Background Knowledge In Reading Comprehension is a vita part of a students’ learning skills. Existing knowledge on a subject helps students with their reading comprehension. Often times, good reading ability is seen as an attribute to a student’s intelligence level. But reading comprehension is complex and have so many factors behind it. It takes a while for some students to read certain words while others can read fluently from an early age. But when it comes to what to take away from from reading material, does reading ability really matter?
In early years including kindergarten, reading practices are generally for identifying letters, words and learning phonetic sounds. But students mainly read for comprehensive soon as they get older. Research and Standards Editor for Edutopia, Youki Terada, discovered that research has revealed an important factor to reading comprehension: background knowledge.
Background knowledge acts as scaffolding, so when a student builds on existing information they already know, they’re better able to understand and remember the material.
It doesn’t matter whether they’re fluent readers or not, if they don’t have any prior knowledge on the subject, they still won’t be able to understand what they’re reading, or it will take them longer to do so.
Terada quoted a from a 1980s study whereby researchers asked middle school students to read a passage that describes a baseball game, then consequently reenact the game with wooden figures on a miniature field.
It was discovered that students with high reading ability but little background knowledge of baseball, and those with low reading ability with high knowledge of baseball, were equally incapable of recall or summarization. “They were surprised by the results: Even the best readers struggle to recreate the events described in the passage”, Terada wrote.
“That modest experiment kicked off 30 years of research into reading comprehension, and study after study confirmed Recht and Leslie’s findings: Without background knowledge, even skilled readers labor to make sense of a topic”.
Another study from 2019 tested high school students with a list of 44 terms, asking them to identify whether each was related to the topic of ecology. Terada wrote, “Researchers then analyzed the student responses to generate a background-knowledge score, which represented their familiarity with the topic. Without any interventions, students then read about ecosystems and took a test measuring how well they understood what they had read”.
“Students who scored less than 59 percent on the background-knowledge test also performed relatively poorly on the subsequent test of reading comprehension. But researchers noted a steep improvement in comprehension above the 59 percent threshold—suggesting both that a lack of background knowledge can be an obstacle to reading comprehension, and that there is a baseline of knowledge that rapidly accelerates comprehension.”
Helping students develop reading comprehension skills
Background knowledge also helps students draw inferences, which develops critical thinking skills and makes reading more enjoyable. When they can grasp the material and link it back to their own experiences or existing knowledge, they’re more likely to build a lifelong reading habit.
So how can teachers build background knowledge to help students with their reading comprehension?
Terada suggests “minding the gap”, which is to be mindful of the diverse backgrounds in a classroom.
“You may be an expert in civil war history, but be mindful that your students will represent a wide range of existing background knowledge on the topic”.
“Similarly, take note of the cultural, social, economic, and racial diversity in your classroom. You may think it’s cool to teach physics using a trebuchet, but not all students have been exposed to the same ideas that you have.”
He also advises to build concept maps so students can have visual models, and incorporate formative assessments to identify gaps in knowledge.
Why Formative Assessments Matter
Formative assessments is very important because teachers make important instructional decisions based on the data they provide. Its also good to sequence and scaffold lessons. Terada adds, “When introducing a new topic, try to connect it to previous lessons: Reactivating knowledge the students already possess will serve as a strong foundation for new lessons.
“Also, consider your sequencing carefully before you start the year to take maximum advantage of this effect”.