The Importance of Building Background Knowledge in Reading

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Imagine this classroom scenario: students are asked to read a passage about artificial intelligence (AI) and then answer comprehension questions. Will students with some knowledge of AI have an easier time of it? The answer is likely yes. After all, building background knowledge is crucial for reading comprehension.

What Is Background Knowledge in Reading?

Think of the background knowledge definition as information students bring to their reading on a particular topic. Background knowledge, also referred to as content knowledge or prior knowledge, allows students to make meaning of what they are reading.

Here's another background knowledge example: A student who has studied ecosystems of the tropical jungle will find it easier to read an essay about ecosystems of the ocean. Their background knowledge in reading already includes an understanding of the word “ecosystems,” and they have a solid sense of what this term means. This knowledge allows them to apply the same principles they have learned about the jungle to a new ecosystem: the ocean. Even if students know little about oceanic ecosystems before diving into the essay, their background knowledge in reading other texts about ecosystems has already given them a strong platform.

The same is true for any reader! The more we know about a topic before delving into a text, the easier it is for us to comprehend what we are reading. For example, even a skilled and fluent adult reader might be flummoxed by a dense, highly scientific text about electromagnetic induction. However, if you know even a little bit about the principles of electricity and magnetism, and have a decent scientific vocabulary, your background knowledge will provide hooks that will allow you to make headway into the text.

Students can gain background knowledge from many sources: texts they’ve read, videos they’ve watched, discussions they’ve had with mentors or caregivers, in-class activities they’ve completed, field trips, vacations, movies, and much more. While background knowledge applies to reading, it doesn’t necessarily have to come solely from books.

Why Is Background Knowledge Important in Reading?

Background knowledge is a key aspect of reading, as students will more readily derive meaning from a text if they already have a general sense about the topic at hand. The more they read and the more information they encounter in the course of their lives, whether at home or in school, the more they will know.

This knowledge can be powerful. “Research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills: It actually makes learning easier, writes Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning.

Background knowledge builds as students grow and have access to a wider array of topics, especially as they encounter nonfiction texts of increasing complexity. According to research from Digital Promise, which advances equitable education systems by bringing together solutions across research, practice, and technology, “students typically rely more heavily on background knowledge as they progress through school, and are required to build upon prior background knowledge.”

This also applies to fiction. Students who have read a wide variety of books and built a strong vocabulary will have more tools for comprehending a story. For example, students will understand that words can have different meanings depending on the context (e.g., “bear” could be a noun referring to an animal, or it could be a verb, as in the phrase “bear a heavy load.”) Students with a knowledge of history will be better prepared to absorb a novel such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

Having strong background knowledge also builds confidence and passion in students. One high-school senior (this author’s son), while hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with some older teenage mentors, learned through their conversations about the delicate plants that grow in the alpine zone. Fascinated, he then sought out books to learn more. He eventually wrote his college application essay about how this passion led him to pursue a degree in environmental science.

How to Build Background Knowledge in Reading

Knowing the wide variety of literature, essays, nonfiction books, poetry, and more that students will encounter during their time in school, how can we best prepare them to have the background knowledge in reading that they need, especially when it comes to increasingly challenging material?

Here are some ways in which teachers can build and strengthen background knowledge:

1. Do Deep Dives into Themes

Consider organizing your lesson plans by themes, devoting a sizable block of time to allow students to explore a topic fully. For example, if you’re studying penguins with your elementary students, have the class do a deep dive into the world of penguins, learning all about their habitat, behavior, diet, and more. Provide them with multiple entry points into learning about penguins: fiction, nonfiction, videos, or even a trip to a local aquarium. Introduce them to several different books about penguins.

As students solidify their knowledge and vocabulary about all things penguin-related, they will gain confidence to tackle the next subject—whether it’s nocturnal mammals or physics—in which they will become “experts” and proficient readers. They’ll also begin to make deeper connections and ask questions that will expand their background knowledge; e.g., Where does the penguin fit in the animal kingdom? How many types of penguins are there? What other creatures also lay eggs? What species are endangered?

Here's another example that you might use with middle and high school students. Let's say you're doing a unit on horror. Do a deep dive into the genre. Introduce them to the themes in horror, and provide them with examples of suspense writing. Show them videos or pictures that evoke the feeling of suspense to analyze tone and mood.

