Reading Recipe: Background Knowledge

Background Knowledge

Once upon a time there was an author who was baking up a reading story. The next ingredient was background knowledge. Now, this particular author wasn’t sure exactly what background knowledge was so she looked it up in her ingredient catalog. And this is what she found.

Background Knowledge

Before reading with understanding occurs, there needs to be a scaffolding of knowledge to build upon. Jeffrey Wilhelm PH.D. (2004) explains that background knowledge is necessary for students to be successful in reading. Wilhelm (2004) describes background knowledge as something that new meanings are built upon. Future learnings of more complex concepts are dependent on the foundations of the original background knowledge. Wilhelm (2004) goes on to explain that by building a foundation students are able to have their curiosity triggered by the reading. When their curiosity is triggered they connect to knowledge they already have and that builds up the information that will be needed to comprehend the text. Wilhelm (2004) stresses, “The most important time to teach reading is before kids read a text that presents them with a new challenge” (p. 76).

Each student carries their own scaffolding of experiences and expectations from their quality world. William Glasser (2006) explains that a quality world is a perception of what is important to an individual. Quality worlds are made up experiences and culture of an individual’s background. When text is read by an individual the information passes through several “filters” of relevancy. If the text that the student is reading has no connection to any of the filters in place, the information does not pass through and is reflected. A connection is not made and the student will not comprehend the text. If there is background knowledge or experience the information is allowed to pass through and become part of the scaffolding. The student will be able to comprehend the text.

Background knowledge is important for students as well as teachers. Teachers need to know the background knowledge and print experiences students possess. Elizabeth Birr Moje, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, was asked why identity mattered. Elizabeth responded, “My immediate response is that identity matters because it, whatever it is, shapes or is an aspect of how humans make sense of the world and their experiences in it, including their experiences with texts” (McCarthey, 2002). When designing reading instruction it is vital to know the students’ identity, quality world, and print scaffolding. By using the background knowledge of students, teachers can begin to tailor instruction that can build upon that foundation.

Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. New York, NY:HarperCollins Publishers.

McCarthey, S., Moje, E. (2002). Identity matters. Reading Research Quarterly. 37(2). 228-238.

Wilhelm, J. (2004). Reading is seeing: Learning to visualize scenes, characters, ideas, and text worlds to improve comprehension and reflective reading. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

So now our author knows what background knowledge means and she added a cup to the receipe.


Mrs. Berry


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kay McGriff (@kaymcgriff)
    Dec 19, 2011 @ 12:08:13

    Have you read Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide? He has some excellent thoughts about background knowledge and its role in reading comprehension.


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