Scan any list of reading comprehension strategies and you’re bound to spot one term several times: background knowledge. You may be told readers need to activate background knowledge or make inferences using background knowledge or predict what’s coming next with background knowledge. But you may not be told exactly how to help students build background knowledge.

Cognitive scientists and educational experts agree: Background knowledge is crucial for reading comprehension. But unfortunately, a lot of today’s educational practices do little to boost students’ existing knowledge. 

Reading sessions are focused on mastering decoding (an un-skippable skill) and reading comprehension strategies, but reading assignments aren’t often interesting enough to engage students’ attention. In the meantime, students with an existing wealth of background knowledge advance by leaps and bounds in their reading and learning—while other students fall behind as they start encountering texts that require more background knowledge than they possess.

To close the gap between students and improve overall outcomes (while also boosting reading comprehension), building background knowledge is an absolute must.

In this article, we cover:

  • What background knowledge is
  • Why it’s helpful for reading comprehension (and learning)
  • How you can build your students’ background knowledge

Let’s get started.

Background Knowledge: The Silver Bullet for Reading Comprehension

Background knowledge is made up of the insights and understanding that students bring to school. It’s what they already know about life, the world, and themselves. It includes everything from the sky is blue to the names and eating habits of dinosaurs, little sisters, and grandparents. Students may know the music their parents listen to, the stories and lessons they learned at Sunday school or synagogue, and what tools are in their uncle’s studio. 

Background knowledge includes—and extends beyond—typical “academic” knowledge. And, depending on the reading assignment, a student’s particular background knowledge can be a game-changer for their comprehension.

From the Sandlot to School

In an iconic experiment from the 80s, researchers administered a reading test focused on baseball. One at a time, 64 students entered a room, read a story about a fictional baseball game, and re-enacted it using wooden figures and a replica field. 

The findings? Students who had existing knowledge of baseball scored well in comprehension, even if they were previously identified as poor readers. Good readers who didn’t know much about baseball scored worse.

According to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., writing for American Educator, “We need to know at least 90 percent of a text’s words to understand it.” 

This isn’t hard for beginning readers who are mostly reading basic 2- to 5-letter words, but as reading difficulty increases, so does the vocabulary. Students with a larger vocabulary (or greater background knowledge) will be more likely to know 90 percent of the words they encounter. This enables them to infer the meaning of the other 10 percent, further building their vocabulary.

But students with a smaller vocabulary (and smaller background knowledge) may only know 70 percent of the words they encounter. They won’t understand enough of what they’re reading to infer the meaning of the other 30 percent—so they’re less likely to build their vocabulary and existing knowledge through reading. And their comprehension will suffer.

In this way, students who start off knowing more increase their knowledge, while those who know less fall further and further behind. In fact, background knowledge has been identified as a key differentiator between high-performing and low-performing students.

Isn’t there anything educators can do?

How Can Educators Close the Knowledge Gap? Content-Rich Curriculum

Background knowledge enables students to construct “a scaffold on which to build a more complete—and nuanced—mental model of the subject matter,” according to Edutopia. To help students construct that initial scaffold, Natalie Wexler, an education journalist and author of The Knowledge Gap, recommends that teachers use a content-rich curriculum.

Content-rich curriculum tucks information into just about every nook and cranny of classroom activities, from read-alouds and crafts to writing and grammar exercises. In the best-case scenario, content-rich curriculum is cross-disciplinary and makes use of themed units, so the content students learn in one subject (like social studies) naturally overlaps and ties into the content covered in another area (like science). 

“Children can learn words much faster if we stick to the same topic for several sessions,” Hirsch writes, “because word learning occurs much faster—up to four times faster—when the verbal context is familiar.”

For teachers, a content-rich approach could look like a multiple-week unit on sea life or inventors or explorers that involves every subject (geography, social studies, science, math, English) and includes reading and writing assignments focused on the content theme.

“Teachers could use read-alouds to expose children to complex texts, ones with more complicated syntax and vocabulary,” Katrina Schwartz writes for KQED. “In this way, kids learn about the topics and become familiar with the vocabulary. Together the class could discuss those ideas and connect them to information they’ve already learned. Then, students might read simpler texts on their own about the same topic, but they will already be primed with some background knowledge and vocabulary.”

Along with developing reading skills and building knowledge, this approach can make classwork more interesting. Students can discover connections on their own, see themselves learning in real time, and get excited about the learning process—all while gaining background knowledge that will equip them for ongoing learning and improved reading comprehension.

Where Content-Rich Curriculum Isn’t an Option, Improvise

Switching to content-rich curriculum is a big ask for a lot of educators (lesson plans don’t write themselves!). If you’re not ready to start rolling out themed units and transforming every moment of class into something from the Magic School Bus, try these strategies:

  1. Bring content into reading instruction sessions. 

According to Hirsch, only 30 minutes per day are necessary (and effective) for teaching decoding to students in grades 1 and 2. If you have more time set aside for reading sessions, use it to share bonus knowledge that students won’t be tested on. Think about literature, history, art, science—and don’t feel the need to oversimplify it. Take the opportunity to engage students in a conversation where they can gain knowledge with no strings attached.

  1. Choose read-aloud books that will inform and challenge your students.

Read-aloud sessions help develop students’ oral language skills—and oral language skills directly influence written language skills. But these sessions are also great for more content enrichment. Intentionally choose to read books that will: 

  • Immerse your students into a topic (perhaps related to what they’re learning in another subject)
  • Challenge them linguistically and in terms of their existing knowledge
  • Prompt lively discussions

A little extra planning can go a long way in building up your students’ background knowledge. It’s not just about what they learn today—it’s about how those lessons will inform their tomorrow. Reading comprehension is that crucial skill for embarking into a future where learning is an adventure of its own.