specialists, our job is to guide each child to the highest level of functioning that our present knowledge of neurocognitive processes will permit, no matter how unique and diverse their brain may be from most other brains.


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