Learn what works

According to Fisher and Frey (2009), a student’s prior knowledge about a subject is probably the best predictor of reading comprehension.  Research indicates that children “continue to spin their wheels” when they don’t have the background knowledge required to understand much of what they are reading (Fisher, Frey, and Lapp 2009; Langer 1984).

The National Research Council’s report How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience, and School concludes that in order for background knowledge to be useful, it must be organizedconditionalized, and transferable (Fisher and Frey 2009).


Instead of getting background knowledge in random, unrelated chunks, it is most useful if it is presented conceptually, around a big idea.  Schema theory lies at the heart of organization.


Students must recognize under what conditions certain knowledge should be applied and how to apply it. They also must be motivated to utilize it.


Background knowledge must be applied to appropriate situations both in and out of the classroom (Fisher and Frey 2009).

As the National Reading Panel (2000) noted, readers “access their background knowledge to construct meaning from the text…Children read and comprehend text by utilizing their linguistic and background knowledge combined with their word reading skill.”  For students whose word reading skills are weak, they depend primarily on their background knowledge of the topic and memory of what they’ve read to comprehend the text.

Fisher and Frey mention two types of background knowledge that aid comprehension, topical knowledge directly related to the text and background knowledge of text structure.  Burke (2000) offers a more detailed list, including the subject, the discipline, the textual structures and conventions, the cultural/historical context, the author of the text, and the language and general vocabulary used in the text.

Making inferences is a result of interaction between the reader’s background knowledge and the text. “The strongest of readers are able to draw on both their topical knowledge and their understanding of text structures to infer in more sophisticated ways” (Crain-Thoreson, Lippman, and McClendon-Magnuson 2004).

The RAND Reading Study Group (2002) describes reading comprehension as an interaction between the reader, the text, and the task.  Background knowledge plays a role in each of these aspects.

Ways of building background knowledge:

  • Teacher can provide it through direct instruction.
  • Students can glean it through related readings or discussion.
  • Students can develop it through active, even directed imagining of ideas.
  • Teachers can draw it out through students’ own experiences or past studies.
  • A class can consolidate it by brainstorming ideas, facts, and questions about a subject about which they are preparing to read.
  • Readers can glean it via clues available to them through the text–e.g. sidebars, pullouts, table of contents, graphic illustrations.

Assessing students’ background knowledge is essential in determining where students may be missing information or have misconceptions.  Fisher and Frey (2009) suggest asking yourself three questions:  (1) What do students need to know?  (2)  What do they currently know?  (3) How does this inform my instruction?

It is also necessary to take a close look at the content in order to determine what background knowledge is essential and what is not.  Information that is interesting is not necessarily essential to understanding the content (Fisher and Frey 2009).

See how it works

K-W-L-R Chart Steps for Completion
DR/TA (Directed Reading/Thinking Activity)
Anticipation Guides
Sample Planning Guide (Anticipation Guide)

Systems for Building Background Knowledge

Modeling Through Think-alouds

  • Teacher modeling is a powerful way for engaging students in learning. Think-alouds give students an example of the thinking and vocabulary required to be successful at a task.
  • Think-alouds (Link to Think-aloud page when it is transferred)

Sustained Silent Reading (SSR)

  • Students self-select materials and read for pleasure.  There are no accompanying assignments.  The teacher’s job is to read when students read and hold brief conferences with individuals.

Independent Reading

  • In order to read for knowledge acquisition, students select reading material from a teacher-created list that may be differentiated by reading level.  The topic of materials is related to curriculum.  Assignments, conferences, and informal assessments may accompany reading.

Graphic Organizers and Additional Strategies

Graphic organizers provide visual representation of information to help interpret the world.  To ensure success with graphic organizers, consider the following elements. Graphic organizers need to:

  • Address the goals of the task
  • Be accompanied with explanations and guidance
  • Be spatially and timely coordinated with text

Guest Speakers

Consider people in your community who might serve as valuable resources.  When having a guest speaker, consider the following:

  • Carefully choose the speaker (Is he/she an effective communicator?  Does he/she have the knowledge your looking for?)
  • Prepare the speaker by sharing expectations and students’ prior knowledge.
  • Prepare the class by discussing the person’s background in advance and having students prepare questions.
  • Follow up with students after the visit, making ties to curriculum.

If getting a person in for a day is difficult, consider using Skype, or pre-taping an interview or a podcast.

Field Trips

Field trips can work well at the beginning of a unit to build prior knowledge. Consider these recommendations:

  • Make connections to curriculum
  • Research ahead of time
  • Prepare students for a day of learning
  • Prepare chaperons by giving instructions on how to promote learning throughout the day
  • Keep the experience alive in the classroom (write, discuss, and share).  Apply the background knowledge that has been gained.

If leaving the building is not an option, online field trips can also be content rich. Here are some possible resources:

Extended Out-of-School Learning

While these experiences are less common, they can be powerful.  (Example:  job shadowing/internships)

The Internet

  • The internet is a valuable resource; however, it is critical to teach students to evaluate web sites both in terms of source reliability and relevance.
  • Google provides lessons to help students search for an evaluate Internet sources.

Do what works

Planning Template (K-W-L-R)
Planning Template (Anticipation Guide)
Planning Template (DR/TA: Directed Reading/Thinking Activity)

Web Resources

  • Into the Book by the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board. The site contains video clips, lesson ideas, books, research, and links about prior knowledge.  This site is designed for use with elementary students.


  • Fisher, D. and N. Frey. (2009.) Background Knowledge: The Missing Piece of the Comprehension Puzzle.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Fisher, D., N. Frey, and D. Lapp. (2009). In a Reading State of Mind: Brain Research, Teacher Modeling, and Comprehension Instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Langer, J.A. (1984.) “Examining Background Knowledge and Text Comprehension.” Reading Research Quarterly 14: 468-81.
  • National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
  • National Research Council. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Committee on Developments in the Science of Searning.  Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC:  National Academy Press.
  • RAND Reading Study Group. (2002). Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.