The importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension

The importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension

The purpose of reading is comprehension; to make meaning from what is read, not just saying the words. When teachers complain their students read but don't understand the text, their students are decoding, not reading.

Whether or not comprehension takes place depends on several factors, the most important of which is background or pre-existing knowledge of the topic. It is much easier to understand what we read when we have some knowledge of the subject. Background knowledge gives us some of the vocabulary we will encounter and prepares us for the information, ideas, and concepts in the text. Background knowledge acts a bit like glue to which new knowledge sticks.

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 a couple of students who do know something may answer. But the rest of the class are overlooked. 

You can find some techniques for determining what the members of your class know in the blog post, Questioning to ascertain prior knowledge.


Solidifying and sharing background knowledge

Hooking Student into Learning … in all curriculum areas features several activities that can help your students solidify their background knowledge. 

Year 5 teacher Rebecca Johnston used the activity, Building Background Knowledge, (page 2-3) 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. 


Thanks Rebecca for sharing your experience with this activity!  

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The importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension