Above is a picture of two pages from a favorite series of books- Pinkalicious. The other night I was reading this story with my daughter and we came upon the part of the story in which Pinkalicious tries to convince her family to buy a fake Christmas tree (a pink one, of course). She brings out an air freshener in response to her brother’s statement that he likes the smell of real pine trees. I thought it was funny and clever of Pinkalicious.
My daughter was confused.
I realized that she didn’t know what an air freshener was- especially the ones that Pinkalicious was holding up. We don’t have them in the house or car.
It was then that I realized that her lack of background knowledge caused her to miss an important part of the story and it reminded me of how important it is for students to have a good background of general knowledge to have good reading comprehension. It makes sense in this case and this idea is backed by reading research. Better readers have a good foundation of general knowledge (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Schulze, 1994; Hirsch, 2003; Shapiro, 2004). They know more about the world and can make more connections as they read.
If a student has no idea what snow is, then reading a story about igloos and Eskimos will be hard to understand. If a student is familiar with snow- has played in it, knows what it feels like, knows how cold it is- then they will have a deeper understanding of a story about an Eskimo making an igloo to live in.
How can parents help students build background knowledge? Parents can make an effort to give children lots of rich experiences. This does not necessarily require lots of money. Activities such as taking a hike around a lake, visiting the library, or going to the beach can provide students with rich experiences. It is also very important to talk about these experiences with your child. Children should have a general knowledge of lots of things in the world around them. Parents can also access technology. While it doesn’t replace an actual visit to an actual museum, parents can explore the Smithsonian through an interactive website- visiting virtual exhibits and having important discussions with their children. If your child is learning about penguins, do a search and watch some YouTube videos on penguins. The more students know about the world, the more connections they will make when they read. When they make connections, they can understand more and think critically about what they read.