Why is background knowledge so important for reading comprehension? Background knowledge, the information and experiences we already have about a topic, helps us make links to new information. It’s a key reason we can comprehend text written at a higher reading level than what we might normally be able to read. Prior knowledge in any language can help compensate for poor second language reading skills. It’s why a graduate student can easily comprehend a research article in her field of study written in English, her second language. Lack of background knowledge is also why an undergraduate student with similar English proficiency might struggle to read and understand texts in English, his second language.
Graduate students benefit from their deep background knowledge on a specific topic. Undergraduates, on the other hand, must read on a wider range of topics in their general education courses. Background knowledge is even more critical for younger students. They have less knowledge of everything—in any language—compared to adults. English learners in an English-speaking classroom may also be less likely to share common knowledge with their native speaker classmates.
The Importance of Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension
Some experts feel lack of background knowledge is one reason for the relatively flat reading scores of K–12 students in the United States since 1998 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). A panel of experts in 2018 concluded building general background knowledge has been given short shrift, crowded out by a narrowing of the curriculum and too much instructional time spent on teaching reading strategies (O’Donnell, 2018). One panel member (Willingham, 2006/07) pointed out many studies show good readers use reading strategies, but far fewer studies show using reading strategies causes good reading comprehension.
To make good readers, teachers should spend more time building students’ knowledge and vocabulary. Well-known educator E.D. Hirsch noted in his 2006 book, The Knowledge Deficit, that schools do a good job of teaching the mechanics of reading, but blamed insufficient background knowledge for the far-too-common slump in reading comprehension beginning in the upper elementary grades.
I saw for myself how this played out at my school’s data intervention meetings for at-risk students, many of them English learners. Lower elementary classroom teachers often noted students needed more phonemic awareness skills. In the middle grades, after their students had mastered the mechanics of reading, teachers said comprehension was the issue. This isn’t exactly a new “problem.”
Research by Recht and Leslie as long ago as 1998 suggested building background knowledge may help with comprehension. (Here’s a short video summary of their well-known “baseball study.” They preassessed seventh and eighth grade students for reading comprehension ability and for prior knowledge of baseball. Then students read a passage describing a half inning of a baseball game and performed various recall, retell, summarizing, and sorting activities. Students with high knowledge of baseball and low reading ability performed as well as students with low knowledge of baseball and high reading ability. In other words, prior knowledge made up for poor reading skills.
Background knowledge helps students more easily understand difficult concepts and use higher order thinking skills than they might normally be able to do. It helps English learners learn things while they’re still learning English—a win-win.
Tips for Building Background Knowledge
What can individual teachers do to build background knowledge for their students? Here are four tips:
1. Frame Your Lessons
“Frame” your lessons by recapping what went before when starting a lesson and reviewing what has happened when finishing a lesson. For example, before beginning the next chapter in a text, have students in pairs retell what happened in the previous chapter. This “catching up” may seem boring to you, but it’s valuable recycling for English learners.
I once had a helpful principal who always began explanations in staff meetings with “I realize some of you may already be familiar with this, but for the new people on staff…” Invariably, people who were “already familiar with this” ended up asking as many questions as the new people. The teachers with prior knowledge had more ways to view the already familiar information. That generated more sophisticated questions. It can work the same way in your classroom as it did for the teachers in my school’s staff meetings. The review, revisiting, and recycling you do to improve comprehension can also benefit other students who are already familiar with the content.
2. Connect Everything
Connect everything to something else. Avoid one-off lessons or presenting something “cold.” A teacher once told me he hadn’t done any preparation for his students before a field trip to see a play because he wanted the students to be “surprised” by the end. When teaching, surprises aren’t good. If your students are reading about a topic, make sure they also read additional selections, listen to a lecture, or view a video about that topic.
3. Create Shared Experiences
This helps level the playing field because everyone starts with a similar background knowledge base. A shared experience can be as elaborate as a field trip, or something as simple as a video clip, a book read aloud, or a class demonstration. Many things can suffice as long as students experience them together. Then, teachers can use these shared experiences as springboards to other reading activities.
I once saw a powerful example of the effectiveness of a shared experience in a second grade class. A key vocabulary word in the reading selection was factory. As a visual example, the teacher showed the students a short video clip about a chocolate factory. Several days later, when students were discussing the key vocabulary in small groups, students in every group referenced the video when defining factory. The short video clip proved to be a valuable anchor point for understanding this key term from the unit—for all students.
4. Become a Background Knowledge Ambassador
English language teachers are less likely than their general education colleagues to assume students’ common background knowledge simply because English language teachers so often teach diverse classes in varied settings. Still, don’t allow teachers to simply bemoan their students’ lack of background knowledge. Remind your counterparts that they can fix it; in fact, help them fix it by offering tips, including the ones I’ve just given you!
If you have any other tips for background knowledge–building that have worked well for you, please share with us in the comments section, below!
Hirsch, E.D., Jr. (2006). The knowledge deficit: Closing the shocking education gap for American Children. Houghton Mifflin.
Recht, D., & Leslie L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 16–20.
O’Donnell, A. (2018). Key takeaways from this year’s NAEP results. International Literacy Association. https://literacyworldwide.org/blog/literacy-now/2018/04/13/key-takeaways-from-this-year-s-naep-results
Willingham, D. T. (2006/07, Winter). Ask the cognitive scientist: The usefulness of brief instruction in reading comprehension strategies. American Educator, 39–50.