Engaging students in discussion is also a great way to build background knowledge because they can learn from one another’s experiences and share their prior knowledge on topics. Here a couple questions to get the conversation started:

  • What kinds of settings or descriptions can evoke a sense of fear?
  • Have you ever watched a horror movie? What happened that made the movie scary?

2. Build Knowledge Before Introducing a Text

Imagine that you’re preparing to introduce a literacy unit about Chinese New Year. Your unit includes a chapter book about a young boy’s experiences celebrating the holiday. Before you dig into the book, have students use a KWL chart to jot down what they already know about the subject and what they want to learn. They can complete the final column of the chart after further reading.

After evaluating their KWL charts, you may discover that some students have very little background knowledge on the topic. You can introduce Chinese New Year to them by sharing a video, posting photographs of the celebration around the classroom, sharing some key vocabulary terms, reading a poem aloud, or taking them on a virtual field trip. This way, by the time students open the book you’ve chosen for them, they will already have a much deeper understanding of Chinese culture and Chinese New Year.

Now let's say you're introducing a novel like S.E. Hinton's Outsiders to high school students. Much of the culture and language would be unfamiliar to them since the story takes place in the 1960s. Here are some ways to build students' background knowledge:

  • Have students research topics like 1960s fashion and slang.
  • Show photos of teens from the early 1960s who look like the Greasers and the Socs. Ask: What do you notice?
  • Provide journal prompts related to the theme: “Do you think that the people you hang out with determine the kind of person you are? Why or why not? Provide examples.

3. Fuel Students' Passions with Rich Subject Matter

Science and social studies lessons are perfect opportunities to solidify background knowledge in reading. Grow students’ content knowledge with exciting, rich texts in which they can learn about history, physics, nature, psychology, current events—rather than just assigning reading for reading’s sake.

“In preschool, children really explore their passions: dinosaurs, trucks, ballet. Through books and toys and play, we build on those passions,” says Francie Alexander, SVP of Research at HMH. As students get older, “sometimes too much of a focus on the development of skills and strategies can get in the way. Students may be able to read all the words, but they won’t be able to truly understand them. So we should allow students room to find, grow, and develop their passions in various content areas.”

Using Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension

The importance of background knowledge can’t be underestimated when it comes to reading comprehension. The two are truly intertwined. A student with a wealth of knowledge about a variety of topics will find it easier to build reading comprehension, make predictions and inferences, summarize a text, and retain what they have read. "Students can build even more background knowledge as their reading comprehension improves," says Francie Alexander. “It’s a virtuous circle. The more you know, the more you grow.”

Background knowledge allows us to make inferences and fill in the gaps between what is stated and unstated in a piece of writing. For example, a journalist writing a story about the World Series is going to assume that their readers already know that baseball is a ball game played on a diamond-shaped circuit of four bases. This assumption allows the journalist to skip over the basic details and rules of the game to get to the action of the story. But for someone who has never heard of baseball, doesn’t know baseball terminology, and has never even read about sports, these gaps will make the story incomprehensible. A sentence such as “the pitcher got two strikeouts in the sixth” will be confusing. A pitcher of water? What is a strikeout? The sixth of what?

Having solid background knowledge in a wide variety of subjects helps a reader to make connections and draw conclusions, even when encountering a new topic. For example, imagine that you’re reading a news story about the sport of cricket. This sport has many complex “laws” and is sometimes baffling to the uninitiated. Like baseball, it is a bat-and-ball game—but the bat is flat, there are 11 players rather than nine, and the playing field is a different size and shape. But if you already understand the concept of baseball and sports in general, you’ll have an easier time comprehending the article about cricket. The more knowledge a student has, the more opportunities they have to forge a pathway into a new text or topic.

By helping students to build interconnected pathways of background knowledge in reading comprehension, teachers can open up new worlds of learning and excitement. It’s a systematic process that builds on itself. As students engage in knowledge mapping, a clearer picture begins to form about the interconnectivity of all the things that make up our world.

Carol Jago, HMH author and associate director of the California Reading & Literature Project at UCLA, put it like this in a recent blog on background knowledge for Shaped: “The more students read about a topic that fascinates them—from dinosaurs to black holes—the more easily they comprehend increasingly complex texts about the subject. These readers have built a base of knowledge to which new learning can adhere.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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