Background knowledge

Background knowledge (or prior knowledge) is an important factor in reading comprehension above and beyond the reader’s understanding of how the forms and structures of written language convey meaning.

Background knowledge can include:

  • topic knowledge that is specifically relevant to the text (e.g., grizzly bears)
  • knowledge of the broader disciplinary domain (e.g., animal biology and
  • cultural knowledge (themes and imagery), or
  • general knowledge of the world (Cervetti & Wright, 2020).

All have been shown to be related to reading comprehension, especially, but not only, for expository texts.

Like vocabulary and comprehension, there is a two-way relationship between background knowledge and comprehension. Students with good background knowledge comprehend texts better, which builds their knowledge further. Background knowledge is so important that a low-skilled reader can comprehend a text well if it is about a subject they are familiar with (Smith et al., 2021).

Building and activating background knowledge for comprehension

Explicitly teaching students to use their existing topic and domain knowledge prior to reading a text has been found to improve their comprehension (Elbro & Buch-Iverson, 2013) as
has integrating content knowledge and literacy instruction (Cabell & Hwang, 2020; Cervetti et al., 2012). Therefore, the effectiveness of the strategy of activating prior knowledge before reading a text will rely on having relevant knowledge to activate and using appropriate strategies to retrieve and use it (Hattan & Lupo, 2020).

Students need to be taught not only to activate any relevant prior knowledge that they might have, but also to extract new knowledge and refine existing knowledge from text (i.e., to learn from text). The role of the teacher in this knowledge-comprehension cycle is to ensure that students have sufficient knowledge to engage with a text and comprehend it, as well as the necessary skills to read complex text, learn from it and make connections with what they already know (extend and refine their ‘cognitive schemata’).

A carefully planned knowledge-rich curriculum will build background knowledge and contribute to the knowledge-comprehension cycle.

Webinar by Natalie Wexler on knowledge and reading comprehension

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