The importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension

The importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension

The purpose of reading is to make meaning from what is read – not just to be able to say the words. The ability to say the words is the process of decoding and the ability to make meaning from texts is reading. So, when teachers complain, ‘they read but they don’t understand’, students are decoding not reading.

Whether or not comprehension takes place depends on several factors, most important of which is the amount of background or pre-existing knowledge of the topic that the reader brings to the reading. Students learn best when the teaching they receive is tailored to their existing knowledge and skills. However, in any class, there is an enormous difference between what students know and can do. How can we ascertain background knowledge without questioning every student? Questions such as, ‘Who knows anything about …?’ aren’t helpful as they will be answered by a couple of students who do know something and ignored by those who don’t.

If the teacher thinks that students have some background or prior knowledge of the topic then they should use different strategies than if they think there is little or no prior knowledge. In Hooking Student into Learning … in all curriculum areas,the activity on pages 2 and 3 (Building Background Knowledge) is one to use when prior knowledge exists.

Comments from Rebecca Johnston, Year 5 classroom teacher, who used this activity in a science lesson.

What Rebecca noticed:

  • All students were engaged and on task. It also kept all groups accountable. I even heard a few students say, “This is fun!”
  • Students enjoyed sharing and discussing their ideas. Some students were combining several ideas together to add to their group page.
  • I was impressed by the use of scientific language!
  • I have collated all of these into a whole class list. This list is displayed on our Science Learning Wall. We will revisit this frequently throughout our unit to ‘check in’ on our initial class responses.
  • It has given me some ideas of how to ‘branch out’ towards the end of the unit and really dig down into some other topics not covered in the assessment but the students have already indicated a particular level of interest.
  • A vocab list was easy to create because the students have already come with some great background knowledge.