Cover for article titled Reading Comprehension Strategy #2: Background Knowledge showing a girl reading on a stack of books.

Reading Comprehension Strategy #2: Background Knowledge

This is the second post in a series about reading comprehension strategies.  Today’s reading comprehension strategy is connecting our background knowledge to what we read.

Below are several strategies to help build our children’s background knowledge and to help them to connect it to the books they read.

Click here to read last week’s post about visualizing what we read.

Pinnable Cover image for article titled Reading Comprehension Strategy #2: Background Knowledge showing a girl reading on a stack of books.

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What is Background Knowledge?

First, let’s get a full understanding of background knowledge.  This knowledge is all the information we collect through life experiences…places we have been, relationships we have, activities we have done, books we have read, movies we have watched, and more.  Each time we read a book, we bring our own unique background to it.  This means two different people reading the same book will have different experiences reading that book.

Or the same person reading the same book, but at two different times in their life will have a different experience each time.  Have you ever reread a book you loved in childhood and it felt different as an adult?  This is because you brought so many more life experiences to your reading of the book the second time.

The more background information a reader has and connects to a book, the better they will understand the book.  If one has no experience with the topic or story they are reading, it will be hard for the story to stick with them.  Their comprehension and memory of the book will be limited.

We have been reading a particularly hard book lately.  Hear are a few sentences from it…

An example from <em>An Immense World</em>...

“The first primates were almost certainly dichromats.  They had two cones, short and long.  They saw in blues and yellows, like dogs.  But sometime between 29 and 43 million years ago, an accident occurred that permanently changed the Umwelt of the one specific lineage of primates: They gained an extra copy of the gene that builds their long opsin.”-Ed Yong

What kind of background knowledge does one need to understand that paragraph?  Knowing the definitions of “primate”, “dichromats” “Umwelt”, and “opsin” would be helpful.  Understanding how genes work and that eyes have rods and cones that have different functions would also greatly aid someone’s understanding.  If you didn’t have that knowledge, what would your brain do with the passage?  Probably forget it as soon as your eyes finished scanning it.

Build Background Knowledge Through Life Experience

Before we even talk about connecting our background knowledge to our reading, let’s talk about how we build background knowledge in our homeschool days.

Everything we do with our child builds background knowledge.  This is why homeschooling is a great opportunity to build really rich backgrounds.  Every book we read, meal we make, field trip we take, video we watch, and game we play builds knowledge that our children will later be able to connect to what they read.

So keep that in mind as you create your homeschool experiences…everything you do builds reading comprehension…not just the reading.

Boy geocaching in a park with trees.
Everything builds background knowledge including geocaching with dad.

Types of Background Knowledge

While we have already defined background knowledge as all the information we collected through life experiences, it is helpful to think about three categories of knowledge.

Text to Self

Relating what you read to yourself often has a strong emotional component.  And brain research tells us that emotions improve attention and memory.  So when we can make a text to self connection, the book will hold our attention and we will remember the details better.

An example from <em>The Enigma Game</em>...

We recently finished reading The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein and near the end of the story one of the main characters, Louisa, loses a grandmother-like figure.  This was a good time to relate the story to ourselves and the grandparents we have lost.  It allowed us to really feel  what Louisa might be feeling in that moment.

Text to Text

This type of connection is exactly what it sounds like…the connection between two books or other types of writing.  This is one reason I love to include at least two books in each of our Adventures Through History Unit Studies…each book serves as background knowledge for the other one.  Helping our students make connections between those books and any other books they have read deepens their understanding of the book in front of them.

You may purposely want to plan books to read in your homeschool to facilitate text to text connections.  You could pick books from the same author, from the same time period, from the same setting, but different time periods, or any other grouping you can think of.

But even if you don’t choose books this way, I bet you will still find many connections!  Here is something fun we did last year to make connections…

At the end of last year, we pulled all of the books we had read during the year off the shelves and laid them out.  Then we talked about which were our favorite, some of our memories from each of the books, and also similarities and differences between the books.  This was a really fun way to build text to text connections!

Text to World

Connecting text to the world is thinking beyond our own lives and to the world at large.  Reading a book like Refugee by Alan Gratz can help our children think about the current refugee situation in different places around the world.

Helping our children make each of these three types of connections when they read will enrich their reading experience and build a better understanding of the world around them.

Step 1: Have a Conversation

Like any other skill we want to help our children develop, we start with a conversation.  During a read aloud you could tell your kids about something the book reminds you of.  It might be something they experienced with you or it might be part of your life they are unaware of.

