Today we’re talking about how to build background knowledge. I know that sometimes it can feel like it’s phonics, phonics, phonics when we’re talking about the Science of Reading. I get it. It is an area that has been lacking from many of the big reading curriculums. Additionally, a large percentage of teachers admit that they were not properly educated in phonics instruction during their certification programs. This has led to phonics being a huge focus for our work with Science of Reading. And rightly so!
However, it’s really important that the pendulum doesn’t completely swing in the opposite direction. Word Recognition, which includes phonics and decoding, is only ONE part of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. The other equally important part is language comprehension, which includes background knowledge, vocabulary, and language structures.
We need to be teaching ALL of the components if we are hoping to create successful readers. (You can read more about the components in my overview of The Science of Reading.) So today, we’re going to be digging into one of these equally important parts of SoR-aligned instruction: Building Background Knowledge.
Why is Building Background Knowledge So Important?
We cannot assume that just because a student can accurately read a high-level text, they also have the background knowledge to comprehend what they’ve read. Background knowledge is what helps us anchor our learning. Without it, it is hard to make sense of and hold onto new information.
How many of us were taught to “activate students’ background knowledge” before starting a lesson? I know I was! And this is a crucial piece to creating those anchors… but here’s the problem: What if students don’t have any background knowledge on a given topic?
We need to not only be working to activate prior knowledge but actually build it in the classroom. This isn’t done passively. Building background knowledge needs to be intentional and explicit.
Don’t Wait to Build Background Knowledge
Often times teachers are led to think that we should first focus on decoding and word recognition. Then, once students are ready to encounter more difficult words and content in texts, we should focus on building background knowledge. Unfortunately, this approach prioritizes one section of the reading rope and forgets the other strands. And if there’s one thing we know for certain, we need to be teaching ALL of the strands to create successful readers.
While our students are working with letter-sound recognition, we should be building background knowledge to create essential knowledge networks. Developing decoding and word recognition skills can happen alongside building background knowledge and vocabulary.
The more background knowledge we can build with students before asking them to engage with the content of a text, the more likely they will be able to access the information and hold onto it.
How Can We Build Background Knowledge?
So now we know building background knowledge is important, but how do we go about it? One important thing to remember is that we don’t want to create knowledge in isolation. Instead, we want to create networks of understanding for students to draw from. We want to help them create categories of information and help students build connections and pathways between them.
Build Background Knowledge through Read Alouds
Being intentional with our read alouds is an incredible way to build background knowledge. When we begin a new unit, we can start building that background knowledge with stories. If we select rich texts that provide students with an introductory understanding of content and vocabulary, we are helping to build foundational knowledge that will be critical to the rest of their success in the unit.
I loved listening to Susan Neuman, a Professor of Childhood and Literacy Education at NYU, in her interview with Amplify Education. She suggests that when selecting texts to build student’s knowledge networks, we should move through three stages:
- Call and Response Texts
- Rich Fiction or Narrative Nonfiction
- Informational Texts
When we begin with call and response texts, students are exposed to new vocabulary in a predictable manner. Students have to focus less on comprehending more complex story structures and instead can focus on building a first layer of understanding.
We can then move into fiction or narrative nonfiction texts, where students can form an emotional connection to the content. This will allow teachers to explicitly build categories of understanding with students, as well as the pathways between them.
At this point, we have built a foundational understanding and developed a way for students to begin organizing their learning. Now we are ready to learn and retain content from informational texts. Why is that? To navigate tier two and tier three words (which we will get into in my next post when we discuss vocabulary) students need to attach their new learning somewhere. When we learn words and content in isolation, we lack an anchor to make it stick.
Neuman explains that when students learn content by moving through different genres, we are actually using the texts themselves to scaffold student learning.
Explore Topics In-Depth
Developing knowledge networks takes time. This means that we should be aiming for depth within content areas instead of shorter, surface-level understanding.
I know this is not always within a teacher’s control. Sometimes we have a scope and sequence that we feel moves too quickly. This can make our work with building knowledge networks more challenging, but it’s not always a dead end. For example, one year my science scope & sequence asked me to cover the following topics:
- Human Skeleton
- Predators vs. Prey
Those topics could very easily be taught quickly and in isolation. In fact, I did treat them as different topics at first. However, when I took a step back (with the help of my science curriculum coordinator) I was able to find a pathway to bridge the three topics: structures.
- Bridges served as the introduction to structures and an understanding of stability and force.
- Human Skeletons transitioned to natural structures in the human body and reinforced understandings of stability and force.
- Predators vs. Prey built upon anatomical structures. We studied the skeletal functions of different animals, and how those functions related to being a predator or prey.
By approaching each unit as a study of structures, I was able to be more intentional with the vocabulary and background knowledge I built with my students. Each unit formed a foundation for the next. By the end, it felt like one giant, in-depth unit full of knowledge networks, instead of units in isolation.
Teach Idioms and Literary Language
Oftentimes, how students understand their reading is related to their ability to navigate idioms, literary language, many-meaning words, and homophones. Students may be able to decode a very high-level text, but without background knowledge, they may miss out on major pieces of understanding. This is can be especially important to note for Emerging Bilingual/Trilingual students.
Explicitly contrasting literal and figurative meanings can prove extremely helpful in building background knowledge of language. Co-creating visuals of many-meaning words, homophones, and idioms is a great (and often hilarious) activity. Those same visuals can also become helpful reference tools in the classroom.
Highlight Nonfiction Text Features
Building knowledge of text structures can be an equally powerful practice. Learning from texts is often impacted by our students’ ability to navigate the books that they read.
Explicitly teaching our students how to utilize nonfiction text features will support their reading and understanding of informational texts. For example, when teaching headings, it is important to not only talk about what they are, but to also model their function. When students understand that headings get our brain ready for what information is coming next, it empowers them to pay attention to that text feature the next time they encounter it in a book!
Our students successfully build background knowledge when they can anchor their learning. This anchoring comes when students make connections with their learning and reading. We can begin by modeling connection-making through Think Alouds. By sharing our own thought processes as we read a new text, we can model categorizing information, making analogies, comparing and contrasting, and making connections to their own experiences.
Connections are the pathways within the knowledge network. We build strong background knowledge when students can organize the information they take in AND create meaningful connections throughout those networks.
This section deserves a post of its own (don’t worry, because it’s actually coming up next). Vocabulary and background knowledge are inextricably linked. Vocabulary is what allows us to receive and express information. Without vocabulary, we struggle to categorize and connect the information in our knowledge networks. I’ll be sure to link to the new post all about vocabulary as soon as it is live!
I hope this information has been helpful. If you’re looking for more information on building background knowledge, I highly recommend checking out Susan Neuman’s article, “Comprehension in Disguise: The Role of Knowledge in Children’s Learning.” The section called “5 Research-Based Principles to Build Knowledge Networks” is an especially great read!