October 26, 2014

What vs. How & Pre-reading Strategies, Part 1: Building Background Knowledge

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Yesterday we launched an exploration of strategies commonly used to  introduce students to a new text.  The Common Core State Standards don’t say not  to build background knowledge before reading. Materials surrounding the Common Core, however, such as videos of David Coleman doing model lessons, do explicitly say that we should not build background knowledge before reading. So we are all left wondering … what’s the final word on building background knowledge? Do we or don’t we?

Consultants and publishers are responding to this question in a variety of ways.  In one presentation we attended, we heard a presenter tell a group of elementary teachers that responsibility for developing background knowledge was solely up to the students. The presenter said that if students encounter text for which they don’t have the background knowledge to understand, then teachers should send them to the library and let them figure it out themselves right when they encounter the point of confusion. Not only is this inefficient, it’s impractical to send students from the classroom to research in the middle of each text.

In classrooms, we have been working with the strategy of using one text to build background knowledge for other texts, which we discussed in our post “Information and Stories as Co-Teachers.” In this strategy, background knowledge is built using text sets that are linked by theme or topic. Teachers begin by considering how much support students will need and then choosing an instructional context  (read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading, reader’s theater, choral reading, literature circles, etc.) that provides the appropriate level of scaffolding students need for negotiating the text as they simultaneously build the schema they will need to understand another text.

For example, if students need to be able to read and understand information about the animal life in Africa, a teacher might first choose an informational text about the geographic make-up of the continent to read aloud. Once children evolve their understanding of deserts, savannahs, and mountains through this read aloud experience, he/she might then present the class with an informational text about animals indigenous to Africa’s plains which will she will do as a shared reading, supporting their process but allowing them to do the heavy lifting under her watchful eye. Given the variety of texts and the variety of instructional formats, our options for building background knowledge in this way are pretty wide. The flexibility of this strategy is invigorating and steps away from strict definitions of text levels. Thinking across instructional contexts to figure out ways to help students build background knowledge holds the potential to arouse student (and our) enthusiasm about books and reading.

So, once again we ask, Background knowledge, do we or don’t we? We believe it is important, as much as is possible, that students actually read to build background knowledge for further reading. However, there will still be times when teachers will need to tell students information before, during, and after reading. When it comes to scaffolding we need to be judicious in how much support we do or do not provide.  If we make it too difficult, we run the risk of losing learners and if we make it too easy, they won’t develop the muscles needed for reading increasingly complex text.  Once again, balance is key, and nothing is absolute.

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