We can also do this outside of read alouds.  We might bring up at dinner how we were reading a book or article or listening to a podcast and how it reminded us of a situation or event from our own lives.  Maybe your kids will volunteer a similar experience.  If not, ask them about a specific book they have read recently and if it reminded them of anything in their life.

While you are having this conversation, use the words “background” or even “background knowledge”.  Not in a way that is awkward, but just mention the phrase a few times so that your kids have the language to think about this concept in their own minds.

Step 2: Model Connecting Background Knowledge to the Text

The second step to most things we want to teach our children is to model the skill.  This already started in the above step when we shared our experience during the initial conversation.  Now we can also model making connections while we read a book aloud with our children.

Stop once or twice in your reading and share something from your experience you can connect with in the book.  Remember to think about text to self, text to text, and text to world connections.  Include some experiences that your children have experienced with you.  But also share things from your past your children don’t know…this is always intriguing for them.

Cover image for post with the text "Read Alouds in Our Homeschool" and a woman reading a book to a teenage boy on a couch.

Step 3: Frontload Background Knowledge

Sometimes we may want to introduce our children to a text that is very different from their life experiences.  One that we know they will not have a lot of background knowledge to bring to the reading.  In this case, we want to build some knowledge before they start the book.

The easiest way to do this is to find some videos or documentaries about the topic.  Or it may be one of the few times that we watch the movie BEFORE we read the book…gasp!

Another way to frontload knowledge is by going over unfamiliar key vocabulary that will be in the book.  When you do this, it is important to provide a picture with the vocabulary word and connect that word to your children’s lived experience.

Once you feel you have built some level of knowledge, you can start the book.  And remember the reading of the book will build their knowledge further, which they will then be able to bring to other books.

Step 4: Activate Background Knowledge

Anytime our children start a new book it is helpful to activate their background knowledge.  This is easy to do with our own children because we have a good idea of their background knowledge! Whether or not you will be reading the book to your child or they will read it independently, it is good to start with a book walk…

Read the title and author and see if you can find an author description.  Read other background info. like the text on the back of the book, an author’s note, or a preface.  Then talk about what you think the book will be about and what related knowledge your child is bringing to the book.  Expand on what your child offers by connecting the book to other experiences they have had that you know relate to the book.

If you are reading a non-fiction book, a deeper book walk can be helpful.

You may want to continue to activate background knowledge periodically throughout the text.  Especially if there are different parts to the book or there is a big jump in time in the book.

We may find as our children read there are events in the book our children don’t have the knowledge to understand.  This is a good time to go back to step 3 and fill-in the blanks before reading on.

Step 5: Make Connections While Reading

There are intentional activities we can use during the reading of the book to help our children make connections…

Underline Words

Challenge your children to underline sections of the book that remind them of a personal memory.  You might make a game out of it where they have to underline at least one item each day or see how many passages they can underline by the end of the book.  And if you are using a library book, just have your kids stick a sticky note on the passages instead.

Sticky note on the page of a book connecting background knowledge to a passage in the book.

Double-entry Diary

A double-entry diary is an activity suggested by the authors in the 7 Keys to Comprehension book.  For this activity, you fold a piece of paper in half length-wise.  On the left, your child writes a quote from the book and on the right, their personal connection to the quote.  This is similar to the challenge above, but gives children practice writing their thoughts and prepares them for higher level writing.

The Long Winter book by Laura Ingalls and a sheet of paper to the right with two entries connecting background knowledge to passages in the book.

Writing Prompt

Another way to encourage your children to write about the connections they find is by giving them a writing prompt with the following two sentence starters…

Today, I read about…

This reminded me of…

Using Books to Build Background Knowledge

While we have been talking about helping our children understand books by using their background knowledge, sometimes we use books to build knowledge for an experience that is coming up!  Before our family visited Mammoth Cave National Park several years ago, we read Menace at Mammoth Cave, A Kit Mystery so our boys could have a story to connect to the park when we got there.

So the experience and the book don’t necessarily need to happen in a certain order.


Ready for another reading comprehension strategy? Check out this post about asking good questions while we read.

If you enjoyed this post then you may be interested in reading 7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!

7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!
  • Zimmermann, Susan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 224 Pages - 07/22/2003 (Publication Date) - Harmony (Publisher)

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Lori Kelly

    While reading the strategies, I realized that I unknowingly used a couple of them. I have stopped reading and tried to relate the passage to something my boys can relate to on some level. I have made a note to be more aware of discussing how the text relates to another text, their experiences, or events worldwide. These are some helpful tips for reading comprehension.

    1. Randi Smith

      Yes, there are a lot of things we do instinctually without realizing it! And sometimes tweaking things or changing our wording makes what we are already doing more effective!

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