Building background knowledge is one of the most important things you can do to help your child to do because the variety and depth of a child’s background knowledge when they start school is strongly linked to how easily they learn to read and is closely linked to their success at school.
Background knowledge is another term for general knowledge, the knowledge a person has in his head when he sits down to read. I like to think of a child entering school as a school bag. Well, background knowledge is something they need to pack in their bag just to get to school. Without it, they aren’t prepared for what the day will bring their way. This links closely with vocabulary, and why speech and language development is an essential milestone.
Why Is Background Knowledge Important?
Children who start school with extensive background knowledge are ahead of their counterparts as they can:
- learn to read naturally and easily because they know and understand more words and concepts
- understand more of what the teacher is talking about
- understand more of what they read in textbooks and novels
- This is because background knowledge provides a framework and a vocabulary to help children understand the information they’re hearing or reading.
Again, I will emphasise very clearly. If your child has been enriched with an extensive amount of experiences, and they are lacking understanding, then please take the steps to seek help.
Okay, so I will give you an example of what I mean, and why this is so important. Imagine you’re given a how-to article about neurophysics to read.
You know how to read but, unless you actually are a neurophysicist, you’ll find this task difficult. You’ll probably have to read the article slowly, sounding out some of the words and going back to read some parts over again. Even then, how much of the article are you likely to understand?
Well, BINGO, This is how it is for children who are learning to read at school without much background knowledge, or for that matter. This is how it is for children with learning difficulties. As you can see, without the vocabulary or expected level of knowledge about the world, they will find it hard to make sense of what the teacher is saying or of what they’re reading.
On the other hand, kids who have built up a store of background knowledge about the world, both through a variety of personal experiences and by being read to, get more out of their lessons at school.
They tend to grasp new concepts quickly and therefore experience greater success at school. This in turn makes them more motivated to learn so that they tend to regard school as a positive, fun place to be.
Building background knowledge may sound complicated but it really isn’t. In fact, you’re helping to build your child’s background knowledge every day from the earliest days of your baby’s life when you –
- speak to him
- play with him
- read to him
- take him out and about with you
As a parent, I like to think that part of our role is to show our children the world and help them to interpret it. We can do this by noticing what our child is seeing and being available to answer questions or to offer explanations.
Remember that a great deal of what your child sees every day is a mystery, even if he is very clever. If you’re conscious of what’s going on when you’re with your children, you’ll notice lots of little ways to build on their knowledge of the world around them.
I’m not an advocate for allowing children to watch television. But, there are programs like Play School which can help, as it is structured to introduce children to a variety of activities and experiences they may not otherwise see and hear. But, it is the variety within these experiences that enrich their lives.
Talking to your child about the things they see and do every day helps them acquire language skills and the more experiences they has, the wider his vocabulary will be.
A Story About Building Background Knowledge
Some children, including my boys, can be extremely literal. They take what they see as ‘real’, even if it is a Tom and Jerry cartoon. One of my sons has had difficulty in understanding the difference between what happens in a cartoon and what happens in real life! Scary, I know. But, it is fairly logical to assume that they would realise the difference between a cartoon character getting hurt and getting back up as not being real, but it isn’t (One of the dangers of allowing them to watch too much television, and shows that are violent. They simply do no understand that they could hurt someone if they did what whey saw in cartoons. It was quite silly of me to assume he knew the difference.
So, by taking time to talk to him about what he is watching, and then re-enacting. In allowing them to question the things they are seeing and experiencing every day, you will be helping him or her to understand a little bit more about the world in which we live.
Building Background Knowledge Through Reading
Reading to babies and young children builds background knowledge because it introduces them to language and experiences outside their immediate environment.
In fact, by reading to your child from his earliest days, you’re helping to build the three foundations for learning to read:
- background knowledge
- a wide, rich vocabulary
- phonological awareness
The great thing about this learning is that it’s completely unconscious. Your child isn’t aware that he’s developing his language skills or learning about the world around him – he’s just enjoying the story!
Reading is also important because the language contained in fairy tales, stories, nursery rhymes and poems is richer and more diverse than the language of everyday life.
The language is often old-fashioned and may need explaining, even if your child doesn’t ask about it. This is a great opportunity to talk about the story, as well as any unfamiliar words.