Background Knowledge, Knowledge Building, and the Science of Reading

Savvas Insights Team


In the current discussion surrounding the Science of Reading, there’s an urgent need to highlight the fact that phonics alone — simply coding and decoding words — is not the ultimate goal of reading. While phonics is important, the ultimate goal is reading comprehension and using the knowledge gained from reading texts to appreciate, understand, and interact with the world around you. Amidst this discussion, there is an increasing focus on background knowledge, knowledge building, and the pivotal role they both play in shaping proficient readers.

But what is background knowledge? How is it different from knowledge building? And what can you do to help students activate and build knowledge in a way that leads to reading comprehension?

In this blog post, we’ll answer these questions as well as provide engaging classroom activities designed to tap into the knowledge students have already acquired, and then help them build on that knowledge by introducing them to new ideas and experiences.

Language Comprehension and Its Role in Reading Comprehension

Proficient reading is the interplay of three main components: word recognition, cognitive-regulation processes, and language comprehension. These components work together to foster reading comprehension. Background knowledge and knowledge building are two very important pieces of the third component, language comprehension, which is made up of many other important skills, such as vocabulary and grammatical understanding.

Children begin to build their reservoir of language comprehension from a very early age; however, the depth of this reservoir varies significantly from one child to the next. Children who are exposed to more spoken language (vocabulary) and more experiences will have a deeper reservoir of knowledge to access when they are beginning to make the connection between language and print. To learn more about the vocabulary piece of language comprehension, check out our blog post Vocabulary: The Key to Comprehension.

Many students learn to decode and recognize words but struggle with reading comprehension. That disconnect can occur when students have limited language comprehension and/or aren’t accessing background knowledge. In order to better understand this challenge and possible solutions, it is important to first understand the role language comprehension, specifically background knowledge and knowledge building, plays in developing a reader.

What Is Background Knowledge?

Background knowledge is the information and experiences an individual collects over time. It's everything we know about the world — history, culture, science, personal experiences, and more. When we discuss background knowledge in terms of the Science of Reading, it is also important that we discuss something called schema. Schema is the mental framework a reader uses to organize their background knowledge in a way that is accessible to understand new information and texts. When readers encounter text, their schema is activated, providing context, relevance, and connections that give meaning to the words on the page. The development of background knowledge is not limited to childhood, but continues to grow and evolve over a lifetime — each experience adding to a reader’s ability to navigate text, draw upon their existing knowledge to deepen comprehension, visualize scenarios, and make inferences.

Conversely, a lack of experiences can lead to lagging background knowledge and ultimately a negative impact on reading comprehension. Students with less background knowledge might struggle to think critically — less able to draw conclusions, analyze information, or problem solve.

Background Knowledge vs. Knowledge Building

Two terms that often present themselves when discussing reading comprehension and the Science of Reading are background knowledge and knowledge building. They sound similar, but they are actually two different concepts that can work together to help build reading comprehension. As discussed previously, background knowledge refers to the information, skills, and understanding readers have already collected. Knowledge building, on the other hand, involves exposing readers to new content, experiences, and concepts and then building on the prior learning with the new learning. Essentially, background knowledge provides the context for understanding and knowledge building represents the active process of growth and acquiring new learning — both are crucial for reading comprehension.

What Does Activating Background Knowledge Look Like in the Classroom?

To help us put all of this information together, let’s use an example to illustrate how background knowledge aids reading comprehension in the classroom.

Imagine a student is reading a nonfiction article detailing the challenges climbers face while attempting to summit Mount Everest. The text discusses altitude sickness, extreme weather conditions, technical climbing strategies, and the physical and mental endurance required. For a reader without any prior exposure to the geography of Mount Everest, mountain climbing, or even snowy conditions, comprehending the text might pose difficulties even if they can decode the words.

However, a reader with background knowledge on hiking or snow, perhaps from reading books, watching movies, or even personal experiences, would be able to activate their schema and be better prepared to understand the content of the text and make connections. A reader with background knowledge about blizzard conditions will be able to understand that storms on Mount Everest have dangerous implications for climbers. Not only that, but the reader is better prepared to generalize their knowledge about extreme weather and human capabilities to new texts, such as reading a historical piece about the pioneers and their dangerous journeys west to California. By activating what a reader already knows, background knowledge acts like the glue connecting new and prior learning together.

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Engaging Activity Ideas for Activating and Building Background Knowledge with the Science of Reading

When a reader has limited background knowledge or their knowledge has not been activated, the reader’s ability to comprehend text can suffer, possibly leading to gaps in achievement. Here are some engaging activities to help activate, build, and strengthen background knowledge in the classroom to bridge or avoid the comprehension gap.

Activating Background Knowledge

You may be thinking, “Wait, how am I going to focus on activating prior knowledge if I’m concerned my students don’t have it in the first place?” Your students might not have in-depth knowledge of every topic presented in the classroom — most of us don’t — but they do have their own knowledge reservoir to draw from.

