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Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension

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Background knowledge plays a vital role in reading comprehension. Many struggling readers do not have adequate background knowledge in order to understand reading assignments. As special education teachers and reading interventionists, we have to develop strategies to activate background knowledge to improve reading comprehension. Keep reading this post to learn the role background knowledge plays in reading comprehension and common strategies to activate it. 

A few months back a student and I were reading One Crazy Summer together. It was assigned reading for social studies and focuses a lot on the Black Panthers and Civil Rights in the 60s.

When I asked my student who the Black Panthers were, she said an Avenger. She was thinking of Chadwick Bozeman’s the Black Panther.

Very different than the Black Panthers we were talking about.

What had happened was I’d failed to reactivate the background knowledge this lovely young lady needed every time she read this book. It wasn’t enough her teachers had taught her who the Black Panthers were. We needed to review the concept and reactivate that background knowledge to improve her comprehension every single time.

It was a silly mistake and one I want to help you avoid!

So let’s go over what background knowledge is, why it matters, and ways to activate it for your students with autism and other special needs! 

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Background knowledge is, simply put knowledge, that you bring to the table before learning about something. 

For instance, if you, my darling reader, have come to this blog with some level of teaching experience or prior knowledge on how to teach reading, then you have background knowledge about our topic today. 

If however you are say a parent who studied economics or marketing or something where you actually make money, you might not have as much background knowledge. 

That wouldn’t mean that you still can’t understand this blog post, but you might struggle to understand it more than the person reading this post who has a master’s in reading interventions. 

In college I was told one of the greatest factors in determining how well a student does on a reading assessment or activity is determined by their background knowledge. Some of my professors claimed background knowledge was the most important part of reading comprehension.

Now that’s a matter of opinion. A lot goes into reading comprehension, as we learned from the Scarborough reading rope, and background knowledge is only a small part of it. 

Click here to learn more about the Scarborough Reading Rope.

Background knowledge affects reading comprehension because the more background knowledge you have, the easier it is to understand the content of what you are reading. 

Think about the student I mentioned reading One Crazy Summer. If she is imagining Chadwick Bozeman in his Black Panther costume serving the black community of Oakland breakfast, she’s going to be confused. 

A natural consequence of this is that she won’t understand the text as well as her classmates who know the Black Panthers were a Civil Rights group active in the 1960s. 

In order to improve reading comprehension, teachers and educators should find a way to activate and improve background knowledge before asking students to read these texts. 

It might seem like background knowledge is something outside of our hands. We can’t control what our students have and have not been exposed to before coming into our classroom.

Some students will always have more background knowledge than others. However, there are steps teachers can take to make sure everyone has the basic knowledge needed to understand complex topics in the text. 

This one is probably the most obvious. Let’s go back to the example of One Crazy Summer. The best way to make sure everyone in the class knows who the Black Panthers are is to teach a lesson on it. 

Which my student’s teachers did. However often we forget to reactivate that knowledge we imparted earlier. 

That was the mistake I made when working on reading with my student. So even if you’ve given a minilesson, don’t assume students remember it perfectly. 

Ask your students to remind everyone what something is before you begin reading relevant texts. 

I also recommend making sure to get confirmation from your students with processing problems or short-term memory issues that they recall and remember the relevant concepts. 

Another great way to improve on background knowledge and help with reading comprehension is to use visuals, like pictures or models, and more. 

When I’m reading a book aloud to students I like to keep a slide show on a loop with relevant pictures to the story to help them picture the settings or any historically relevant moments.

For instance, when we read One Crazy Summer, we always looked at pictures of not just the black panthers but also San Francisco and Oakland in the 1960s to help us remember where we were. 

I recommend looking at the pictures or having them running on loop every time you read, just because my students tend to have processing and memory problems. They forget things easily.

I know some of you just groaned when you saw this, but hear me out.

KWL charts can be great for certain styles of learners and it’s important not to forget them.

KWL stands for “Know, Want to Know, and Learned.” 

You create three columns. Then ask students what they know about a concept and what they want to know. Finally, after your lesson, ask what they learned. 

It’s a common tool used in education to determine what level of background knowledge students already have and what they got from your minilessons.

I typically tend to rely on visuals more, because my students are more visual and kinesthetic learners. However, I personally am an auditory learner. When I was a kid I did better with KWL charts than with visuals and pictures. 

Your girl here has almost no visual learning skills.

Even though I don’t use them often in my teaching practice, it’s important to remember that for some students words are the only component that makes sense. 

So keep a KWL chart in your back pocket.

While we cannot control what level of background knowledge our students have, it’s important to take as many steps as possible to level the playing field.

Typically students with less background knowledge are the ones who come from lower socioeconomic status or who have disabilities. This is due to the number of opportunities these populations are given.

Additionally, many students with special needs have inconsistent memories. They might not be able to recall details about certain things without heavy levels of prompting. 

That is why I always recommend giving lessons to provide the needed background knowledge. But don’t forget to reactivate that knowledge before reading.

Without appropriate background knowledge, students will continue to struggle with reading comprehension. 

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