Background Knowledge

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Research suggests that, aside from socio-economic factors, one of the best predictors of student learning is what the student already knows before studying new material, or how much background knowledge they have.

Background knowledge has been described as the key ingredient to reading comprehension. Background knowledge or prior knowledge is quite simply what someone already knows about a subject that will help him gain new information.

Children begin to develop their background knowledge long before they enter school. There interactions with parents and other caregivers help to establish what they think about the world and the things in it, including reading, school and studying. Children who are read to about a lot of different subjects, and who are engaged in conversation on a regular basis, about a lot of different topics, tend to have higher background knowledge.

For example, if you read a book about World War I, your prior knowledge about the War will help you understand what you’re reading. Even if the book introduces new concepts, it will be easier for you to understand those concepts than if you have previous knowledge about World War I. The same is true for children. When they are introduced to new information at school, what they already know about the subject helps them to learn the new information that is being taught.

So, as a parent you may ask, “How do I build my child’s background knowledge?” Well, that can be done in several ways. One way is to build the knowledge before your child needs it, by exposing him to different things, talking to him about new ideas and reading lots of different material either with him or to him on a regular basis. Another way is to give your child the background knowledge that he may be missing, prior to him learning a new concept in school. For example, if your child is going to begin a lesson about the respiratory system, you can build his background knowledge by helping him connect the term respiratory system with the lungs and the act of breathing, by showing him pictures of the respiratory system, or by reviewing new vocabulary words and their meanings.

In education, background knowledge and a child’s ability to comprehend what is read is profound. If your child doesn’t have background knowledge on a topic that is being studied, then you should do everything possible to build that knowledge. That will lead to much greater success in comprehension and school.

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