By Valerie Chernek
Josė, a second grader, has transferred to a new school and has already begun to grasp many pre-reading concepts earlier than expected. A key reason for his progress is that his teacher is a proponent of Whole Child Literacy,™ a teaching philosophy that prioritizes the developmental and personal needs of children, as well as their academic ability. This strategy considers a child’s cognitive variables, environmental surroundings, and social and emotional factors that impact their ability to learn.
The Connection Between Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension
For success in reading comprehension, background knowledge, read alouds and a Whole Child Literacy™ mindset can play a critical role in early literacy. These components are often overlooked in class instruction due to time constraints. Studies show that individual differences in prior knowledge affect the ability to extract explicit and implicit information from text and integrate text-based information into reading comprehension. (Kintsch, 1988).
In every lesson, Jose’s teacher prefaces it by introducing the class to words and context she will cover, understanding that to prepare early learners for reading readiness, they must have background information to learn new vocabulary and feel validated in the learning process. Background knowledge might include activities that young learners find enjoyable or relatable, like their heritage or interests so their brains can make easier connections to the lesson.
Many children enter school with no reading experience, particularly those from underserved communities who do not have access to books or are frequently read to. Children who have had little exposure to phonics, vocabulary, context or alphabetic principle, need background knowledge to build an early literacy foundation for learning. From infancy, oral language comprehension requires children to actively construct meaning by supplying missing knowledge and making inferences. Explicitly teaching word meanings in the context of authentic texts leads to better word acquisition. This is especially true for multi-language learners where words may have various meanings based on a child’s domain knowledge. An example is the word “duck.” Does Josė understand the word to mean a bird, or to ‘duck behind’ a car? Fortunately, José’s teacher understands the more background knowledge her class has about a topic, the easier it is to read the text, understand it, build vocabulary from it, and retain information.
Cultural Wealth and Family Literacy
“There is a direct correlation between background knowledge, text-based vocabulary, and reading comprehension,” said Dr. Sherril English, a former Clinical Associate Professor at Southern Methodist University, in Texas, who spoke at the 2022 Spotlight Learning Series hosted by Learning Ally, a nonprofit working with educators to provide solutions to promote early literacy and equitable access to books and literature in support of students with learning differences.
Dr. English goes on to say, “Using authentic literature gives children a sense of belonging. They are not blank slates when they enter school. They bring experiences — good and bad. They have unique knowledge, skills, and abilities from their own communities. This is often referred to as cultural wealth.”
To assist more children in recognizing their own cultural wealth in early reading experiences, Jose’s teacher updates her class library with diverse literature — stories that children can relate to, engage with, reflect upon, enjoy positive affirmations about themselves as learners, and broaden their perspectives. She stocks her digital bookshelves with culturally relevant titles in audiobook format for children who require more decoding support, and regularly fosters a school-to-home literacy connection encouraging family participation in literacy events.
Reading Comprehension is a Strong Predictor of Learning Success
Reading comprehension is a strong predictor of how easily children will prosper in future grades, and background knowledge and read alouds can act as road maps to help them get there. Both reading comprehension and listening comprehension require active construction of inferences that rely on background knowledge, and are implicit in the text. Many literacy leaders recommend these approaches based on the science of reading:
- Use culturally responsive titles to connect learning with children’s customs, characteristics, experiences, and perspectives.
- Integrate authentic literature to open new neural pathways to curiosity, creativity, and to build individual reservoirs or agency of knowledge.
- Introduce specific text-based vocabulary words to precede delivery of new content.
- Incorporate read-alouds and think-alouds as fluent models for children to emulate.
- Explore “human-read” audiobooks that enable struggling readers and those with learning disabilities to gain access to literature that they cannot decode on their own or read independently.
Storytelling is also an ideal strategy and form of communication through authentic literature. José’s teacher invites oral language (conversations) about a story, as well as written language because she knows it’s important for children to say and write what they believe in their own voice. An early childhood program that allows children to explore rich, human-read authentic literature is Excite Reading™. Stories evoke conversations to stimulate curiosity, recall, and reflection, and encourages independent reading and critical thinking to heighten self-efficacy.
The Missing Links
Are background knowledge and read alouds two strategies that will support the many children who enter school without any prerequisite experiences of what learning is about, and help to close the literacy gap?
As teachers identify critical and explicit infrastructure needed to teach a solid foundation in early reading skills– including phonemic awareness, decoding, word study, and vocabulary — they build the walls of reading comprehension skills brick by brick. They incorporate daily reading practice with read alouds that are fun and culturally relevant. They apply interactive language-based literacy experiences that include background knowledge that will fire a child’s neural pathways in the brain to make learning more “sticky.”
Through a variety of learning experiences – when children are read to, exposed to background information, are able to listen to authentic literature, have a conversation in their own voice – they build agency or reservoirs of knowledge. They grasp new concepts quicker, and identify more sight words. They feel included, and view learning as a positive experience. They are more engaged and actively participate in class. They build larger vocabularies and make contextual meanings. José’s teacher has thoroughly prepared her students for early reading readiness, and now they have become comprehensive readers, and successful lifelong learners.
Learning Ally is a leading education nonprofit dedicated to empowering educators with proven solutions that help new and struggling learners reach their potential. Our range of literacy-focused offerings for students in Pre-K to 12th grade and catalog of professional learning allows us to support more than 2 million students and 650,000 educators across the United States. Learn more at LearningAlly.org.