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
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!
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: