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Literacy 4-6

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Literacy 4-6 > Factors > Background Knowledge

Background Knowledge

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How Background Knowledge connects to...

We all bring our own Background Knowledge, that is, what we know and have experienced, to what we read and write. Helping students build and apply their Background Knowledge can ensure they have and use the information they need to understand and compose increasingly complex texts.

Main Ideas

In the upper elementary grades, students transition into a stage where they are able to learn Background Knowledge through the process of reading and writing.

Understanding a text can be difficult without basic Background Knowledge in the topic for several reasons:

  • Reading often requires students to make inferences. Without appropriate Background Knowledge, this may be impossible.
  • Vocabulary is an important component of Background Knowledge, and it can be difficult to understand a text that has Vocabulary students do not understand. Specifically, academic Vocabulary can be challenging, as these words are not typically used in informal conversation (e.g., analysis, policy).
  • Many words also have multiple meanings and can be ambiguous if the student does not have the sufficient Background Knowledge to choose the correct meaning (e.g., "bank" could refer to a financial institution or to the edge of a river).
  • Background Knowledge allows students to understand and use figurative language (e.g., metaphors, idioms).

The reliance on Background Knowledge grows as students progress through school, and they are required to build upon prior Background Knowledge to acquire new Background Knowledge. Specifically, the comprehension of informational texts requires students to have and apply more Background Knowledge relative to storybook texts, as informational texts typically use more complex academic or discipline-specific Vocabulary and require students to apply information from prior lessons.

However, Background Knowledge goes beyond Vocabulary learning because Background Knowledge refers to a deeper understanding of a topic. For example, a child who has never been to the beach before may know the relevant Vocabulary (e.g., waves, seaweed, sand) but may not immediately understand metaphors used in a story in the same way as a child who has experience going to the beach.

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