July 13, 2015

reading strategy - activating background knowledge

What do you remember about reading as a child? Do you recall doing whole-class reading, with one child reading out loud while everybody else followed along in the thick anthology reader? Did your teacher read aloud to you after lunch, letting you rest your recess-sweaty head on the cool desk while watching Ashley make faces at you? Did your whole class do units on a book together, working through packets and making book jackets at the end?

We all have memories of what it was like to be taught to read in school, and even though the format may be different, reading continues to be just as vital of a skill as it ever was. You already know a lot about what it’s like to learn to read, and that information will help you as you learn to teach your child to read!

…See what I did there? 🙂 Before jumping into my lesson, I activated your background knowledge. CLEVER HUH? 😀 (Yes, I am really feeling quite pleased with myself right now :D).

What does it mean to activate background knowledge?

When you activate background knowledge, you are basically helping a child unearth information she already knows and pulling it to the forefront of their mind. If you’re reading a story about dogs, then you’re asking the child what experiences she’s had with dogs before. If you’re starting a unit on the planets, you can ask them what things they’ve seen in the sky before. If it’s a unit on the Gold Rush, then you ask children to think about ideas they’ve had to make money (selling lemonade, doing chores, etc.).  Activating background knowledge will help your child make sense of new information and also help them remember new information that they read. And what’s the point of reading unless you are going to remember what you read?

I think the reason this is such an effective strategy has something to do with brain theory. I remember learning in college that new information sticks better when it is connected with old information. Sometimes, I even draw my students this diagram and tell them, “You already know a TON of stuff. If you can connect the new stuff you learn to the old stuff you already know, chances are you will remember it much better. If you just learn new stuff without connecting it to something you already knew before, it will be harder to remember.”

retaining new knowledge

This is true for any new information we learn, whether it’s from reading or even from talking with someone. I remember going to a leadership camp in high school, and some of the trainers were talking about the importance of remembering names of people you’ve just met. I was pretty terrible at remembering names, so I tuned in when the speaker shared his strategy. He’d try to think of someone else he knew that this person reminded him of, and then somehow make up a little story to connect their names. Or he’d think of another person he already knew with the same name and make an image or something to connect the new person and the old person, so they’d be associated in his head. Otherwise, he just made mental pictures or used imagery (of things he already knew and understood well, of course) to connect this new individual’s name with and was better able to remember names.

When I really care to remember names, like on the first day of school with a new group of students, I do something similar. I make up little stories or associate them with things I already know to remember them, and I usually have all 30 of my new students’ names down by the first hour of class. Part of this is using the strategy of making connections (a strategy I will delve into more in my next reading post), a strategy which has inherent overlap with the strategy of activating background knowledge.

It’s a pretty simple strategy, and actually one of the most enjoyable ones for children. Everyone likes to talk about their own personal stories and experiences, whether it was getting chased by a dog or owning one. Students love to talk about things they already know a lot about, and that’s exactly what you’re doing when you ask them to activate their background knowledge on something!

What if the topic is totally new to my child? 

There is almost ALWAYS a way to connect your child to the new information. Sometimes, you just have to be more creative. I’m trying to think of a topic that has stumped me, and I can’t really think of one. Children already possess a wealth of information and experience about so many topics. They are not the blank slates many assume they are, waiting for us to simply write new information on them. They already know a lot, and we should dig into that, unearth their gems of knowledge, and draw out the good, sticky old information to which they can attach the new information we’ll be teaching them.

Here are some examples of new topics I’ve taught and questions I’d ask to prompt them to think about their background knowledge:

Note that all of these instances start with “We are starting…” That’s because you want to activate background knowledge before you delve into the new subject matter. Having the existing knowledge at the forefront of their minds helps them to immediately make more sense of whatever they’re about to read next, and also gives them something concrete to stick the new information to (and thus retain it better).

Even if there are few hands the first time I pose the question, one child’s sharing usually jogs the memory of everyone else or at least sparks more ideas for them, and it doesn’t take long before most of the class is itching to share their own experiences with whatever topic you’ve brought up. This is an EXCELLENT time to use the pair-sharing technique, so that everyone can talk and share and bring their existing knowledge and experiences to the forefront of their minds!

How to teach it:

Here is an example of how I might teach my own child how to activate background knowledge before they delve into a new book:

Me: Today, we’re going to read that cool informational book about electricity we picked up at the library yesterday. Before we start, I’m curious to know what you already know about electricity. When do we use electricity?

Child: To turn on the lights! To watch TV! To use our computers!

Me: Yes, yes, and yes! Those are all examples of things that require electricity. Is there a time when you’ve ever been frustrated by electricity?

Child: Hm… When you unplug the TV. Ohh, when we had a blackout last week, that was kinda fun actually, but you seemed annoyed that you couldn’t cook and Daddy had to park outside.

Me: Yes! And do you remember the time your light went out when you walked in you room and you got scared?

Child: Oh yeah, it went “Buzz buzzz and flicked off! That was so scary!”

Me: Yes. We use electricity for a lot of stuff. Hm, can you think of a time when you ever felt electricity?

Child: FEEL electricity? Well, I know my little brother always wants to feel it which is why we plug the electricity sockets, right?

Me: Ah, yes, because electricity can be verrrry, verry–


Me: Exactly! Sometimes, especially in things like wall outlets, they can be very dangerous! But sometimes, feeling electricity can be harmless, like when you get a shock as you slide down a slide.

Child: Ouch! I hate that! That’s electricity?!

Me: Yup, that is one form of electricity. So you know a whole lot about it already! Let’s start reading and see what else we can learn!

And that’s it, folks. You just have a fun conversation with your child and bring up memories and instances and experiences they have already had with the subject matter, or anything related to it. As the parent, you will have a huge amount of knowledge about the experiences your child has had, and can best tap into their memory banks and help draw out information you know they probably have hidden in there. As a teacher, I draw it out a little differently, depending on my knowledge of my students, my experiences of what I know children know, or my own experiences in childhood that I assume they have in common with me.


The process of activating background knowledge is honestly a really fun and exciting time with children. I love seeing how eager they are to share their knowledge, and how proud they are when they realize they already have such a wealth of information. I love learning about their lives and stories, and they love sharing about it. Everyone loves to be known! This is also an easy way to get kids really enthusiastic about learning about a new topic. The enthusiasm is contagious, and as they become more excited, so do you. It’s a fun and easy conversation to have, so be sure to do it with your child before starting a new book, and then use the apprenticeship model of learning to teach them to activate their own background knowledge before they start learning new subject matter, too!

Ultimately, activating background knowledge will help your child make sense of new information and also help new information to stick. And the only point of reading something is if you’re going to understand and remember things from it, so teach this reading strategy to help your child become a better reader!


Related Posts:

How to Get the Most Out of Reading Time with Your Child

Why Your Child Hates Reading and How to Change That

What is Reader’s Workshop?

What is Guided Reading?

Reading Strategy: Monitor Comprehension

Reading Strategy: Make Connections

Reading Strategy: Ask Questions

2 responses to “Reading Strategy: Activate Background Knowledge”

  1. Dakota says:

    Ah darn, I commented on this last night… looks like it didn’t go through. 😛 (I was using my phone.)

    I really liked this post. I realized I already do this sort of thing with Munchkin when he’s asking questions about something new, but it’s always so helpful to have a concept named and fleshed out!

    • joellen says:

      It is nice to have words put to things you do, right? But yeah I’m sure you already do a LOT of the strategies I’m going to go over! Some people just naturally exude that kind of thinking and teaching :D. Good for your kids!!

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