Background Knowledge – The Glue That Makes Learning Stick

This blog follows on from our previous one on The Simple View of Reading. Everything will make more sense if you read that one first!

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So, if we know that Language Comprehension is essential for reading, we need to understand what it is. This is where we can refer back to the Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001).

Let’s break down the first strand of language comprehension and talk about how you can support these in your everyday interactions with your child.

What is Background Knowledge?

Background knowledge is what you know about the world, (e.g., facts about the world, events, people, sayings and phrases). The more you know about a topic, the easier it is to listen or read a text, understand it, and retain the information. When kids have lots of experiences to draw on, they have a better chance of making a connection with what they read! Even young children can strategically apply background knowledge to intepret a story that is being read to them.

Why is background knowledge important to comprehension?

Previous studies (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Schulze, 1994; Shapiro, 2004) have shown that background knowledge plays an enormous role in reading comprehension (Hirsch, 2003).

This was also 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.

What does it sound like when kids activate their background knowledge in reading?

Text to self: When reading “Frank is Four” by Alison Lester, Sophia said “Frank is four and say am I!”

Text to text: When reading the book “Somewhere in the Reef” by Marcello Pennacchio, Sophia sees the octopus and recalls the book “Tickly Octopus” by Ruth Galloway.

Text to world: Discussing differences between our tropical fish tank at home with goldfish and kissing gourami and the reef in “Somewhere in the Reef” being a marine environment with starfish, clownfish, etc.

Building background knowledge through reading

Tying new learning to your child’s own expereicnes helps them make connections between old and new knowledge and enriches their understanding of the story. When reading to children, make comments and ask questions like these:


  • I remember when I …
  • I have been there / done that/ tried that …
  • I once …
  • This book is like [book name] that we read yesterday!


  • Have you ever …?
  • Is that something that you have … ?
  • Do you remember when you …?
  • Where have you seen these?
  • Was that like something we did before?
  • This book was the same/different to [book name] wasn’t it?

If you are struggling to find quality picture books and activities to provide opportunities for your child to widen and deepen their background knowledge and oral language skills, look into our memberships and book boxes. Specifically designed by speech pathologists for 3-5 year olds to enjoy with their families.

Background knowledge is the glue that makes learning stick.

Your Little Birdies,
Janice & Tania

Alexander, P., Kulikowich, J., & Schulze, S. (1994). How subject-matter knowledge affects recall and interestAmerican Educational Research Journal, 31(2), 313-337.
Hirsch, E.D. (2003). Reading comprehension requires knowledge – of words and the world: Scientific insights into the fourth-grade slump and stagnant reading comprehensionAmerican Educator, 27(1), 10-22, 28-29, 48.
Neuman, S. B., Kaefer, T., & Pinkham, A. (2014). Building background knowledgeThe Reading Teacher, 68(2), 145-148.
Price, L. H., Bradley, B. A., & Smith, J. M. (2012). A comparison of preschool teachers’ talk during storybook and information book read-aloudsEarly Childhood Research Quarterly27(3), 426-440.
Shapiro, A. (2004). How including prior knowledge as a subject variable may change outcomes of learning researchAmerican Educational Research Journal, 41(1), 159-189.
Weitzman, E., and Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and Beyond: Building Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood Settings. Hanen Early Language Program: Toronto.