Oftentimes, as teachers, we face the dilemma of wanting students to read an article or story when we know they have little or no background knowledge about the topic. For example, maybe we’d like to share Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say with students. We want them to marvel at the relationship between Pinkus and Sheldon, but without understanding the relationship between blacks and whites during the 1860s and a brief history of the Civil War, we know that our students won’t be able to fully understand the depth of its uniqueness. So what do we do? We fill in the gaps. We begin talking about what life was like in the 1800s. We describe slavery. We talk about the Civil War and then we read aloud or ask the students to read the text themselves, depending on their age and ability. When all is said and done, the burden of connecting this new background knowledge to the new text falls on us. We do all the work.
Furthermore, we must ask ourselves: Is this powerful enough for students to really understand? Just because we provide students this information, have we given them what they need to mine the text for its deepest meanings and ideas?
We suspect that more times than not, our attempts to fill in the gaps in this way are not memorable enough to act as the solid foundation students need to deepen their understanding of new concepts. Building background knowledge needs to be an active process that requires students to “survey (know where to look), excavate (bring it to the surface), and analyze (examine it closely) (Fisher and Frey, Building Background Knowledge, p. 34, 2009). If our objective is to teach children what it means to set a goal and make plans to achieve it, we’ve got to create a learning experience that won’t be easily forgotten.
So, what constitutes a memorable learning experience? If you polled children about the parts of their school experience that they remember best, many would recount a favorite story that a teacher read aloud. Still to this day, Kim can remember sitting at the edge of her seat waiting with Ramona “for the present” while her second grade teacher read aloud Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest. Stories allow children opportunities to experience the unfamiliar while at the same time giving them a chance to wrestle with issues that remain universal in our lives.(Gallagher, p. 66, Readicide, 2009) Read aloud remains one of the most inviting and memorable experiences we know for building background knowledge so before you read aloud or ask students to read Pink and Say, don’t tax yourself with recounting a brief history of the Civil War. Instead, consider channelling your efforts toward finding informational texts and other stories about slavery and the Civil War that serve as a companion to Pink and Say. Read aloud and help students BUILD the background knowledge they need to understand.
Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. Background Knowledge: The Missing Piece of the Comprehension Puzzle. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009. Print.
Gallagher, Kelly, and Richard L. Allington. Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2009. Print.