Monday, December 30, 2013

The Importance of Building Background Knowledge

Last week I finally got to sit down with our reading professional development coordinator to show her some of the vocabulary and QRI testing results I had been getting on my eighth grade target students.  She confirmed my fear, after looking at all of the scores.  These kiddos needed support in their oral vocabulary in order for them to build reading skills.  This was the first time I had really gotten a chance to approach this dilemma from a reading specialist standpoint, and I was anxious to hear what she had to say.

She introduced me to the idea of multi-level text sets (different texts on the same topic that require students to determine importance and extract information - all part of our new Common Core Standards), which is not a new concept for me in any respect, but for the sole purpose of building vocabulary it was. This conversation started me thinking about some things I then wanted to develop.

She also introduced me to, a news website where teachers can find one article on a topic and download it in four different lexile levels! Her thought was to start with the article in a 730 lexile, do a vocabulary building activity, and then read the exact same article in an 850.  The idea is to read the same article four times, each time building more and more background knowledge, more and more vocabulary, until we got to the article at the 1130 lexile.  She also suggested that I try to use an article that connects somehow with content area material that our kiddos might be studying by the end so that the knowledge and vocabulary might support these students in their content-area classrooms!  Genius!

From this, we started to formulate some thoughts that have been brewing over the last month or so - the idea of building background knowledge.  I was talking to a sixth grader who struggles with reading.  He insisted that he wanted to read the Twilight series.  Now, if you're familiar with the read at all, you might know that the lexile level is in the 600s - a nice easy read for an adult, but it is LONG and rather mature for an eleven-year-old struggling reader.  Many of my adult friends found the book annoying and repetitive, and yet I was captivated by the love story.  Still, this boy was insistent and went on to tell me that he had watched the movie several times AND he had read the graphic novel and he LOVED them.  It was at this point when the conversation I had with our reading professional development coordinator started ringing with me again.  This was a perfect opportunity for this kiddo to challenge himself with a lengthy book on which he already had a TON of background knowledge and maybe build some reading stamina.  So we found the novel for him, and he checked it out for winter break.

After these two incidents last week, a few ideas developed.  Aside from my more solidified plan to go to our Tier 3 team with the pull out idea for vocabulary groups, I'm also going to work to target background knowledge building activities with our struggling readers in their content area classes.  Meeting with some of the content area teachers and coming up with lists of specific students to target is next on my list, and then I'd like to somehow target these students specifically.  One big challenge is finding the time during the day for pull out groups.  For now, however, I'm making a list of ideas (many of which come from the CRISS manual) that will help in building background knowledge.

Keep in mind that building background knowledge and activating background knowledge are very different. When activating background knowledge, you assume that the learners have some background knowledge.  Building it means that there is nothing filed away in your students' schema for them to build upon, and now, not only are you responsible for the new knowledge, but you have to give your kiddos some background in order for the new knowledge to stick as well.

Let me give you an example.  I worked in December with a few colleagues who had their sixth graders writing a RAFT assignment.  The idea was that students would use multiple texts to research something specific about the Olympics and then write a perspective piece based upon that research.  During the time students were supposed to be writing, I noticed that critical pieces of information were being left out or wrongly assumed.  Then it hit me - when one student began to write about a skiing event, and her first paragraph mentioned traveling to an arena for the event.  I finally asked her if she had ever seen an Olympic skiing event before, and she shook her head.  Another one struggled to write about her ice skating event until I realized she had never seen an Olympic ice skating competition or ANY ice skating competition, for that matter.  After that, I spent the entire day looking up Youtube videos of the different events and watching them with the kids.  Two things could have been done to prevent this - and I don't know why we didn't think of it before beginning the project.  Hindsight is always 20/20, I suppose.  We could have spent a day watching videos of the different events together OR we could have left a few more days for research and insisted that each student watch several videos of the events.  However it was, we have noted it and I would like to see us include the extended time for next year's project.

So for this blog, I've made a list of background activation activities and background building activities so that you can begin to think about how to use these effectively with your students.  Keep in mind that many of your students who struggle with reading may need background knowledge building activities because they lack much of the vocabulary necessary to function at grade level.  I think our biggest problem here is differentiation.  You will, undoubtedly, have students in your class who have access to background information.  How you will use some of these ideas in your classrooms most effectively is the next step.  I realize that you may not have these strategies in your pocket, and if you don't, please don't hesitate to ask about them.

Background activation activities

  • Preview the reading by looking at text features (titles, subtitles, illustrations, vocabulary, etc.) and making connections/predictions in partners or groups of three.  Give specific guidelines for group work and set strict time limits.
  • Use an easy organizer (such as a word map or Venn diagram) and have students work individually or in pairs to fill it out before previewing the information.  
  • Easy word sorts or pattern puzzles (both strategies require words cut up ahead of time and are basically matching activities - ironically interesting for our older students) in partners or groups of three.  These usually work, themselves, as classroom managers so you won't have to do much work in terms of management unless you find that your students have no background knowledge on the topic.  In which case, you'll want to skip down to the next section.
  • Discussion strategies such as the ABC Brainstorming (literally a list from A-Z where students have to think of an on-topic word that begins with each letter of the alphabet), mind streaming (partners each have to spend one minute blurting out any information that comes to mind on the topic without interruption or stopping), Discussion Webs, Carousel Brainstorming, and previewing using questioning techniques
  • K-W-L plus (categorize information gathered on the K-W-L)
  • Anticipation Guides (agree/disagree questions for students to consider that are directly related to the topic) and Double Entry Reflective Journals (Questions or statements to be answered before learning and then again after learning.  It's my personal favorite.)
  • One sentence summaries and/or paragraph frames before learning
Background building ideas
  • Youtube, United Streaming or another video websites
  • Articles and/or other text-selections well-below grade-level on the same topic
  • Preview vocabulary necessary for learning (use an engaging activity such as word sorts and pattern puzzles that are more guided)
  • Web quests or website exploration
  • Photos, pictures, artwork, primary source documents (with active learning strategy attached - you could consider having students work through a Double Entry Reflective Journal with these.)
  • Easier non-fiction text to build knowledge for fiction and visa versa
  • Picture books (another favorite of mine!)
  • Musical recordings (with an active learning strategy attached. - for example, have students journal how the music makes them feel when listening.)
  • Cartoons (for some reason the Simpsons seem to have an episode for everything!)
  • Poetry or lyrics to songs
  • Field trips (if your students are lucky enough to be in a district that funds them)

And the list goes on and on . . .

Friends, I implore you to really look hard at your clientele.  Our students need us to understand that we can't take for granted that any of them have the background knowledge or the vocabulary to tackle even the easiest knowledge, skills, or information in our classrooms.  Don't leave your kiddos behind because they lack the background necessary to easily pick up on what others can manage without much thought.  Observe. Evaluate. React. Give them success that they might not have otherwise.

Happy New Year.


  1. Nice blog and great article, Heather. You do a great job as the Reading Specialist. I really think that all students should use portfolios that contain background building strategies to front load students before teaching a new unit/chap/concept. One of the things I used was a binder with notes with outlines/vocab/chapter_review/test/.

    1. I'm interested in hearing more about this. What subject? Was the binder something you kept or did each student have one? How was it used? Thanks so much for your comment!