Develop Strong Readers Through Building Background Knowledge

Many of the students in the classrooms of the teachers with whom I work as a Wolfpack WORKS literacy coach struggle in their text comprehension and on comprehension-focused, standardized tests of reading. Why is that the case? There is a direct connection between reading comprehension and students’ general background knowledge. Many of these students have had few opportunities to engage in the types of experiences referenced in books, on standardized tests of reading, and have limited access to books both in and out of school.

As a literacy coach, I have been explicit with the teachers with whom I work about the need to build aspects of my students’ background knowledge in multiple ways.  I also am helping these teachers understand why increasing aspects of my students’ background knowledge is necessary for student growth in reading.

For example, when students read an informational text, it requires background knowledge on that topic.  Ideally, students should know something about that subject before they even read the book. For example, when a student is reading an informational book about the ocean, there may be words in that book about ocean animals.  When a child has never seen or heard of those ocean animals referenced in the book, they may have difficulty reading the words or answer questions about this text. Children who have gone to the beach or visited an aquarium will likely know about the ocean and know many ocean animals; conversely, children who have never had these experiences will likely not have much background knowledge for this text about the ocean.

Here are some tips I have given to the teachers I coach to help build their students’ background knowledge each and every day:

  • Integrate literacy across the curriculum.  Use informational texts and multiple sources of texts with pictures to teach focus on content areas.  Talk about the text features and teach the vocabulary of texts. Frontload vocabulary before students read a new text.   
  • Give students opportunities to experience the world outside of school.  If you’re teaching about plants, for example, have students grow a plant from a seed, start a little compost jar with worms, and go outside and look for plants!
  • Take field trips. Choose places that will provide an enriching and new experience for students.  When you go, talk with your students about what they are seeing and doing. Take pictures and then use those pictures to write about the trip and make a class book.  Even visiting places like a post office or hospital can be rich learning opportunities for students.
  • Use short videos or virtual field trips.  Utilize technology and be intentional about showing media that will help students see and experience the content you are teaching.  
  • Invite people into your classroom. Find out what the students family members do and invite them to volunteer or talk to your class. Invite other community members to serve as guest speakers in your classroom, too.
  • Utilize classroom materials.  If you are going to use worksheets with images, do not assume the students know the names of the items on their sheets.  Always point out the images and talk about them with your students.
  • Have students teach each other.  Find out your students’ areas of expertise and have them share this information with their classmates.  

My hope is that building background knowledge becomes a priority with the teachers I coach!

If we build students’ background knowledge from the start, we will build stronger readers both now and in the future.

Leah Dias

Wolfpack WORKS Literacy Coach  


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