Using prior knowledge is an essential strategy for reading comprehension. The more knowledge students have on a topic, the easier it will be for them to understand, and make connections to, new texts. Prior knowledge is also part of the building blocks for more difficult reading strategies, such as making inferences.
Below are 8 ways you can teach and practice the using background knowledge reading strategy in your classroom
1. COLLABORATIVE CLASS VISUAL:
Having group/class discussions along with some kind of recording visual is a great way to access background knowledge before reading. You can switch up your visuals, as a basic KWL chart can only be engaging so many times. One great way to build background knowledge is to first draw a shape that represents what you are learning about on an anchor chart or on the white board. For example, when reading a book about ants, I would draw an ant with 3 large body parts. Each student gets a post it to record what they already know about ants in the first segment, questions they have in the second segment, and what they learn in third segment. I would then have some students share their post-its and then quickly go through any non-repeats we might have as part of a class discussion.
Another, even simpler, way to do this is to just have students fill in their background knowledge on the entire picture. After reading, we could go back to this visual with new information. I might place a post it on each of the legs of the ant with questions we have or new pieces of information that we learn.
2. BUILD ON SMALLER TOPICS WITHIN ONE BROAD TOPIC:
To continue building background knowledge in students, I find it effective to stick to texts on one broad topic. For example, after reading a text on ants I would focus on another insect. Bees would be the next insect I would read about as they have similarities to ants in how they work in a colony, etc. This helps students continue to build more knowledge and vocabulary, as well as make deeper connections.
3. CLASS GALLERY WALK:
This works especially well for a larger unit. The teacher chooses different sub-topics to write on chart paper along the wall. For example, if you were preparing for an insects unit you could write body parts, types of insects, fireflies, bees, etc. Each student gets to walk around with a marker (or pencil) and fill in information they already know about these sub-topics. A more organized way to do this is to have students rotate to each chart in groups of 3-4 students. They can choose one group member to write on the chart while discussing. You can also build off of this gallery walk throughout the unit or at the end, placing the charts back up on the walls for students to add information.
4. PICTURE WALK:
This simple activity works for texts that include visuals, such as photos or illustrations. As you reveal each page of a picture book, discuss background knowledge, student connections, and predictions they have as to what is happening or what the book is about.
5. DISPLAY STRATEGY VISUALS:
Reading strategy posters are such an important reference to have on the walls of a classroom filled with growing readers. One example of how to display these can be seen in the reading strategies word wall below. One strategy can be highlighted at a time in a larger anchor chart.
All of the information found in the anchor chart is also on a background knowledge bookmark that readers use independently. The back of the bookmark has a place for students to record how they use the strategy on sticky notes.
6. PROVIDE REALIA OR VISUALS & DISCUSS:
I especially like to do this with text heavy articles or books. I will find images about a topic and place them on a PowerPoint Presentation, but you could also print out visuals to discuss. This is especially helpful for ELLs.
Providing visuals and realia also lends itself to having students ask questions, so you could record questions that come up during the discussion. This helps set authentic purpose for reading, and you can refer back to the questions during and after reading.
7. FRONTLOAD WITH LOWER LEVELED TEXTS:
Along the same lines providing visuals, reading a picture book or text with a lower readability on a topic we are going to read a more difficult book on can be extremely beneficial in building background knowledge. Frontloading, or pre-teaching, information in guided reading groups can prepare students for reading a more challenging text in a whole class setting. This is also a very helpful strategy for reading with ELLs.
8. INDEPENDENT PRACTICE:
Beyond supporting students in accessing their prior knowledge on a topic, students then need to practice engaging in this strategy completely on their own. Graphic organizers are helpful for students to take ownership of their individual thinking and learning.
Another idea for a way that students can practice showing their thinking and visually see the importance of building background knowledge are through these background knowledge crafts.