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Building Background Knowledge in Content Areas

Page history last edited by kieran.ohare@... 10 years, 1 month ago


Building Background Knowledge in Content Areas

The Common Core puts an emphasis on students building background knowledge in order to read and understand text.  For adult educators, this is a major shift, since the GED up until now has required students to bring very little background knowledge to the table.


This page will address the following questions:

What is Academic Background Knowledge?


As Doug Buehl writes in Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines, “Researchers (e.g. R.C. Anderson and Pearson, 1984) have referred to our prior knowledge banks as schema.  Our schema represents networks of information, associations and experiences that we activate and use when we interact with the world around us.  So, when an author mentions  Saudi Arabia and tosses in a few reminders about that country, in our minds as readers, we instantaneously touch base with our personal Saudia Arabia schema come rushing forth: oil desert, sparsely populated, Middle East, Persian Gulf, monarchy, Mecca, and so on and so on.


Why is Academic Background Knowledge so Important?


Besides the fact that adult students will have to have more background knowledge in order to adapt to the common core, obtaining and using background knowledge is key to reading comprehension.


Buehl writes that making connections to prior knowledge is paramount to comprehension.  “Comprehension falls apart when readers cannot, or do not, connect their accumulated store of knowledge and experiences to what an author is saying.”


What does the importance of background knowledge mean for the adult education classroom?


One of the main reasons to focus on content is that it allows us to address gaps in student background knowledge.   As time goes on, the variation in our students’ backgrounds continues to grow.  While some are young adults who have dropped out of high school, many others are immigrants from an increasingly large array of countries and cultures.  All bring varied levels of academic background knowledge—about history and culture, scientific discoveries, geography, or the English language—which GED instruction must address.  Content based curricula provide an ideal way to address the needs of a wide array of students.  Those with academic gaps have a last chance to fill in subject knowledge they have not acquired in school, while those learning English can relearn content, while also acquiring the English vocabulary they need to articulate what they know.



How can I help my students build background knowledge?


Students can build background knowledge in a number of ways: wide reading, internet research, field trips, and documentary viewing are just a few. Here are some resources for developing lessons that build background knowledge:


Fisher and Frey 

In class, one of the best ways to build background knowledge is by using a curriculum or designing lessons that systematically build and activate students’ prior knowledge.  An excellent book on the subject is Background Knowledge: the Missing Piece of the Comprehension Puzzle by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.  Here is a link to the book on Amazon.


Fisher and Frey provide guidelines for teachers when planning lessons.  When approaching  a new topic, teachers should:

  • Distinguish incidental knowledge from core background knowledge.
  • Check students' understanding prior to a unit with tools such as opinnionaires, interest surveys, and anticipation guides.
  • Build up students' background knowledge through virtual field trips, wide reading, YouTube, guest experts, and more.  
  • Provide collaborative ways for students to develop expertise, show what they know and own their learning.


An extremely helpful article on Background Knowledge by Fisher and Frey can be found here.



Additional Resources

The following websites can help you to design lessons to build background knowledge:


  • ASCD Background Knowledge: the Glue that Makes Learning Stick.  This is a truly excellent resource that provides a synopsis of the research on background knowledge, demonstrates its importance for learning, and includes fully described, well-designed activities that foster students’ acquisition of knowledge in the classroom.


  • Thinkport.  This site includes an excellent page and a very short video that clearly explains the concept of activating background knowledge.


  • Strategies for Activating Background Knowledge.  This page includes a wide variety of activities that are fun, active, and help students activate their prior knowledge, build on it through reading, and reinforce it through review and reflection.


What resources are available to assist me in building my students' background knowledge?


Content Based Curricula

There are a variety of resources to draw upon for building up students’ content knowledge.  One of the best ways is content-based curricula.  If curricula are designed by a teacher knowledgeable in a content area, they are likely to include the core concepts and practices associated with that content.


If you are a CUNY teacher, you have access to a wide range of curricula that have designed by adult literacy teachers to help students acquire content area knowledge and develop reading, writing and thinking skills at the same time.  Click here for a list of updated CUNY curricula.


If you are not a CUNY teacher, there are a number of free websites where you can download lesson plans:


  • Thinkfinity.org.  This is one of the most comprehensive websites for lesson plans, including links to many of the best sources.


  • Readwritethink.org.  At this site, you’ll find lessons for teaching English language arts, sortable by grade level and topic.  Some are suitable for adult learners.



  • EconEd Link.  Excellent lesson plan ideas for teaching topics in economics



  • OER Commons.  Free lessons developed by teachers sortable by level and topic.



Wide Reading

Wide reading is also an excellent way for students to build background knowledge.  The following book blogs include descriptions and excerpts of books that can help students learn more about science and social studies:




Both book blogs also contain comments from adult students who have read the books.  The Cunyhistoryclub site also includes helpful website relating to various time periods in U.S. history.




Finally, documentaries are a great way for students to learn more on their own.  A few good sources for documentaries that students can watch for free online:


  • Topdocumentaryfilms.com. This is a comprehensive collection of documentaries that can be watched for free.  Many do not load well, but students can search for websites or on YouTube for versions that stream well.


  • For science videos, students can watch online at PBS/Nova.


  • For an overview of U.S. history, students can watch free webisodes at PBS/History of US.





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