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Building Background Knowledge in K–6 Literacy

6 Min Read
Building Background Knowledge in K–6 Literacy

Let’s say, without much knowledge about aerospace engineering, you’re about to delve into an article or book that covers that topic. Do you think you would be able to fully comprehend the text? As researchers from Digital Promise share, even for adult learners, connecting to their background knowledge when teaching new information can reduce frustration and expand their understanding.

Having sufficient background knowledge is especially important for young learners to ensure they can grasp the topics they will encounter along their learning journeys. However, students have different experiences. If students lack background knowledge about topics, building it can help fill in the gaps and, ultimately, improve reading comprehension.

The Importance of Building Background Knowledge

According to literacy expert Dr. Carol Jago, those who read more know more, and learning from reading can help students find the books they read and assessments they tackle less difficult. In fact, as education policy expert Ruth Wattenberg shares, a knowledge gap might occur between students with and without adequate background knowledge. Background knowledge helps students grasp concepts based on what they already know. Reading, however, is not the only way students can build their knowledge (we will cover additional ways later), but it is one of the most effective strategies.

Additionally, building background knowledge through reading can enhance students’ vocabulary. Research from Digital Promise suggests that prior background knowledge can help students understand the multiple meanings that words might have and figurative language used in writing, which is crucial for students to evolve as readers and delve into complex texts they encounter as they progress. Overall, students build on their knowledge as they advance through school. Students with more background knowledge will better comprehend different texts and lessons.

5 Quick Tips for Building Knowledge

Building background knowledge can be achieved in various ways, such as using pre-reading activities to help students prepare to read a text or through ELA knowledge-building programs that help build content knowledge over time. The tips below, adapted from our article on the eight elements of reading and literacy instruction, provide five tips for building topic knowledge.

Cover Big Ideas

Introduce students to the ideas, facts, and processes they need to know to understand new materials and readings. For example, before a lesson or a reading assignment, teachers could introduce students to the new concepts they will encounter beforehand.

Build Word Knowledge

Identify and teach necessary vocabulary students might encounter during upcoming lessons or in texts. You can teach vocabulary using word maps, word walls, dictionaries, and thesauruses. For example, if students are learning about the civil rights movement, you might introduce them to words like suffrage, equality, boycott, and protest.

Provide Multiple Genres

Introduce students to a range of genres on the same topic, such as narratives, narrative nonfiction, and informational texts, that can help them build the background knowledge they need to understand upcoming materials. For example, if students are learning about Jackie Robinson, they could read a picture book like I Am Jackie Robinson or one of the many Jackie Robinson biographies for young students. Independent reading can also help students build knowledge on their own.

Review for Understanding

Review often and in different ways with questions that move students beyond rote recall and literal comprehension; that way, students will forge a deeper understanding of what they are learning. Let’s say Grades 5+ students are reading Esperanza Rising, a book that weaves in Spanish words. You could review to see if students understand the meaning of the words. Additionally, after students read the book, you could ask questions like, “How did the Great Depression affect Esperanza’s family?” or “How did Esperanza’s life change after she immigrated to the United States?” to gauge students’ understanding of key plot elements.

Encourage Language Engagement

Encourage students to talk about their learning to help them connect more to the topic and potentially use some of the new words and concepts they have learned. Additionally, students might learn more about the topic at hand from one another through conversation.

Using Digital Tools to Enhance Learning

Educators can use digital tools to build students’ background knowledge in literacy, such as those offered by HMH. Ideally, the tool has a range of texts, relevant writing assignments, and opportunities to learn and apply new vocabulary in a classroom setting.

Beyond educational programs, other digital tools can build knowledge in literacy:

  • Audiobooks: Like printed books, audiobooks let students listen to readings related to what they are learning. Additionally, audiobooks, when paired with text, help struggling readers students hear correct word pronunciation and usage.
  • Videos: Students can learn about topics before delving into related texts through watching videos. For example, let’s say students are required to read the picture book Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca. Students could watch videos about the historic moon landing to learn more about this major theme of the book.
  • Virtual Field Trips: Virtual field trips can transport students to places connected to their learning. If students, for example, are reading We Are Water Protectors by author Carole Lindstrom and illustrator Michaela Goade, they can go on a virtual trip provided by PBS LearningMedia or any other option that provides an in-depth look into the lives of Indigenous peoples.

Additional Resources to Support Building Knowledge

Background knowledge can impact how students learn in the future. And building background knowledge can fill in any gaps that students might have so that they can tackle the lessons and materials ahead. The articles and resources below provide more information and strategies to support building knowledge in K–6 literacy.



Explore our hubs of graphic organizers, one in particular for reading comprehension, for more resources that support building background knowledge. This article delves into how graphic organizers can be used throughout learning to activate prior knowledge or to take notes while building their knowledge.

KWL Chart

KWL chart can identify what students already know about topics and what they want to learn. This tool also helps students organize their thoughts after learning. Download the KWL template below.

Venn Diagram

Venn diagram can also help identify what students already know; they can compare upcoming concepts and ideas to what they might have already learned. Plus, a Venn diagram can be used after learning as a type of formative assessment. Once students complete their Venn diagrams after a reading or lesson, teachers can review and gauge how well students understood the texts and materials and what they still do not fully comprehend. Download the Venn diagram template below.

Word Map

A word map can be used to build academic vocabulary. Using this tool, students can identify synonyms and antonyms, create a visual representation of terms, and define vocabulary in their own words. Download the word map template below.


Discover how HMH Into Reading and our Spanish program ¡Arriba la Lectura! build background knowledge for students in Grades K–6.

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