What is Background Knowledge?

Background knowledge is the amount of information or knowledge someone has on a particular topic. Background knowledge is acquired by the number of experiences someone has in life or the amount of knowledge they have retained from reading or listening. Reading a variety of genres of books, listening to multiple media sources, and engaging in conversations on multiple topics only increase someone’s background knowledge. Background knowledge helps students of all ages and reading levels fully understand text. When students activate their prior knowledge, their reading comprehension grows.

Why is Background Knowledge Important?

Background knowledge is a critical component in determining a student’s success in reading comprehension. This one element can often make or break a child’s reading comprehension level. Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. Making connections is an important reading strategy that encourage readers to share text to self connections, text to text connections, and text to world connections. When students share their connections, through conversation, writing, or illustration, this is a strong indicator of a child’s background knowledge. Background knowledge can be most helpful in comprehending nonfiction text, which often proves to be a difficult genre for students to fully understand.

When readers have a wealth of previous life experiences or have gained information about a specific topic or content area, their reading comprehension level is automatically increased. When a student already has the background knowledge to support a full understanding of the presented text, their level of comprehension expands. These students are able to easily analyze and interpret, explain their perspective, infer and summarize the text simply because they feel more confident in the subject matter. The more information a student has on a topic, the easier it is for the student to read, recall, and understand the text. Outside of school, a child’s level of opportunity or experience often depends on their family’s routine or dynamics. In order to provide an equal playing field to support student reading success teachers, teachers should consider implementing background knowledge in every literacy lesson.

How to Implement Background Knowledge in a Literacy Lesson

When we recognize that comprehension is closely correlated to a student’s background knowledge, we should make every effort to implement background knowledge in our daily literacy lessons. The background knowledge of a setting, a historical event, an invention, or famous individual can greatly affect a child’s understanding of any given text. A student will not fully understand a historical fiction novel that takes place during World War II if they don’t have any background knowledge on the history of the war.

How can we add background knowledge to every literacy lesson? Before reading the text, ask students to make connections to find out exactly what they know about the topic. A student’s background knowledge of vocabulary words also impacts the comprehension of a text. Therefore, using a picture walk to explore vocabulary terms or asking students to supply synonyms of selected vocabulary terms also help increase background knowledge before reading.

Implementing daily independent reading time is an easy, effective way to organically increase a child’s background knowledge. Using paired texts across genres to support social students and science objectives is another way to plan lessons that allow students to active prior knowledge. If a teacher is planning a unit on ocean animals, he or she should gather both fiction and nonfiction books, poems, and songs about them. Reading a biography about an oceanographer or a mystery that takes place near the beach adds to a child’s personal vault of knowledge and inquiry-based learning. When a student can use vocabulary and facts from the nonfiction articles and books and apply them to their understanding of a fictional piece, reading comprehension increases.

Implementing background knowledge should be a creative, engaging part of a literacy lesson. Classrooms can take virtual fieldtrips and track settings on a map or globe to understand how the setting impacts the understanding of the text. A story that takes place in China is significantly different from a story that takes place in Ireland. Books take readers to many locations; the background of the location is a key story element to understand. Bringing the book to life also increases background knowledge. If the book takes place in a garden, consider creating a school garden. If the book is about sea life, consider taking a real field trip to the nearest aquarium.

If a book is about a famous musician, listen to the music. If the book is about the weather, invite a meteorologist to come speak to the class. If the book is about Peruvian food, consider making the food or eating at a Peruvian restaurant. Experiences increase reading comprehension; teachers have the opportunity to provide experiences that will result in increased comprehension for students and additional background knowledge for the future. Anything is possible.

Background knowledge is essential in a student’s ability to fully comprehend text. When we as educators understand the importance of this literacy component, we develop lessons that lead students to become stronger thinkers and life-long readers and learners.