How Prior Knowledge Helps Kids Understand What They Read
In my sixth grade class, we were reading a scene from a novel in which the character was waiting impatiently for her sister. Immediately one of my students waved her hand energetically to get my attention. “I can identify with that,” she announced. “I’m supposed to walk home with Elizabeth after school, and I’m always waiting while she talks and talks and talks.”
The girl in my class knew exactly what it felt like to be the character in the novel we were reading. She had experience that helped her understand what she’d just read; background knowledge contributed to her comprehension.
Background knowledge enlivens reading material. Knowing something about a topic gives readers a point of contact, a connection to the material or the story. Without the understanding that prior knowledge brings, reading material can be more difficult to comprehend. Activating and connecting background knowledge is one of seven key strategies to reading comprehension, which are valuable principles for teachers and parents or Learning Coaches.
Consider Bruce Lansky’s poem “The Virus Cure.” *
Your laptop has a virus?
Don’t tuck it into bed.
Don’t give it tea, no matter what
the family doctor said.
Don’t take it to the school nurse.
Don’t rest it for a week.
The only way to cure it is to
show it to a geek.
Today’s students are likely to know what a laptop is. Sadly, they probably also know what a computer virus is and does. As they read how the humorous poem compares treatment for a cyber-virus with treatment for a human virus like the flu or a bad cold, readers can figure out that a geek is probably a “computer doctor”—if these cyber-savvy students don’t already know.
When your young readers lack background knowledge, encourage them to reach out and find some! I once wrote a piece on martial arts, a topic I knew not at all. The article turned out to be one of my best, because I reached out to people who were willing to share their backgrounds with me. While children may be able to find background information online or in other reference material, they can also absorb the context they need by chatting with friends or relatives and hearing their stories. This can also be a great opportunity for your child to communicate with and get to know family members from all generations.
Background knowledge is like duct tape. It helps new information stick! Readers of any age learn by hooking something new to something already present in their minds. Parents can help activate prior knowledge by:
- Encouraging students to stop, think, and discuss what they’re reading.
- Avoiding isolated facts: introduce names and dates with stories of what those people did and when they did it. The background and context will enhance memory.
- Relating scenes and characters to places and people your student may have heard of or know.
- Helping your children make connections between what they read and what they already know.
Background knowledge is the foundation for making connections, a critical piece in building reading comprehension. And as students read, they gain more knowledge, which becomes the foundation for even more complex reading material.
For fun, I suggest that you try practicing this skill as a family. Sharing “backstory” and making connections to your reading as a team will not only help your child improve his or her reading comprehension but will also lead to stimulating family discussions!
How have you helped your child relate reading material to prior knowledge or background? Share your examples and ideas in the comments.
* “The Virus Cure” from If I Ran the School: 24 Funny School Poems selected and introduced by Bruce Lansky.