Connecting to Background Knowledge
Researchers have identified the difference between what good readers do when reading and what poor readers do differently. These insights can help us focus on the skills that struggling readers need to increase their reading performance. When they know what good readers do when reading, they can learn these strategies too.
Good readers use their prior knowledge and information to relate to the text while they are reading. They make predictions about what will happen next in the text. They think about what they might learn in the rest of the text. They make judgments about how the information fits together as a sensible whole.
Connecting with what we already know about a topic (background knowledge) is one of these things. When we connect what we already know about a topic, the easier it is for us to understand and process new information on the topic.
Effective readers are able to spot ideas that conflict with their own background knowledge or with ideas from other articles they have read. They understand that it is alright to disagree with an author’s position on a topic when they can cite evidence that shows inaccuracies. Good readers are able to stop reading and check other reference sources to see if the information is accurate and reliable.
In the age of instant information, helping students evaluate information and look for bias or self-interest is an essential skill. Students must know that all information isn’t “created equal” and that misinformation and disinformation exist.
Proficient readers use their background knowledge to make sense of what they read. For example, think of the word bank. This word could refer to a place where we place our money as in “I bank at the City Bank.” The word could refer to the sidewalls of a river as in “The water was rising higher on its banks.” In another article, we might see the phrase, “The plane banked to the left as it rose.” In this case, the word bank would be referring to the movement of the plane.
By using our background knowledge about the topic, we are able to connect word meanings to the right meaning of the word being used in context. Effective teachers know this and help students activate relevant prior knowledge before asking them to read.
Students who do not have a rich storehouse of background knowledge or who come from a different culture, need to have greater levels of pre-teaching before being asked to read. Some ways that you can help your students connect to the texts they are reading include:
- using visuals,
- directly introducing to new vocabulary they will see in the text before reading,
- using graphic organizers to help students visualize and organize content,
- and using appropriate realia to enhance background knowledge prior to reading.
Good Readers Create Mental Images As they Read
Good readers create images of the characters in a story and the action taking place. They can do this by drawing pictures or creating and sharing mental images. Creating mental images is like seeing the “movie version” played out in their heads as they read.
Effective readers become emotionally involved with what they are reading. How many times have you been so emotionally involved with a good book you couldn’t put it down? That’s what good readers do when reading. They identify with the text and become emotionally involved in their reading.
Help your students think about the visual images they get while reading. Besides mental images, you can use graphic organizers to help students organize information and see meaningful relationships between and within concepts.
Good Readers Know and Use “Fix-Up” Strategies When Needed
Strong readers know that text should make sense as they are reading. They know when what they are reading makes sense and when it doesn’t.
They know how to use a wide variety of “fix-up” strategies when they lose meaning while reading. Some helpful strategies to use are: skipping ahead, re-reading, reading aloud, and slowing the pace of what is being read. Good readers also know how to ask questions about what they are reading to reconnect with meaning in the text.
Effective readers know they lose meaning while reading. They know that when this happens, they need to stop and figure out how to regain meaning before they continue.
Model the reading strategies you use for monitoring your own comprehension by reading aloud to your students. Stop at strategic places to model how to use fix-up strategies that are appropriate to the text. In this way, your students can hear your thinking and see what you do to reconnect to textual meaning.
Help your students understand that all readers lose meaning from time to time. Using effective strategies when meaning has been lost increases reading comprehension. It’s what good readers do when reading that poor readers do not know how to do.
Find more great ideas for building strong readers in my books:
The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development (K-5) and
Literacy Strategies: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading (6-12).