What is background knowledge and why is it important? Background knowledge is defined as the information that is critical for you to have in order to understand a situation or particular information. When it comes to reading, according to PBA (Atlanta-based public broadcasting), “Research suggests that, aside from socio-economic factors, one of the best predictors of student learning is what the student already knows before studying new material, or how much background knowledge they have.”
Background knowledge provides the learner with context and a frame of reference that is invaluable in understanding the topic. Recently it was discovered that the U.S. government was monitoring cell phone activity of “regular” Americans. There has been outrage on both sides of the issue. In fact, Senator McCain supported this monitoring by putting the action in terms of September 11. He said, “If this were September 12, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” For most of the young people in our afterschool program, they were either very young or not yet born when 9-11 occurred. It is history to them, not part of the fabric of their experience. In order to make that event more “real” to them, we take the time to share the context of the event, the shock that we all felt, and how this has changed not only the way air travel in this country works, but the way government agencies collaborate. If youth understand the context of McCain’s statement, it makes it easier to understand his point of view—not that they will agree with it, but that is not the point. The point is to understand the context that was a critical part of his point of view.
In afterschool programs we have an opportunity to intentionally build background knowledge with youth if we know what they are going to be studying in school. If the concepts being introduced are new to youth, frontloading that introduction with hands-on experiences that build background knowledge will help them to learn the new information. “For example, if a child is going to begin a lesson about the respiratory system, you can build his background knowledge by helping him connect the term respiratory system with the lungs and the act of breathing by showing him pictures of the respiratory system, or by reviewing new vocabulary words and their meanings.” In our program we might take the “telling” a step further by actually going outdoors, playing an active game and then discussing what is happening in the youth’s respiratory system and identifying the importance of easy breathing and what happens when we have asthma, allergies, or a cold. By building this knowledge, the students will be more ready to comprehend the lesson on the respiratory system.
Building Background knowledge requires thought and intentionality. What are the best practices that you have in place to do this?