Skip to main content
Diverse group of kids learning about bees and honey in elementary classroom

Background Knowledge

Pairing Books, Activities, and Experiences to Build Background Knowledge

What is background knowledge, and why is it so important for reading comprehension and motivation? In this introduction, you’ll also discover simple, everyday activities that helps build a child’s knowledge about the world.

On this page:

The ability to think critically — like the ability to understand what you read — can’t be taught directly and in the abstract. It’s inextricably linked to how much knowledge you have about the situation at hand.”

Natalie Wexler, The Knowledge Gap (p. 39)

Word and world knowledge

The combination of microwave excitation with dipole–dipole interactions and spin–rotation couplings enables building a complete toolbox for effective two-spin interactions with designable range, spatial anisotropy and coupling strengths significantly larger than relevant decoherence rates.1 

You got that, right? You have all the skills needed to accurately read a high-level text. Yet reading comprehension requires more than reading skills — you need knowledge of words and of the world. And if your world doesn’t include quantum computation, then you may not have really understood what you just read!

You need a frame of reference to connect to new and existing information. And that comes from the things that you are exposed to. 

If you have kids or work with kids, a big part of your life every day is introducing them to the world and helping them understand and interpret it.

Knowledge brings more knowledge

Kids naturally have limited knowledge about the world. They have had fewer experiences. With fewer experiences to draw on, making connections and learning is challenging. And without background knowledge — the information one already knows about particular topics — kids actually have a smaller capacity to learn.

In the article How Knowledge Helps, University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains how knowledge brings more knowledge and improves thinking: 

Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes operate.”

And the sooner kids start to build up that store of knowledge, the better. Beginning with experiences with their family, kids will accumulate information about themselves, other people, objects, animals, and the world around them through observations, interactions, and instruction. You are helping kids build background knowledge when you:

  • Explain daily routines and tasks and point out connections such as getting dressed in warm clothes when it is cold outside.
  • Visit different places in the community together, such as the grocery store, bakery, library, park, forest, concert hall, or place of worship, and talk with kids about what they see, hear, smell, and taste. 
  • Explore together, checking out the world by heading outside to skip rocks in the river or by heading online to watch a video of penguin swimming to escape a predator. 
  • Expose kids to sophisticated words and concepts multiple times and in different contexts, explaining unfamiliar words.
  • Encourage conversation with family, friends, and people in your neighborhood. 
  • Play games and engage in make believe play.
  • Answer questions! And provide feedback about kids’ ideas that helps kids expand on what they know.
  • Ask questions! Include questions in conversations with kids that encourage thinking about everyday experiences.
  • Show your own interest and curiosity about the world.
  • Share and read aloud all kinds of books and informational texts that introduce kids to a diverse variety of people, places, cultures, experiences, and ideas!

Both interesting and everyday experiences and reading and sharing books are great for helping kids connect new information to existing knowledge, figure out how the world works, and understand and gain new knowledge and vocabulary. When you pair books with other texts and experiences, you further help kids link knowledge to knowledge, reflect on what they know, and learn to make connections between different topics. 

Start with a book

The best way to get kids learning is to build on their curiosity and interests. Sharing a variety of texts with related concepts or themes can be particularly beneficial for their knowledge building. When you share books about a topic of interest, you open up opportunities to ask kids questions, for kids to ask questions, and to explore context and ideas. When you pair hands-on experiences with books, kids have the opportunity to make richer connections between the topic and their lives and extend or expand on ideas.

Starting with a book to build background knowledge can lead kids to experiences they might not have ever conceived, such as making a sundial after reading about time and the science of clocks or volunteering to do stream clean up after reading about oceans, rivers, and ponds

Other titles might inspire simple demonstrations of concepts like near and far, heavy and light, or examining objects in different colors, shapes, or textures. Or reading a number or texts about inventors could result in kids making a robot, while books about space result in creating a scale model of the solar system.

The toolkits at Start with a Book connect carefully chosen fiction and nonfiction books with writing, hands-on activities, and other active learning opportunities. They follow this outline, which models a good approach to building background knowledge by pairing books and experiences: 

  • Introduce a topic or theme and ask kids what they know about it. 
  • Read one or more books on the theme aloud and ask questions, listening carefully kids’ answers. By reading to them and asking questions, you’ll get them thinking about the topic, and what more they want to learn. You’ll also increase their understanding and excitement. Read another book and repeat.
  • Explore the theme with a hands-on activity. By doing an activity, kids get to use the concepts and new words they have just heard and learned during your read aloud.
  • Make a local connection, linking the ideas in the books or the activities with kids’ personal experiences.
  • Keep asking questions during activities and discussion, listening carefully to kids’ answers.
  • Have kids explore the theme more by encouraging them to write about what they are learning or are curious about, look at more books about the topic on their own, use websites and apps to learn more about the topic, or participate in an outing or field trip.

The exposure to a variety of books and diverse experiences — even those experiences that have nothing to do with actually reading — help build knowledge. When kids experience and learn something new, they learn new words and increase their understanding of the world around them. Activities and experiences can help kids process and solidify their new knowledge and gives them an opportunity to try out new vocabulary and concepts. They can then apply those new words and ideas to other situations to help themselves figure things out and to convey their own ideas.

Publication Date