Simply put, background knowledge is what you already know or have learned about a topic. This information is stored in your brain and retrieved when necessary to make connections to the world around you, understand new experiences, and make reasoned decisions on a daily basis. Reading requires a great deal of background knowledge relevant to the text to help with interpreting, predicting, and connecting to what is being conveyed. Without this knowledge to draw upon, you may struggle to fully comprehend the text.
When good readers begin reading, various information about the topic in the text is stimulated in their brains. They begin to connect that existing knowledge with new knowledge they are encountering in the text, adding to or making new categories of information in the brain to be accessed in the future. When this happens, readers are able to increase their reading comprehension. With each new reading experience, readers can continue linking and growing their knowledge, thus increasing their ability to understand a wider variety of texts. As Duke, Pearson, Strachan, and Billman (2011) suggest, “knowledge begets comprehension, which begets knowledge” (p. 55).
Teaching Background Knowledge
The ways in which teachers engage students in activating and building background knowledge can positively or negatively influence students’ reading comprehension. Sometimes, teachers try to give as much information as they can, hoping that it will ease students’ load and make reading more enjoyable. Unfortunately, such extensive instruction may make reading unnecessary for students: “Why read when the teacher will tell me all I need to know beforehand?” This takes the journey out of the reading experience, and students begin to become dependent upon the teacher to supply them with the knowledge they will need—whether or not they ever read a given text for themselves.
Instead, teachers need to provide just enough background to set a purpose for reading and really entice students to read on, thus ensuring that they will learn more. It is also important that the information a teacher reveals is not something intended to be learned in the text or something the students would be likely to understand from reading the text themselves. Providing appropriate kinds of background knowledge instruction applies to reading both narrative fiction and informational passages, but the specific approaches may vary to suit the text type.
Building Background Knowledge for Reading Narrative Fiction
To entice students prior to reading a fictional passage, it is common to ask, “What do you know about [the topic].” However, that could encourage students to focus too much on general information that may not support understanding the particular text they will read. Similarly, prompting students to “Look at the illustrations and make a prediction about what you think is going to happen” may either give too much information away or establish an expectation for the events in the story that could be inconsistent with what actually happens. Instead, teachers might try one of the following:
- Asking students to make a prediction based on the key ideas in the text.
- Posing questions about the kinds of events and scenarios presented in the text, including questions that would help students make connections to other texts the students have read.
- Discussing students’ beliefs about the topic or ideas in the text and then reading to confirm or amend their initial thinking.
Building Background Knowledge for Reading Informational Text
As when reading fictional narratives, it is common to entice students prior to reading an informational passage by asking a broad “what do you know?” question and getting a variety of answers that may or may not be useful to supporting comprehension. Instead, teachers could help focus the students’ background knowledge by asking a targeted question to set a purpose for students’ learning. Below is an example of how a teacher might use targeted activation of background knowledge about the frog in preparation for reading and talking about the life cycle of the frog, including the changes the frog makes over its lifetime.
Think of a time when you saw a frog. It might have been at the pond, in your yard, at the zoo, in a book, or on television. Picture in your mind what you saw. What did the frog look like? Picture its skin, eyes, toes, and how it eats its food. Now that you have that picture in your mind, write what you are seeing and thinking so you can use it to help when we read about frogs.
[The teacher and students co-create a list of characteristics of frogs.]
As we read today, we are going to think about the things we know about frogs that we have on our list. We want to relate those to the new things we are learning to help us understand about the life of the frog.
The ability to activate and build knowledge prior to reading will help students reference what they know as they confirm, clarify, or augment the information with what is presented in the text, thus improving reading comprehension (Shanahan et al., 2010).
Another option is to use targeted activation of background knowledge during reading, rather than prior to beginning the text. For example, instead of providing so much information about the moon that students do not really need to read The Moon by Seymour Simon (2003), the teacher could provide stopping points in the text to pose targeted questions. When reading about the phases of the moon, the teacher could have students stop and explain to a partner what the moon looks like at different times during the month and why they think it looks that way. Then, students can continue reading with the purpose of looking for information to confirm or refine the knowledge they just shared with their partners.
Finally, strategic use of short, informative videos can build a deeper and more targeted understanding of a concept than a simple picture walk (paging through a book, using the illustrations to talk about what might be happening before reading) of an informational book. Before reading Aliki’s (1992) Milk: From Cow to Carton or Gibbons’ (1987) The Milk Makers, the teacher would establish the purpose of the lesson: understanding where milk comes from and what happens to it before it gets to the store. Next, students would watch a short video on milking a cow. If done quickly and purposefully, students will be primed to build or use the information from the video to comprehend what they read, eager to learn more and enjoying the journey.
Final Thoughts about Building Background Knowledge
“Children are natural knowledge seekers” (Pinkham, Kaefer, & Neuman, 2012, p. xiii), so the goal of building background knowledge is to take advantage of that curiosity and channel it to support students’ reading comprehension. Revealing all the information to them prior to reading cuts the journey short. But giving students enough to get them started will facilitate building knowledge, learning new things, and enjoying the process of reading.
Aliki (1992). Milk: From Cow to Carton. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Strachan, S. L., & Billman, A. K. (2011). Essential elements of fostering and teaching reading comprehension. In. S. J. Samuels & A. E. Farstrup (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (4th ed.) (51-93). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Gibbons, G. (1985). The Milk Makers. New York, NY: Aladdin.
Pinkham, A. M., Kaefer, T., & Neuman, S. B. (2012). Knowledge development in early childhood: A not-so-trivial pursuit. In A. M. Pinkham, T. Kaefer & S. B. Neuman (Eds.), Knowledge development in early childhood: Sources of learning and classroom implications (pp. ix-xiii). New York, NY: The Guilford Press
Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through 3rd grade: A practice guide (NCEE 2010-4038). Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education | Full text
Simon, S. (2003). The Moon. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Sample Lesson Plans
Now that you are familiar with how best to teach background knowledge to increase comprehension of a given text, you may wish to utilize the following sample lesson plans with your class, or review them to get a better sense of how to implement these instructional strategies in the classroom.
Activating Background Knowledge Elementary School Example Lesson Plan: Contains lesson on Frogs by Gail Gibbons and semantic web graphic organizers for teacher and students.
Activating Background Knowledge Middle School Example Lesson Plan: Contains lesson on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech and t-chart graphic organizers for teacher and students.