It is well established that each student brings diverse experiences to the classroom, including varying exposure to languages, cultures, socio-economic environments, and personal interests. Tapping into that knowledge can foster both engagement and discussion among learners, leading to shared knowledge building. The connections students make might surprise you. Research shows all new learning builds on existing knowledge, but it needs something to stick to, so start by activating. Here are some strategies to activate prior knowledge:

K-W-L Chart

One strategy you might already be familiar with is the K-W-L chart. This three-columned chart represents what students already know (K); what they want (W) to learn; and after a lesson, what they learned (L). Teachers can engage students in orally brainstorming ideas to complete the K-W-L chart during a whole-class discussion, or in smaller groups. When utilized before introducing new content, this activity allows teachers to formatively assess students’ existing knowledge and take note of topics that really interest them. Once you know what sparks a student’s curiosity, you can guide them to read deeply in that area.

The KWL Chart has students thinking about what they Know, what they Want to know, and what they have Learned

Anticipation Guides

Anticipation guides are another way to activate students’ prior knowledge and build their curiosity around a topic. These guides provide students with a list of statements related to the topic and ask them to agree or disagree with the big ideas or concepts contained in upcoming texts. Be sure to model the process with students before asking them to complete the statements independently. Students will access their background knowledge in order to make decisions about whether or not they agree with the topic statements.

An anticipation guide is used before reading to activate prior student knowledge and build curiosity about a new topic.

Gallery Walks

Integrating photos, artwork or realia (real objects) into lessons can be an engaging and thought-provoking way to activate student background knowledge. One strategy to try is known as the gallery walk, where the teacher posts pictures or objects around the classroom that pertain to the topic of study. This allows students to examine them in groups or pairs. Students can use sticky notes to post about what they notice, connections they can make, or additional questions they might have. It may be helpful to prompt students with starter questions as a scaffold for this activity, for example:

  • What does the image/object remind you of?
  • What is missing from the image?
  • Is a core belief or value being appealed to?
  • What text/concept/historical period can you connect it to?
  • What personal connections can you make to the image/object?
  • What words come to mind when you look at the image/object?

This activity can be used at the beginning of a unit to kindle student interest, discuss vocabulary and assess prior knowledge.

A gallery walk allows students to be actively engaged as they walk throughout the classroom.

Building Background Knowledge

Once background knowledge is activated, students are better equipped to make connections and absorb new learning — knowledge building can now take center stage. Below are some engaging ways to build knowledge in the classroom:

Thematic Learning Units

Thematic learning units are a great way to build background knowledge because they go beyond surface-level learning and allow for a deep dive into topics that engage student interest. The theme of the unit serves as a connective way to integrate texts and other media from many content areas, such as the arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and more.

Themed cross-curricular lessons help students connect concepts and deepen their understanding of content instead of learning in a more fragmented way. A “night sky” unit for elementary students, for example, could include science texts about star constellations, biographies about pioneering astronomers, field trips to the observatory, and the chance to model the phases of the moon. When students encounter vocabulary words or concepts such as “telescope” and “phase” on multiple occasions, it allows them to build their schema and understanding of new learning.

Thematic learning units are activities across the curriculum that is centered around one theme.

Field Trips, Virtual Tours, and Multimedia

One of the most engaging, and arguably one of the most fun ways, to build knowledge is to organize field trips. If funding or travel is a hurdle, virtual tours and multimedia, such as videos, can be a great alternative to giving students the ability to still experience new places and learning. Classes can visit museums, historical landmarks, aquariums, or zoos — all of which can be tied to a unit of study! To really capitalize on the experience, activate students’ prior knowledge and vocabulary before the trip with one of the previously discussed activities and encourage students to sketch, journal, or take pictures to help cement new learning and support memory during the visit.

 Build knowledge with word play and vocabulary.

Word Play

Another way to build knowledge is to focus on word play and vocabulary. In the classroom this can look like teaching words in categories. For example, name several items and have students identify the category. “I’m going to name a list of words and I want you to tell me what category (or group) they belong to: giraffe, elephant, tiger, hippopotamus, monkey. These are all … ? Zoo animals!” After students have identified the category, you can brainstorm as a group to include more words in the category, introduce new words, or challenge students to re-classify the words into an alternate category.

Interactive Read Alouds

Research suggests that interactive read alouds, also known as dialogic reading, can be an effective way to build vocabulary and background knowledge when students are highly engaged in the activity. Start by selecting texts that tie closely to a unit of study and can provide additional exposure to specific vocabulary words and concepts. The teacher can engage students with the reading by asking questions, having students make predictions or connections to the text and by facilitating conversations among learners.

With these tools and activities, you can help ensure that students reach that ultimate goal of reading comprehension. By giving them the power of reading to learn, you are helping them open up a universe of knowledge to become problem-solving, empathetic, critical-thinking members of their community.

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