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Background Knowledge

Making Connections Between New and Known Information

All readers bring to the reading/writing process their own growing knowledge of language, the world and their understandings of how print is used to convey meaning. A child who is often read to, or who regularly sees adults reading and writing for personal tasks and pleasure will expect that reading and writing play useful roles in life and are valued activities. A child who has limited exposure to reading and writing will have very different expectations and understandings. Each of these situations, however, provides some of the background knowledge that children bring to the act of reading and writing.

Effective teaching fosters these expectations of reading and writing as purposeful and meaningful acts, and honors and builds on learners' diverse areas of knowledge through thoughtful selection of reading materials and activities. For example, a child interested in and knowledgeable about dinosaurs will be well equipped to explore a new book about these prehistoric creatures. Another child who is less familiar with dinosaurs may be equally intrigued by the same book, but will benefit from some preliminary introduction to the content. For example, before reading, the child might spend time looking at a variety of pictures of dinosaurs--skeletons as well as "life-like" images, or talking about when they existed, or what they ate.

Activating background knowledge before reading is an important step that is often overlooked in teaching young readers. As an experienced reader, you use your background knowledge automatically, without realizing it. If you are about to read a novel about World War II, subconsciously you summon up whatever images you have about that period both before and as you read. While reading a love poem or an article about baseball, you use your background knowledge about the topics, and also about the literary styles of each. You know that a poem is very different from a novel or news article, in the way it is crafted, in the choice of language, even in its format and length. In each case, you expect the text to make sense because it builds on what you know. At the same time, it may extend or deepen your knowledge and understanding as it adds new ideas or information.

Beginning readers, too, need to learn to use their own background knowledge. Helping them activate and extend this knowledge and selecting texts that build on what they already know or understand about their world support their attempts to make sense of what they are reading. If students do not have any background knowledge on the topic of the reading material that is to be used, then every effort should be made to build that knowledge through prior discussion, looking at pictures or objects, or through other means before introducing the new text. That will lead to much greater success with the reading experience.