Building Background Knowledge To Improve Kids’ Reading Skills

by Lindsay Barrett

Think about a topic your kid loves — a favorite sport, animal, or other interest. Chances are, reading a book with them about that topic is a different experience than reading about a subject they know nothing about. That’s because background knowledge — understanding concepts, vocabulary, situations, and experiences stored in our brains — plays a significant role in reading comprehension.

Reading about what we know is just easier. The science of reading is the wide body of research about how the human brain learns to read, and which teaching strategies can help. Research shows that the human brain needs teaching and practice to decode words; that’s phonics — attaching spoken sounds to written symbols. There’s also much research about how our brains make sense of those words. Relating the new ideas to what we already know is an essential piece of it. Plus, when readers already have some knowledge of a topic, it is easier to learn new information from what they read. Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap and host of the Knowledge Matters podcast, compares knowledge to Velcro. New knowledge “sticks” to prior knowledge.

Background knowledge can also help offset poor reading skills. Wexler often talks about “The Baseball Study,” in which researchers divided middle school kids into groups based on their scores on a reading comprehension standardized test and their baseball knowledge. When they asked each group to read and answer questions about a passage about baseball, the kids with poor reading skills but high baseball knowledge were surprisingly successful — in many cases, doing as well as the stronger readers who knew less about baseball. It makes sense; if you’re familiar with the terms and concepts included in what you’re reading, like “pop fly,” “double play,” or “strike out,” you’ll have an advantage. This study makes the case for giving kids more chances to build their knowledge in various topics so they can experience this leg up more often.

Intentionally helping kids build background knowledge is helpful for any age, from teeny tiny toddlers to kids learning to decode words to fluent readers. So, how can we do it?

Encourage wide reading about topics of interest.

It’s no surprise that this is our top suggestion. Reading widely about a topic helps a reader retain information about it. Repetition and exposure to ideas and vocabulary in different contexts earn that information a spot in our long-term memories.

Remember that reading tons of books about a topic — for example, sharks — doesn’t just build kids’ knowledge about sharks. It also introduces concepts they can apply elsewhere, like how individual species of the same animal can be alike and different, how an animal’s body parts help it survive, or the roles living things play in a food chain.

Kids learn academic language by diving deeply into a topic that can apply to countless other situations. This type of language is less likely to come up in everyday conversation, but kids will need to navigate it in books and school lessons.

Reading informational books boosts kids’ knowledge, and reading nonfiction is an excellent strategy. But kids can also learn much from fictional stories about characters with different lives, homes, emotions, and experiences. Building social-emotional background knowledge is just as important as content knowledge.

Keep reading to big kids.

Kids’ listening comprehension outranks their reading comprehension while they learn to read — sometimes into their teenage years. Caregivers and teachers should keep reading aloud to big kids for the knowledge-boosting potential, connection, and enjoyment it offers.

Help kids remember and make connections between experiences.

Isn’t it funny how kids remember some details of an experience and forget others? Parents, caregivers, and classroom teachers are best positioned to help kids organize their mental files and make learning stick. Make it a point to remind kids how their reading topics relate to something they learned last week. Use the same academic vocabulary words in different situations, like calling your dinner “scrumptious” after you read that word in a book. Use comparisons to help them make sense of new experiences and ideas. “Remember how a dentist is a doctor for your teeth? An optometrist is a doctor for your eyes.”

Be a cheerleader for science and social studies instruction in school.

Many schools have hard-to-achieve mandates about the amount of class time required for reading and math to boost kids’ achievement. Unfortunately, this can crowd out science and social studies teaching time, which is essential for building kids’ background knowledge. Be loud about the importance of content learning in your school district. Talk at home about what kids are learning in science and social studies, and plan related family experiences. You might cook a meal from or watch a movie set in a country kids are studying at school or visit a museum exhibit relating to their class’s science unit.

Science and social studies instruction is also crucial for younger kids. Be an advocate for content area learning at the early elementary levels, alongside demanding instruction in phonics and other foundational reading skills. Acquiring more knowledge as young children is better than filling holes in later.

Encourage kids to write about what they’ve learned.

Talking about new knowledge is an excellent way to store it in one’s long-term memory, but writing about it offers even more potential. When we write about information, we must remember and interpret it to fit the writing task. Writing doesn’t have to be lengthy to have an impact; writing one sentence requires kids to think about content differently than talking about it.

Teachers can use this knowledge-boosting power at school by having kids write about topics the class has already studied. At home, caregivers could encourage kids to journal about their experiences, including what they learned. For example, you can task kids with writing captions for family photo books.

Ready to dive into a new topic with your kids? Check out a few of our favorite topic-specific book collections to grow kids’ knowledge: