Building Background Knowledge to Make Learning Impactful

By Dr. Stephanie Knight

bright classroom full of students raising hands

Lately, I’ve had a glaring wake up call. My 5-year-old has shown me the many words I use which I take for granted. Just the other day my mom and I were discussing a political candidate and how he waffles on the issues. My daughter’s ears perked up because she heard the word “waffles.” Our students and especially our English Language Learners are not much different in that they don’t have the prior knowledge to know the meaning or context of many words. If we want to cement learning and make it meaningful, we must understand the importance of building and/or activating background knowledge. This means not only in vocabulary (including academic language) but in the content we teach.

The research shows that new learning is determined by what the learner already knows about the subject matter. According to Robert Marzano, “What students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content” (2004, p. 1). This is true for all of us. Imagine you’re watching the Olympics; you would be more engaged in watching the ice skating if you understood the difference (based on your experience) between a triple lutz and a triple axle. This means that it is up to us to build a foundation of new knowledge every time we start teaching a new lesson. We cannot take vocabulary knowledge for granted either because there are many connotations of a single word.  If you mention the word “cowboy,” there may be a plethora of responses. It could be a positive memory of watching a cowboy movie or it could be a frustration with the lack of wins from the Dallas Cowboy football team.

Let’s say we are about to introduce the novel “Night” by Elie Wiesel to a group of 8th graders (ELL’s included). Those who have been to the Holocaust museum will have much more buy-in or even a strong emotional response. Others may be able to relate through family members. The best way to enhance academic background knowledge is to provide rich experiences for our students. I’ll call it the ABC’s of background knowledge. The first step is to assess what they know, then to build on what they might know or add new learning; finally continue to build throughout the lesson.

A: Assess Background Knowledge

Before beginning any chapter or unit, it is essential to find out what your students know about the topic. What students know is difficult to predict without some sort of objective measure, especially considering the ranges of background knowledge in any one class. The following are ways to assess individuals’ background knowledge and get a feel for how much the class as a whole knows about the topic.

  • Create a questionnaire and find out your students’ knowledge.
  • Post pictures from the Holocaust around the room and have students silently walk and write on post-it notes. They can jot down what they see under the pictures. Then hold a discussion.

B: Building Background Knowledge

I love picture books. If I can find a book that covers the theme of my unit or a topic, I find these are friendly and helpful and they get the conversation going. For this unit, you could use “Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust” by Eve Bunting. This text encourages young children to stand up for what they believe in and not be afraid of what others think. Again, this gets students talking and connecting especially if they have no knowledge of the Holocaust.

Build vocabulary extensively and often. ELL students need much more than just an introduction to words. They need to see relationships of concepts and have opportunities to discuss how these words relate to their own experiencers. For example, a word used in “Night” is “ghetto.” This word may have significance in their own experiences where they can make a connection.

  • Post artwork or pictures from the Holocaust or different artistic representations of this time period and ask if they could find any connection or experience in their culture or family.
  • Find interviews from the author. Also, find some videos of experiences to help the students see more about these events.
  • Bring in a guest speaker. I had a Holocaust survivor come in and discuss her experiences; you could hear a pin drop.
  • Find connection points and ways for your students to share their own culture. This may mean you do a bit of research about the various cultures you have coming into your class. Then bring in speakers from your ELL’s families if there are connection points to what you are teaching. This taps into your ELL’s funds of knowledge (the assets they bring into the classroom as a cultural community).

C: Continue to Look for Resources That Extend the Book

Many say that we should focus on background knowledge before a lesson begins. Of course, this creates buy-in and gets students excited to learn the content. However, we must continue to build knowledge throughout a lesson especially with vocabulary. For example, it is no secret that Jews’ human rights were defiled and abused during the Holocaust. This could open up areas of discussion in other areas of human rights’ violations to make connections to past learning or personal experiences. Remember, we are trying to enhance background knowledge to create new learning as well as to enrich the learning experience.

The work that we do as teachers to augment our curriculum with many multicultural perspectives will create deep connections for our students and especially our ELL’s. This will serendipitously develop an admiration of other cultures and others’ experiences. Hopefully we can find more connections in our classrooms to bring us all closer together and thus cement the learning.

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Marzano, R. J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on

what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

More About Dr. Knight:

Dr. Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title One schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon University’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.