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5: Accessing and Activating Background Knowledge

When teachers discuss what students already know prior to learning something new, they generally use one of two terms: background knowledge and prior knowledge.  Most of the time, the two terms are employed interchangeably (Strangman & Hall, 2004).  In this book, we will differentiate between background knowledge and prior knowledge as follows:  Background knowledge is that which the learner has acquired as a result of lived experiences.  Students in the Mid-West may have very limited background knowledge about the beach, for example.  A student who grew up in a city may not have the schema necessary to understand a text passage about a farm.

Prior knowledge, on the other hand, is that which a student learns as a result of being in school. What a student learned from a book last week or a lab experiment last year is prior knowledge.  This distinction becomes important when teachers plan instruction for their students.

Before moving on, one more point should be made.  A good prediction is not necessarily one that turns out to be correct.  An operational definition is: A good prediction is one that relies on relevant attributes and knowledge the student already has to increasingly reduce uncertainty.  A prediction that ultimately turns out to be incorrect may still be a good prediction if the reader is able to learn from the prediction while proceeding through the text.

Many textbooks used in teacher preparation programs suggest that teachers take steps before students read to prepare them for challenging materials (e. g., Betts, 1946; Ryder & Graves, 2003; Vacca & Vacca, 2005; Alvermann & Phelps, 2005; Tompkins, 2003).  This may be known as preparation for reading, prereading, or simply “before” reading.  The idea that what students already know is the foundation for what they are to learn is not new.  Some implications for teachers are:

  1. Students may have knowledge that is relevant but remains untapped in a given lesson,
  2. Students may not make adjustments accounting for new information if the knowledge they already have interferes,
  3. Students may experience interference when teaching practices don’t match their lived experiences (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

Smith and Wilhelm’s (2002) interesting study of literacy and boys’ lives suggests that teachers who recognize the outside interests of their students also foster a sense of competence that reaches beyond merely building relationships. Teachers can plan lessons that take their students’ background knowledge into account.  Planning appropriate activities and experiences before students read can help improve the reading experience, and thus comprehension, of the text.

Learning to Predict

  1. The cultural knowledge that students bring to school with them affects the new knowledge they are able to construct. Teachers should consider factors that extend beyond class, race, or ethnicity and take care to avoid stereotypes about their students, of course.  Teachers who know what their students know do far more than administer an interest survey or background inventory at the beginning of the year.  In order to know their students, teachers who assist their students to construct new knowledge take the time to talk regularly with their students as individuals—when they enter the classroom each day, as they move about the room when students are working, at lunch.
  2. All reading, even on the most literal of levels, requires the reader to activate appropriate schema (Anderson, 2004). Students without the right schema to draw upon or who activate the wrong schema will not comprehend the text.  Consider this sentence:

“A loop knot is a closed bight that is tied either in the end or in the central part of the rope” (Ashley, 1944, p. 185).

To make sense of this sentence, one has to know what a bight is and how it relates to tying knots.  Without that background knowledge, this passage won’t make sense.  A reader could also confuse “bight” for “bite” because the pronunciations are the same.  Such confusion would eliminate the chance that much comprehension would take place.  For teachers, this means instructing students in monitoring their comprehension of concepts they encounter that don’t make sense.  Teachers who know their students and the content of the reading material will take steps to teach students in advance of the reading those concepts that might be confusing.

  1. When students’ attention is directed in ways that improve comprehension, they are free to concentrate on the cognitive tasks of making predictions and looking for connections within the text. Students who struggle with matching their background knowledge to the concepts in the text exhaust their cognitive resources before they can work on constructing meaning at other levels.

Applications and Examples

Secondary Classroom. Hilary Biggers’ students are preparing to read a play.  She knows that some concepts in the play will be outside the realm of experience for her students, but she wanted them to engage with the ideas of the play.

The reading selection is a screenplay of a “Twilight Zone” episode created by Rod Sterling entitled “Back There” (Prentice Hall, 1991, pp. 262-275).  The screenplay describes a young man’s unintended travel back in time from April 14, 1965 to April 14, 1865, the day of President Lincoln’s assassination. He attempts, yet fails, to stop the murder and is returned to 1965 where he declares that history cannot be changed.  However, a character from his life prior to the time travel the readers meet in Act I, Scene I has become a millionaire because of the main character’s actions in 1865.  The play has two acts and is taught in two separate lessons.

Before the students are introduced to the selection, their background knowledge is built by watching the “Eye of the Beholder“ episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  This prepares them for Rod Sterling’s science fiction writing style and stimulates them to look for his subtle criticisms of society in “Back There.”  During their reading of the screenplay, several students in Ms. Biggers’ class commented on the structure of science fiction in general and Mr. Sterling’s use in particular. These students, the ones with extensive background knowledge of science fiction, were able to understand the text because they used their background knowledge to make predictions about the structure of the text and what is likely to happen in this genre. They also built the knowledge base of their peers as they explained their predictions and how they used their knowledge of time travel, for example, to understand the text.

Elementary Classrooms.  Knowing that her students all had different experiences with city and country life, Ms. Schwartz selected the tale City Mouse – Country Mouse (Wallner, 1987) to read with her students. Ms. Schwartz knew that her students would have different experience with mice, country life, and city life.  She knew that this would be a great opportunity for her kindergarten students to share what they know with one another and to build their collective knowledge base.
Figure 2-5-1: In her own words: Background knowledge in a kindergarten class.

A topic in the kindergarten science standards is earth science. The students must know the difference between different landforms. We are learning about mountains. The first thing I did was have a discussion about mountains. I asked the students a series of questions such as, “Do you know what a mountain is? What does it look like? What can you do there? What kinds of animals live there?” While the students talked I wrote their responses on a large chart paper. I also asked the students if any of them have been to the mountains and what did they do when they were there. We talked about living in the mountains and visiting. The students also discussed what the mountains were like in the summer and what the mountains were like in the winter. After we discussed mountains I took them outside to actually look at the mountains. We took paper and sat on the ground and colored a picture of how the mountains looked outside. When the students finished their pictures they wrote a story about it. When we came back inside I read them a story about mountains, building background knowledge, and we connected our responses from the chart paper to the story we were reading.

Nyree Clark, Colton Joint Unified School District

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