When it comes to teaching reading, activating prior knowledge is one of my favorite strategies. By using past experiences, or tapping into knowledge they already have, you can help kids to comprehend the stories and texts that you are reading. You can easily model this strategy for your kids while you are reading aloud to them, while also encouraging conversation. This can be done with children as young as toddlers!

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Recognizing familiar objects

My 20 month old daughter is a huge fan of Disney’s Little Einsteins. I was impressed with how quickly she picked up on things in the show. Beyond recognizing composers and artists, her vocabulary includes words like “staccato”, “tragic” and “microphone”. She has started applying this background knowledge to the books that we read. I was shocked when we read River Rose and the Magical Lullaby by Kelly Clarkson, and she started pointing to River Rose’s music note covered bedspread, calling out “Music notes! Music notes!”. She was also able to point out a violin in the story of The 3 Little Pigs, even though the text never used the word. These are all examples of her using her background knowledge to help her understand and connect to the story we were reading. It is that easy!

Using your experiences

The importance of background knowledge is something I witnessed when I was student teaching. I was teaching a fourth grade class in an urban school district. One of the texts that the kids were reading involved a section on square dancing. (We learned square dancing in our gym class in elementary school. Do-si-do anyone? I was surprised to find out later in life that not everyone learned square dancing and juggling in their gym class!). These kids had never even heard of square dancing, let alone tried it. They were having a hard time understanding the text because they didn’t have any prior knowledge to draw from.

The teacher and I set up an appointment with the gym teacher in the building, and we took the whole class down to the gym to learn to square dance. The kids had a blast dancing and learning the names of the different dances. When we went back to reading the text later on, they were now able to comprehend the story because they had that experience! This remains one of my favorite lessons I ever taught!

Applying this strategy to your family reading

There are many ways that you can help your children to develop background knowledge and use it to help their reading. All of the fun and amazing things that you do with your kids can be considered building their background knowledge. While it may not seem like it, playing outside, going for walks, watching movies together, and going on trips can all help your kids with their reading! Once they have this background knowledge, help them to apply it to texts by talking to them and asking them questions.

New Books – Read all sorts of books with your kids. If you find a book with something that is unfamiliar to them, try learning about it together. Maybe you don’t know how to square dance, or you haven’t tried a kind of food mentioned in your favorite story? Go online and find some dance lessons or cook a new dish together. Reread the story after you have this new experience and connect it back to them. “Remember when we learned how to do-si-do?”. Connecting these memories to the text helps kids to put themselves into the story so they can understand it.

Using what you already know

A KWL chart

KWL Questions/Chart – KWL charts are often used in schools to help kids tap into their background knowledge and revisit what they learned after reading the text. These are a three columned chart which lays out what we know (K) about a subject before reading, what we want to know (W) when we read it, and what we learned (L) after reading. These charts are very effective in helping kids to set goals for their reading and to see the information that they have gained by reading. You can do this with your kids in your daily read aloud without the chart as well. Before starting a book together, ask kids what they know about the subject.

For example, Eric Carle’s book The Mixed-Up Chameleon has a chameleon on the cover.

  • K – What do your kids know about chameleons? They may know that they can change their appearance.
  • W – What do they hope to learn by reading this book? Maybe they want to know why he is mixed up.
  • L – After reading the book, talk to kids about what they learned. (The chameleon is mixed up because he wanted to get parts from different animals).

By knowing that chameleons can change their appearance, they can better understand the character in the story. These questions will help your kids to apply their background knowledge to the story and help them understand.

Using your knowledge to make predictions

Inferring- Background knowledge can also help kids to guess or make inferences about what will happen in a story. This can be modeled with young kids and a simple book like Peek-A-Boo Farm by Joyce Wan. Before reading the book, remind your kids about animals they have seen on a farm or at the zoo. As you are reading, have kids use their background knowledge about animals and the information in the book to guess what animal will be on the next page. “This animal is pink and likes to play in the mud. Remember when we were at the farm and we saw an animal playing in the mud? What animal was that?”. Reminding them of the knowledge they already have helps them to apply that knowledge to the book.

Using reading to connect

Modeling this strategy to kids has the added benefit of also being a fun way to remember fun times together. “Remember that time we went apple picking and you ate 2 whole apples while we were picking them?”. A simple reminder of a fun memory can really help kids to understand the story and make it come alive for them! What ways do you help your kids to apply their background knowledge to the books you read? Share in the comments!

