The Power of Backround Knowledge
Theresa London Cooper
How often do we teach a lesson and a week or two later our students don’t remember the basic concept or if they do they do not take advantage of an opportunity to apply the information. One of the most important things I’ve learned over my teaching career is the importance of building background knowledge on learning and comprehension.
As we use data to inform our instruction, it is critical to assess the level of knowledge students have before we teach a lesson. The research tells us that the more background knowledge the students have, the more readily they will receive and hold onto new knowledge. This is because they have what is referred to as a ‘hook’ on which to attach the new information. The more removed our students are from a topic, the more preparation we must do to get them to comprehend. We must think of ways to make the information relevant to their lives.
How do we make information stick? Before a lesson, assess what your students know, and use the information to direct your steps. Artifacts, visuals, manipulatives and role plays encourage motivation and engagement. They support building background knowledge when used appropriately. Careful and thoughtful planning is crucial in the use of materials and the execution of lessons that embed differentiated instruction and build background knowledge.
Another point to consider in building background knowledge is vocabulary, more specifically academic vocabulary, that students encounter in the content areas and is not used in day-to-day conversations among family and friends. Select vocabulary that encapsulates the core idea of what you want students to learn and words you think will present a challenge. Spend time using the vocabulary and give students opportunities to read, write, speak, and listen to the vocabulary in context to help them internalize the words and their meanings throughout the day within all subject areas that provide teachable moments.
Take students on trips. Trips really bring learning alive and help students make connections to what they have learned or serve to introduce what will be studied in greater depth. Many places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Children’s Brooklyn Museum offer an opportunity for students to participate in hands-on interactive engagement that promotes learning and increases knowledge. It was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that my first-grade students studied stained-glass windows and how they are made from sand. When we returned from the trip, as a read aloud, I chose From Sand to Glass (It has been a few years so the title might not be exact.). They were able to make connections in vocabulary and science.
Provide opportunities for connections and practice. Once students learn something new, they need opportunities to make connections with related ideas to move information into their permanent memory. In your planning, it is important to reflect on what you have taught and what you will teach that will afford students time to make connections throughout the subject areas.
Finally, I urge you to read, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement (2004) and Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary: A Framework for Direct Instruction (2010) both by Robert J. Marzano. Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement makes a number of connections with vocabulary, academic achievement, and earning potential in future years. Marzano’s latest book provides lists of vocabulary on which to focus for various subject areas that will help you determine the focus for vocabulary instruction.
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