The Importance of Background Knowledge

Jaclyn Baharestani
Special Projects Coordinator, Winston Innovation Lab

When we consider the building blocks of comprehension, background knowledge is an often overlooked, integral component of the learning process. 

Understanding the Role of Background Knowledge

Background knowledge, by definition, consists of the fund of acquired knowledge we possess, both factual and conceptual, prior to encountering new learning experiences. 

Consider this background knowledge example. While reading, a student encounters the idiom “break a leg” in a text. Having never heard the expression, they may assume a character has been physically hurt and something negative has occurred, when the idiomatic meaning conveys positive intent and good luck wishes. Not only is it confusing, but this lack of understanding can affect comprehension of a text beyond the surface level. 

Children constantly encounter more varied content, gain insight into novel subjects or topics of interest, and navigate complex social scenarios. During these experiences, they build upon prior understanding. From there, they can integrate the new information.
This process, when paired with strong reasoning skills, lends itself to critical thinking. Ultimately, it creates rich opportunities to learn. Most importantly, it fosters the development of key social, emotional, and academic skills.

Gaps in Knowledge: Current Trends

Gaps in background knowledge can have a severe impact on learning and academic performance. 

Results of the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) demonstrate a downward trend in knowledge acquisition related to civics and history for eighth graders. This pattern aligns with similar declines in skills related to reading and math across the country. 

More specifically, a study conducted this spring by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) reveals stagnant growth in math and reading. These results are in stark comparison to data from pre-pandemic times, across grades three through eight in 3.5 million public schools around the country.

While these results undoubtedly reflect the profound impact of the pandemic on learning, they also point to an underlying lack of foundational background knowledge. Shifts in education have exacerbated this deficit over the last several years.
Older students assessed by the NWEA had a particularly challenging time showcasing their skills. The results point to the cumulative effect of gaps in background knowledge. Furthermore, they highlight how detrimental these breakdowns are when students gain access to more challenging, complex content.

Students with Learning Disabilities

For students with learning disabilities, cognitive weaknesses complicate the process of cultivating background knowledge. Learning differences hinder the very processes needed to internalize, comprehend, and access new information. 

A student with dyslexia is already thousands of words behind their peers by the time they reach third grade. That is a time when teachers expect students to shift from learning to read to reading to learn. 

Students with dyslexia are clearly at a disadvantage in terms of accumulating knowledge due to their narrow exposure to text and Tier 2 vocabulary. Tier 2 vocabulary words are words that are not necessarily common in conversation. Instead, we often find them in written language (i.e., occurrence, tended, emerging). These words are vital for comprehension and developing background knowledge. 
In contrast, students with nonverbal learning disabilities may have an impressive fund of factual information. Still, they can struggle to integrate that knowledge to form a meaningful conceptual understanding. This is due to a core visual spatial weakness and its impact on comprehension. 

In these instances, students often miss out on crucial opportunities to deepen their sense of how the world around them works. They may miss out on opportunities to contribute to experiences and relationships. 

Students with primary executive functioning disorders have difficulty with the very task of organizing, sorting, prioritizing, and accessing information at the time they need it. Oftentimes, these students have the cognitive skills needed to reason through the information presented to them. 

Even so, the breakdowns in their executive functions prevent them from engaging with past and present learning material. This difference makes explicit strategy instruction key to their ability to develop their fund of knowledge, build upon it, and retrieve it in a timely manner. 

Explicit Instruction and Strategy Development

For students who would benefit from vocabulary development to develop background knowledge, we encourage our teachers to use Tier 2 vocabulary consistently in conversation and instruction while explicitly teaching this vocabulary. 

We do this by making connections to the word from various perspectives. From there, it becomes a fully formed idea or concept, setting up discussions of the ideas or concepts tied to the word. 
It is not enough to have students write a Tier 2 vocabulary word in a sentence. They need to use it in various contexts, including conversations, discussions, and expanded written language responses. 

We also actively engage in vocabulary-centered activities. Winston Prep educators use targeted words to compare and contrast, categorize, and work with analogy exercises. This increases saliency while deepening knowledge. Additionally, using read-alouds, no matter what the student’s age, increases familiarity with new words.

Research suggests that providing vivid examples and teaching students to think critically are other fruitful ways to promote engagement and the acquisition of knowledge. At Winston Preparatory School, we know that strategies for building background knowledge are most effectively taught by helping students adapt to a more concrete system for processing, retaining, and retrieving information. 

In conjunction with these methods, Winston Prep presents a wide range of learning experiences. These include our extensive service learning program, after-school enrichment clubs, and outdoor education trips. During these experiences, students can apply those very strategies and widen their range of contextual knowledge.
We structure learning experiences with supports such as individualized thinking maps or graphic organizers. These tools focus on identifying purpose, activating prior knowledge, and connecting new information to what learners already know.  

Importantly, at Winston Preparatory School, coupled with a deep clinical understanding of each WPS student’s learning profile, we determine where the learning process is breaking down for each individual child. That helps us design remediation specifically for each student based on the ways in which their brain processes and organizes information.

Building Background Knowledge at Home

You can take this same approach to expanding background knowledge at home. Seek to build exposure to vocabulary and novel information into your child’s daily routine. A simple way to emphasize this skill-building is by reading aloud together. After reading, have conversations that incorporate advanced vocabulary words and demonstrate how to use them in context. Help your child explore deeper meaning and association by asking, When do we use the word, what does it look like, when and where do we see it,  who uses it and why?

With regard to exposing children to new content, they have endless options. Look into high-interest podcasts, magazines, media, or experiential excursions. Asking reflective questions can boost engagement during new learning experiences.

You can also provide specific prompts beforehand. For example, “When we walk through the dinosaur exhibit, let’s look for one new fact about dinosaurs.”  

Our goal is to help our kids tap into their prior knowledge and to fuse that knowledge with the new information they are taking in. Simultaneously, we’re heightening their awareness of this element of their learning. 

You can also apply this strategic cueing when students are participating in community service. Service learning strengthens Social Responsibility and teaches practical skills associated with raising money or providing a service. It also further offers children historical and social information about the world in which they live.

Students have endless opportunities to gain important background knowledge. Learning novel skills, adopting out-of-the-box hobbies, or simply just trying something new can all contribute. Their new knowledge will enrich their understanding and provide them with a stronger conceptual base to build upon in the future.

Expand Your Child’s World at Winston Prep

At Winston Prep, students build background knowledge through engaging, hands-on experiences. Learn more about how Winston Prep can help your student get the most out of learning by viewing a campus near you.
Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD), and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

WPS does not discriminate against applicants and students on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin. The Winston Preparatory School provides programs and services and equal opportunity in the administration of its educational and admissions policies, financial aid programs, employment, and the selection of its governing board without regard to gender, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability status, or any status recognized by federal, state and local civil rights and non-discrimination laws.