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Want Students to Succeed in Reading? Build Background Knowledge!

We know that what readers bring to a text matters a lot.  Louise Rosenblatt, way back in the 1930’s, told us about “reader response theory,” which basically means that the reader interacts with the text.  This interaction is what we want, of course.  We don’t read to be passive word callers; we read to gain meaning.  So this sort of metacognitive interplay between the text and the reader is the goal.  This interaction has a whole lot to do with background knowledge.  

Background knowledge is a huge factor in reading comprehension.  It’s included as an important part in Duke and Cartwright’s Active View of Reading, which is a needed update of  Scarborough’s Reading Rope model.  Hollis Scarborough’s rope itself included background knowledge as an upper strand, and the importance of background knowledge was the finding in an often-cited, 1988 study known as the “baseball” study.  Later studies have found the same to be true, and even went so far as to quantify how much background knowledge a child should possess in order to understand a topic.  

It’s also just common sense.  I know a whole lot about literacy instruction, so it’s not a problem for me to read and comprehend a technical research article about literacy.  I can transact with it.  But I know absolutely nothing about anything medical, so I’d be pretty lost if handed a medical research article.  

How background knowledge is built

Background knowledge is built in different ways.  One way, of course, is through experience.  Going to new places, taking in the sights, and learning from other people is an important way to learn.  

But… not everyone has access to that kind of experience.  It can depend a lot on socio-economic status, making it an unfair advantage of the more financially comfortable.  

“We know that children who come from homes with lower socioeconomic statuses already enter kindergarten with a huge language deficit—in vocabulary, syntax, and, of course, background knowledge. Teaching reading comprehension strategies while forsaking background-building content and strong vocabulary development is like planting seeds in rocky soil. You can hope something may spring up, but chances are there is not enough soil for the seed to take root and grow.  

-Janet Jones, Blue Moose Literacy blog

Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap echoes this, saying that reading strategies must “rely on activating prior knowledge—which means they only work if a reader has enough background knowledge to understand the text in the first place.”

Why?  It’s all about the ability to infer and to synthesize.  All readers must put the pieces together, beyond just decoding the words.  Decoding is just the first step–comprehension is the goal.  And background knowledge provides a critical piece of the puzzle.

What’s another way to build background knowledge? 

Reading!  As we read, we gain knowledge about different experiences.  This is exactly where the idea of windows and sliding glass doors comes into play.  

In the classroom, we can be very intentional about what we read and what we provide students to read to capitalize on this idea.  Read aloudsinteractive read alouds in particular–are a perfect starting place.  We can choose read alouds that make it possible to learn about different cultures, people, and ideas.  The sky’s the limit!

We can also choose read alouds that lay the groundwork for future content learning.  Thinking especially about the heavy topics in social studies and science, it’s wise to read books that build that foundation well before getting into that content.  When you use both narrative and expository texts, students get the human side and the factual side.  We all–both children and adults– learn and remember best through story.  A recent Education Week blog post about background knowledge in light of the recent “Science of Reading” movement also stresses the importance of background knowledge for comprehension of content, and advocates for teaching concepts through reading.

Then, when you do dive into the heavy content later, along with all of its vocabulary, students would already have a solid footing to connect new learning to.  Without that footing, the foundation is precarious, and the chance of them holding onto much of the new learning is slim.  

But we can go one more step for even greater learning

Building text sets for building background knowledge is extremely beneficial here.  I wrote about the idea of text sets in a previous post, so please check that out for some context.  With a text set, background can be built in small steps, and you can add in layers of complexity and differing perspectives along the way. This is simultaneously a perfect way to build vocabulary.   Tim Shanahan writes about this very same idea in his blog.  

“Research has long shown the importance of knowledge in comprehension. If a reader knows much about a topic, his/her reading comprehension rises.”

-Tim Shanahan

Read alouds truly are the bread and butter of any strong literacy instructor’s practice.  Intentionality is the key, though.  We cannot–and should not–rely solely on what’s given to us–or even suggested for us–by our curriculum.  Teachers must also know their content standards and their students in order to be most judicious in the read alouds that are shared.  Time in the classroom is terribly short–so this careful selection is important.  There’s no time to waste.  This is also why there’s no need to purchase separate vocabulary curriculum or download a single thing.  You don’t need complicated, never-to-be-used-again foldables or downloads.  This is isolated vocabulary busywork that kids aren’t likely to hold onto.  

Read alouds are the key to keeping it simple! (P.S. Video is another form of text, so you might think about including a few videos as well).

Given the incredible gains in vocabulary and background knowledge that these intentional choices can provide for student learning, text selection is paramount.

Looking for a starting point?  

My favorite source for finding books on just about any content topic is  A lot can be found on Epic as well, which makes it easy to cast to a smartboard so all students can see as you read.  And don’t forget what a tremendous resource your school and public librarians are–they can even bring in books from surrounding libraries so you don’t have to purchase a thing!

Could you use a thinking partner to develop and implement a text set around a topic to build student background knowledge?  Contact me to set up a coaching call!  And  join my private FB group for immediate support! 

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Related posts:  Lesson Planning Tips That Help You Do More, Better, And in Less Time, What’s the Best Way to Teach Vocabulary?, Teach the Reader, Not Just Reading, Get to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later

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