Building Background Knowledge Improves Reading Comprehension

By Naomi O'Brien

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Background knowledge goes a very long way. So many of us were never explicitly taught how to intentionally build background knowledge -or why it was so important to do! Many educators have a similar story. We don’t always understand how important it is to take time to make sure students have some firm footing before diving into a story.

Let’s discuss!

It is critical to build background knowledge. Most books assume a level of background knowledge, and depending on the knowledge our students come to us with, they may have an unfair disadvantage because of the texts and writing prompts that are considered most valuable in schools and by test manufacturers. We posted this on our social media channels and educators from all over has the most insightful thought on this topic:

At my American school in DRCongo we use American math programs and do map testing which require a level of background knowledge that most kids don’t have. It’s not that they can’t do the math but they’ve never thought of somebody selling lemonade by the side of the road for $0.05. Background knowledge is so important. You’re right it must be built.

Source: https://www.instagram.com/me_sondra/

Another teacher added:

I have found background is increasingly needed due to the pandemic. My kinders haven’t been to the “usual places” – post office, errands, places in the community. No field trips or speakers coming in for career day. It’s changing how we need to teach because we can’t assume or generalize that kids have what we used to consider typical. Even though they are just starting school, the world they are growing up in is not the same.

Source: https://www.instagram.com/jenniferbaker23/

As you can see, this goes beyond reading. It just makes sense to build that background knowledge up to increase reading comprehension! Those are such powerful examples of the importance of background knowledge!

It’s not that they don’t know anything- it’s that different students may be more likely to have the background knowledge that many schools and textbook companies say is the most valuable. (Ew. Like another one of our readers stated: “Insert rant about culturally biased standardized tests here. ” – Source: https://www.instagram.com/mrskingisreading/

There is good news!

We can level the playing field by intentionally teaching background knowledge in a variety of ways! We started focusing a building background knowledge through read alouds and social studies lessons and we saw growth in our students without question.

There are so many unknown topics to introduce students to! We love solving this problem by teaching our social studies monthly units that are FULL of random, interesting, and wonderful things about the world. Check those out here.

Build that background! We LOVE to use what we call “background builders” with students. These are eMagazine articles that revolve around informational standards- but are all connected to a larger theme… like COLORS! Check out some of these images below- notice how they are all connected to color in some way, but the goal here is building background through exposure! The topics being connected by theme will allow students to seamlessly begin to make those connections, build vocabulary, and tuck that knowledge away for when a similar topic comes up in literature!

Read the entire post on background builders here!

This is doable! This can and should be infused into our reading instruction.

Hopefully, you can see how an entire magazine that revolves around the same theme can help students with those connections and will build background. This isn’t the only way to get this done- there are lots of ways. It’s more about making sure that we intentionally create the time and space to teach background knowledge.

We also have a structure in place to make sure that enough background knowledge is taught before diving into literature. You can read more about Perspective Through Picture Books here. Click to see more.

Giving students a chance to have some foreknowledge can change the game when it comes to reading comprehension. Just imagine visiting a place that you’ve never been to or heard of. You are expected to get work, eat, get around, and figure things out but nothing looks familiar. You have no clue what to expect or do. How would you feel? Probably lost and frustrated. Now how would that trip be different if you’d read some books, watched some videos, and talked to some people who had been to this place? You’d feel much more prepared and probably much more successful on your trip. It’s the same thing with our students who are diving into the world of reading. We have to help them prepare!

Naomi + LaNesha

Naomi

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Hi, I'm Naomi

I have been teaching elementary students for over 10 years. Effective reading instruction and accurate social studies at the primary level are huge passions of mine! 

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