Building Background Knowledge

Critical Thinking

Have you ever been caught off guard because you assumed that your students possessed the necessary background knowledge to interact and respond to a specific topic, only to find out that they have limited knowledge? Building background knowledge is critical to aiding students in acquiring new skills and concepts. Prior knowledge is the bridge that links and transfers new knowledge of skills and concepts. Schallert (2002) describes background knowledge as a collection of abstract residue created by life’s experiences (as cited by Cosset- Lent, 2012, p. 557). There is often a mismatch between the teacher and students’ background knowledge. Therefore we cannot assume that students have certain experiences in common with their classroom teacher (Cosset-Lent, 2012).

Supporting students’ background knowledge doesn’t have to be a major production, however it has to be intentionally planned and effectively support students’ understanding within the context of learning. It is important to apply the right amount of support, as not to stifle students’ natural ability to activate their prior knowledge. Meeting students where they’re ready to learn requires a proactive approach and willingness to explore what they already know. Students engage more readily in topics that they may not otherwise engage in, when teachers creatively anticipate their students’ experiences.

Group Discussion On Key Vocabulary

A great way to build background knowledge is to frontload content that might pose a challenge for students in advance of the actual learning. The purpose of frontloading is to provide students with key experiences that will allow them to connect and engage in the learning process with a better understanding than before given exposure to specific content. Wilhelm (2017) asserts that frontloading can be used to assess students to identify conceptual and procedural knowledge and genre knowledge. Frontloading helps to set a purpose, motivate and prepare students for the use of procedural knowledge. Frontloading also increases critical thinking skills and raises students’ level of confidence.

Shades Of Meaning Vocabulary Activity

Planning may consist of reviewing the curriculum standards and inserting topics or themes that may prove to be difficult for some students. Conducting surveys and interest inventories will provide insight into students’ experiences and knowledge about specific subjects. This approach is definitely within your reach, as you maybe conducting some of these types of surveys. Frontloading can be as simple as presenting and discussing morning trivia, a picture or problem of the day, an article, video clip and/ or virtual fieldtrip. Vocabulary development is another great activity that will increase students’ knowledge, such as shades of meaning (one of my favs). These activities offer students bits of information that can stack up to be very beneficial to building their comprehension.

Please share your comment as to how you build students’ background knowledge. Or ask a question about one of the frontloading activities.


Wilhelm, J. (2017) Frontloading: Assisting the reader before reading. Retrieved from

Cosset-Lent, R. (2017) Overcoming textbook fatigue. Retrieved from

#Vocabulary #Reading #backgroundknowledge #literacy #schema

Featured Posts