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15 Practical Strategies for Educators to Build Background Knowledge

Building background knowledge is crucial to understanding. When learners have a prior grasp of the context and vocabulary of a subject, reading comprehension comes more easily.

It makes sense. Reading that article about climate change is a lot easier when you’ve already heard terms like “greenhouse gas” and “fossil fuels.” The same goes for when you’re helping your child with their literature homework on a book you’ve already read.

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Learners with background knowledge on a subject are more likely to have better recall and recognition of important ideas in text on that subject. Moreover, children who know more about the world and have a broad base of background knowledge are more likely to have good scores on reading tests.

But what can educators do to build background knowledge with their learners?

Here are 15 practical strategies for building background knowledge.

Assess prior knowledge

Any impactful lesson starts with a good pre-assessment. Depending on the subject, a large group of learners may have varying levels of prior knowledge. Some may have zero while others may be experts. Assessing this before starting a new unit will help you decide what strategy will be the most beneficial. There are a few ways to do this.
  • Stream of consciousness. Set a timer for 5 minutes and have learners write everything they know about the subject without stopping. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. The goal is to “brain dump” everything they know about the subject onto paper.
  • The KWL method. This is a popular formative assessment strategy that prompts learners to fill in columns at the beginning, middle, and end of a lesson in the categories of know, want to know, and learned.
  • Short quiz. Develop a short, basic quiz on the subject to assess prior knowledge of major themes and key vocabulary.

Create sensory experiences

Incorporating sensory activities into lessons provides learners with an immersive way to explore something new. These strategies can be especially helpful with experiential learners. Utilizing all 5 senses takes a wholistic approach and creates a uniquely memorable experience. These strategies can vary greatly depending on subject matter, grade level, and sensory learning needs, but here are a few ideas to get started.

  • Explore textures. Bring in items that learners can touch and feel. Ex: different types of rock for a geology lesson, fabric for a history lesson on clothing, oranges for a lesson on regional crops, etc.
  • Music circle. Use instruments representative of a subject’s theme or time period. Have learners play the instruments and explore how they feel and sound.
  • Snack time. Food can be a great way to bring lessons to life. Research easy snacks that appear in a story you’re reading or played an important part in a historical event.
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Real or virtual field trips

What better way to explore something new than to go see it in person? Consider paying a visit to a local museum, park, or attraction related to your topic. Of course, an actual in-person field trip may not always be practical for a number of reasons. There are plenty of resources that provide a field trip experience through a computer screen. Below are a few places to start, but there are many more out there to choose from.
  • Google Arts & Culture. This is an incredible resource that provides access to content from cultural institutions and artists from all over the world.
  • Discovery Education. This gives educators tools to create an engaging learning experience, including live virtual field trips.
  • 360 Cities. Explore 360-degree images and videos of places around the world that allow learners to travel the globe without having to step outside the classroom.

Guest expert speaker

Inviting a subject matter expert to speak with learners may seem impractical at first, but you may be surprised by how many qualified experts you already know. Break down your subject and consider a niche to explore. Remember, the goal is to build background knowledge. You don’t need the world’s leading expert on a subject to introduce it to your learners.
  • Local business owners. Contact local business owners whose work relates to your subject. Ask if they would be interested in speaking with learners about what they do.
  • Everyday scientists. There are plenty of people who use science in their daily jobs, even if it doesn’t seem like it. A pastry chef needs to know exactly how combining different ingredients will react to produce the perfect dessert. A pharmacist has a wealth of knowledge on medications and how they work. A cleaner knows what chemicals to use to clean certain stains and surfaces. You get the idea.
  • Other teachers. If you know another teacher who specializes in the subject you’re introducing to learners, ask if they would be willing to come in and give a guest lecture.

Culturally relevant activities

In order for learners to really care and engage with a topic, it must be relevant to their lived experience. Having no personal connection to a subject is a great way to lose interest fast.
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Be sure to tie your subject into an experience your learners can relate to. This could require input from your learners to understand more about their daily lives. Involving them in the lesson planning will get them interested in the unit before it even starts.
  • Learners teach each other. Put learners in pairs to interview one another or do research activities. They will be able to share their stories and experience the social-emotional aspect of learning.
  • Connect to world/local issues. Build your own background knowledge by doing research on world issues and local events impacting the community. Incorporate topics with similar themes into your lessons.
  • Representation in learning materials. Review your materials and ensure there are diverse voices represented. Learners will connect more with lessons that they see themselves in.
Knowledge Unlimited emphasizes background knowledge in the teacher-led weekly discussion program, News Currents. Learners engage in active, dynamic discussions on current events that are brought to life with strong visuals and an informative guide. Try it for free and start building background knowledge today!
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