A person's background knowledge, often called prior knowledge, is a collection of "abstracted residue" (Schallert, 2002, p. 557) that has been formed from life experiences. In the context of schools, background knowledge can be defined as the knowledge students have learned both formally in the classroom as well as informally through life experiences. Previous studies (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Schulze, 1994; Shapiro, 2004) have shown that background knowledge plays an enormous role in reading comprehension (Hirsch, 2003).
So, how do we build background knowledge?
In this article by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, & Diane Lapp, you will find ideas that will work with students of all ages. It is written for middle school, but the ideas will work with elementary.
"The first step in addressing background knowledge is to determine what core background knowledge (as opposed to incidental knowledge) students will need to understand the new information to be learned. We must ask several questions:
2. Transmission: Does the information require multiple exposures and experiences (core), or can it be easily explained or defined using a label, fact, or detail (incidental)?
3. Transferability: Will the information be required to understand future concepts (core), or is the information specific to one topic and not likely to be used in the near future (incidental)?
4. Endurance: Will the information be remembered after the details are forgotten (core), or will it likely not be recalled in the future (incidental)?"
The next step in the process of building background knowledge is to determine the extent to which students possess relevant core background knowledge. They offer several different ways to assess students. I like the idea of asking students to write captions for illustrations or photos. They discuss the importance of vocabulary and how to model new vocabulary for students.
I encourage you to read the article and find ways to build background knowledge. It starts with what students know and leads to what they need to know!