Blog Hop

Over the next two weeks, follow along with our blog hop and check out some great ways to teach and reinforce reading strategies! Here is the schedule:

Tuesday, 3/14, Allison at thehousethatlallibuilt.com – Visualizing

Thursday, 3/16, Ginny at notsoformulaic.com – Inferencing

Monday, 3/20, Jennifer at happyteachermama.com – Summarizing

Tuesday, 3/21, KT at litmamahomeschool.com – Using these strategies with Animal Farm

Wednesday, 3/22, Erin at mystorytimecorner.com – Using Questions

66 comments on “Activating Prior Knowledge”

  1. Great post! I will have to pay more attention and see what part our background knowledge plays in our life, and reading! Something I didn’t really think of before 🙂


  2. I love that you encourage parents to read ALL types of books to children. That is a great way to introduce them to things that they may not be able to experience otherwise.

  3. This is great! I’ve definitely noticed how going on walks and pointing things out has helped my 2 year old notice and point out things when we read.

  4. I have a 21 month old and we apply similar strategies when we read together. It’s really amazing how they pick things up!

  5. Background knowledge does help get kids excited about what they are learning and reading in the classroom. I know we use that as a reading strategy in the homework help program we run.

    • Thank you so much! She has dabbled in Super Why a little, but so far nothing can match her love of Little Einsteins!

  6. Such wonderful ideas. We read a lot, but I’ve never used that KWL chart before. I think it would be really helpful. My oldest is reading in school, but needs some help. Thank you for all of these tips!

  7. When I was in the classroom, one of the common questions I’d hear from students at the beginning of the year was, “When am I going to use this stuff?” Your write up is great in that it provides parents with ways to help foster learning through connecting to prior knowledge, scaffolding, and critical thinking with their little person.

  8. Hi. Some really interesting points gere. Some which are obvious but things I wouldn’t have thought about.

    My lil lad is 1 and i definitely will start implementing background knowledge technique for now..

    Thank you 🙂

    • I have heard of that! It is such a great idea to have kids read to dogs because it gives them a chance to practice! My daughter loves to “read” to our dog already, so I’m hoping she will keep it up.

  9. Your blog is such a breath of fresh air!! I am totally going to be thinking about how to enhance my read aloud skills now and what else we can do themed with a book!

  10. My husband and I love to read and we read to our children everyday. Sometimes several times a day when they were young. Going to the library helped. They all love to read to this day.

  11. These are really great tips. My son get’s to choose which books he wants from his school’s online library. He usually sticks to the ones with topics he’s familiar with. We encourage him to change it up and try new subject books. This post will be helpful for us in that matter and I like the chart.

  12. It’s amazing what kids remember from their day to day activities. One time we were on a walk and our then 4 year old saw a cell phone tower in the distance and said, “That looks like the Eiffel Tower!” My husband and I were shocked she knew what the Eiffel Tower was! Turns out she had seen it on an episode of Little Einsteins. And you are right–using their past knowledge does help to enrich the story when reading books. Thanks for these tips!

    • Haha, those Little Einsteins! They have introduced my daughter to so many things that she now recognizes in every day life!

  13. I love that you’re contributing to this series. These are the strategies I used as a teacher ALL the time! Prior knowledge is so important because the human brain is more likely to retain knowledge that it sees as relevant, and so if we can connect it to something we already know, our brain views the new knowledge as valuable. YAY!

    • Yes! I love teaching this strategy because not only is it so important, but it is an easy and fun strategy to use with kids!

  14. As always I love your article! I’ve been activating prior knowledge with my boys when I read just like I would in the classroom. It’s funny how our skills reach into our personal life!

  15. I’m also a huge fan of the Background/Prior Knowledge strategy – as a teacher, it is a great way to find out what your students already know so you can see any ‘gaps’ in their knowledge and find out where to teach next. I also love getting them to discuss what they can see in the picture, such a great way for them to pick up some words they might not have known but once they say the word they make the connection between their verbal response and the written word. Great tips!

    • Thank you! I agree about the illustrations as well! There is so much you can discuss with them, which leads to a greater vocabulary and deeper understanding.

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