Comprehension & Background Knowledge

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Good reading comprehension requires firstly that you can actually decode the words in the text.  Then you need to be able to make sense of each individual word, the sentences and the paragraphs.  Making sense of individual words requires good oral vocabulary.  Making sense of sentences and paragraphs often requires good background knowledge about the topic being discussed.  The more the reader knows about the topic the better the text is understood.  This is well illustrated in a series of experiments conducted by Kaefer, Newman and Pinkham (2014) in which they found that the more students knew about birds, the greater their comprehension of a text about birds. When students were given a text on ‘wugs’, a nonsense topic, students’ comprehension declined significantly.

English contains many homonyms (words pronounced and spelled the same, but have different meanings – lie), homographs (words pronounced the same, but spelled differently – male/mail) and homophones (words spelled the same, but pronounced differently – bow).  A good knowledge of the topic allows readers to choose the correct pronunciation and meaning of these words.

English is also full of metaphors and idioms.  For example, if you read, “He was just whistling in the dark,” after reading a conversation between two people, to correctly interpret this sentence you would need to know that this idiom means that the person was just guessing and really had no idea.  This type of comprehension is particularly problematic for readers for whom English is not their mother-tongue.

Often readers need to infer meaning from the text.  If you read, “The man shouted at the boy throwing stones on his roof”, you are likely to infer that the man is angry even though this hasn’t been explicitly stated because your background knowledge enables you to link the behaviour of shouting with the emotion of being angry.  The more complex the text, the more background knowledge the reader needs to be able to understand the text.  This is very evident, for example, when you read academic journal articles, but is also true of all informational texts (Price, Bradley & Smith, 2012).

How do we help students build background knowledge to increase their reading comprehension?

  • Firstly, we need to recognise that knowledge is an accumulation of facts. For example, a young children might only know that the living world is divided into two categories – plants and animals.  However, over time, we would expect this knowledge to increase so that they recognise the sub-categories within each of these larger categories.
  • Read several books on the same topic.  Different books will provide a different focus and different information, leading to increased knowledge. Return to the same topic at higher levels of complexity each year.  It is easier to delve more deeply into a topic, if you already have a starting base of knowledge.
  • When you have read about a concept, relate it to other similar concepts. If you read about kangaroos, what other animals have pouches or are marsupials?
  • Compare and contrast concepts. Kangaroos and koalas are both marsupials.  How are they the same and in what ways are they different?
  • After reading a book, explore the topic further. This could be on the internet, including watching videos, having a related real life experience (e.g., going to the zoo, the beach, a farm, etc), finding songs and poems related to the topic, watching a movie or documentary, etc.  In fact, real, lived experiences are an excellent way of increasing knowledge.
  • Take the time to explain new ideas fully at a level that is appropriate to the student’s age and development. For example, when chopping vegetables with young children you can talk about their category, how they are grown, how you know when they are ready to harvest, etc. For older children, you might discuss a particular event reported on the news.  What causes earthquakes?  Which areas of the world are most likely to have earthquakes and why?  What are some of the most catastrophic earthquakes that have occurred?

These suggestions are not limited to factual texts.  Background knowledge is important for understanding fiction as well and these texts can be a great way of ‘whetting’ children’s desire to know more about the topic.  For example, Goldilocks and the Three Bears can lead to an investigation of porridge and bears.  Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series links nicely to Greece, Greeks and Greek mythology.

See the Reading for Comprehension Books.


Neuman, S., Kaefer, T. & Pinkham, A. (2014). Building background knowledge. The Reading Teacher, 68(2). 145-148.

Price, L.H., Bradley, B. A., Smith, J. (2012). A comparison of preschool teachers’ talk during storybooks and information book read alouds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 426 – 440.