Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension

Background knowledge, also known as factual knowledge, can make the difference from not understanding what you have read to completely comprehending what you have read.

You build background knowledge from life experience, research, hobbies, and more. Having a wide range of interests can help your reading comprehension by drawing comparisons and relationships to ideas, facts, and concepts you already know.

When educators often think of strategies to build reading comprehension, they normally reach for activities such as:

  1. Finding the main idea
  2. Finding supporting details
  3. Making graphical representations to assist comprehension and long-term memory
  4. Answering questions
  5. Generating questions
  6. Summarizing what they have read
  7. Practice using new vocabulary

There is no mention of factual or background knowledge. However, Donna R. Recht, coauthor of “Effect of Prior Knowledge on Good and Poor Readers’ Memory of Text” states: “Prior knowledge creates a scaffolding for information.” She goes on to state: “For poor readers, the scaffolding allows them to compensate for their generally inefficient recognition of important ideas.”

If you are to be able to actually succeed in any of the above 7 reading comprehension skills, you must have some background knowledge to refer to in order to filter, scaffold, make associations, make sense of, and retain information. In other words, in order to understand, you need a reference point, you need background knowledge. The more background knowledge you have, the easier it is to comprehend.

This video explains Recth’s and Leslie’s study results.

Background knowledge can help a poor reader develop into a capable one and a poor writer into a fascinating one. One way to build background knowledge is to understand the 10 basic topic categories and tailor experiences in those areas. Remember, it is quite difficult to find the “main idea” of a reading selection when you don’t really understand most of the ideas written about. 

10 Background Knowledge Topics Everyone Should Know Something About

  1. Animals, Ecology, and Ecosystems
  2. Folk Stories, Fables, and Fairy Tales
  3. Classic Children’s Fiction
  4. Astronomy and Space
  5. Human Body, Health, and Nutrition
  6. Engineering Technology
  7. Historical Fiction
  8. U.S. History, Culture, and Civics
  9. Contemporary Realistic Fiction
  10. Immigration

The 10 knowledge domains that will give your students an advantage on PARCC/SBAC tests.

Building Background Knowledge Activities

If you live in a city and have never been to a farm, you would have difficulty understanding a reading passage about harvesting crops. So, you could build your knowledge by taking a trip to a farm or watching a video about a farm harvesting its crops. From here, you could then draw pictures or make a graphical representation of the steps that are taken during a harvest. Make a model of or collect pictures of types of harvest equipment. Compare the types of equipment from one crop to another. The richer the activities and experiences the more the student will be building and retaining the factual/background knowledge.

As mentioned above, using videos can improve factual knowledge. The factual knowledge study reported in Enhancing Students’ Learning of Factual Knowledge concludes that a blended learning approach that utilized Internet video clips improved students’ vocabulary development and showed a significant increase in test scores. 

Listening to Podcasts Can Improve Your Factual Knowledge

We love listening to podcasts to build our factual knowledge. We love learning about new things! Podcasts can be a great way to learn about something while in the car or around the house. There are podcasts on thousands of topics that can expand your knowledge about specific topics. Some of our favorite podcasts include But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids and Wow in the World.

For older kids, take a look at Science Friday. You may have caught the show on NPR on a Friday, but check out their website. They have tons of episodes! For the high school and adults, take a listen to Radio Lab. Please note: Radio Lab has some material that may not be suitable for children.

For more great podcasts for kids, take a look at this top 25 podcasts for kids list.

At-Home and Online Summer Reading Program 2022: Grades K-8

Playing Games Improves Background Knowledge

Additionally, playing vocabulary or word games improves factual knowledge by improving vocabulary. “Vocabulary knowledge could be considered a proxy for a person’s background knowledge.” The Journal of Educational Research, Volume 2, 2009. Playing games can improve a student’s memory of vocabulary which improves their factual knowledge base which then improves their comprehension skills.

Alemi (2010, 435) found that word games had a “positive effect on vocabulary development” among the students in her study. Huyen and Nga’s (2003) research found that games (1) create a relaxed environment that helps students learn and recognize words; (2) introduce friendly, competitive activities that energize students and increase active participation; and (3) improve students’ communicative competence through the review and practice of vocabulary.

Vocabulary Games: More than Just Wordplay

For direct instruction and specific activities on improving factual knowledge and vocabulary, learn more about our Summer Reading Program. The program integrates the five principles of reading seamlessly with step-by-step activities, games, and video lessons.

Who is Scholar Within?

Scholar Within was founded by learning expert Bonnie Terry, M. Ed., BCET. Bonnie began designing and developing her own custom educational tools when she started her private learning center in the 1990s. Teachers kept asking what she was using with the kids who saw her because of the dramatic improvements that the kids made in school. From there, Bonnie decided to make her materials available to teachers and families worldwide.

Now, Bonnie Terry has turned her materials into a full-service online program that you can follow step-by-step at home, on your schedule. School alone is not enough anymore. Bonnie’s programs boost your kid’s overall learning skills by focusing on improving the auditory, visual, and tactile processing areas of your brain to make it work more efficiently.

Learn more about Scholar Within.


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