To read is good, but to read to comprehend is better.
Reading has been the focus of most activities to start children off well in education. What has often been overlooked is how reading comprehension happens and the importance of background knowledge.
That a child can read early means that such a child comes prepared to enter school with a skill set to face learning faster than others who didn’t learn to read well before leaving home. That’s why it’s important that parents read aloud to their children from time to time and as early as possible. Even if they’re to mumble repetitive and rhyming words to their hearing.
As children grow, it’s important to keep reading to them and encourage a varied reading of books and shared experiences to increase their background knowledge.
Researches continue to emphasize the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension and we can no longer continue to pretend that something significant isn’t being passed along in all these researches spanning over 40 years, especially when they keep pointing to the same thing. This is one research that is worth knowing and worth doing well.
What We Know Today
Three things we know today about reading comprehension and background Knowledge:
1. Kids benefit from phonics – decoding, or sounding out words have been found helpful to many kids.
2. Metacognition works – techniques that help readers think about their understanding of what they are reading have been found to help readers.
3. What isn’t clear today is how to measure reading comprehension.
However, research supports that building prior knowledge about a subject and generally teaching about writing conventions boost comprehension. That is, kids who excel in comprehension passages requiring them to find say the main idea in a text have built prior background knowledge about the subject and have not only understood, but also become familiar with basic writing conventions.
Daniel Wilingham in The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads emphasizes three steps to Reading Comprehension:
1. Deep Content Knowledge
2. Sentences and
3. Links between Sentences
Firstly, for knowledge of content to be deep, students must have a thorough background knowledge of the text. What this means is this – learners can only attribute significance to the information shared within the text if there exists a strong background knowledge. If a student encounters the word “ammunition” within a text, if she has no strong background knowledge about warfare and conflict, it will be impossible for her to appreciate the significance of the information shared, let alone understand the subject.
It’s important to encourage students to read widely solely for building background knowledge in order to understand information shared within texts and for entire subjects.
Secondly, understanding the conventions of writing would also make it possible for students to deepen their understanding of information shared within text and relating that information to subject topics. Teaching students to understand the key elements of a sentence and that understanding how sentence structure works have a capacity to deepen students understanding. Understanding sentence structure will enable students to extract key information from individual sentences and they can also deepen their understanding through both grammar and syntax.
Finally, students are able to see the links between the sentences. There is the need to teach students to understand how sentences are sequenced and how this aids the understanding of the text and the topic. To deepen comprehension, learners are expected to understand the purpose of each sentence and how information is built in a sequential manner.
Reading is meaningful when readers can extract and construct meaning from the text. Reading comprehension seems to benefit both skilled and reluctant readers when background knowledge is encouraged.
Teachers and parents should make it a duty to foster extensive reading as a way to encouraging background knowledge so that when students are confronted with new materials they would be able to contextualize what is before them based on the information they have gathered in the past.
According to Reid Smith and his colleagues in, The Role of Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension: A Critical Review as published in Reading Psychology, background knowledge “comprises all the world knowledge that the reader brings to the task of reading. This can include episodic (events), declarative (facts) and procedural (how-to) knowledge as well as related vocabulary. A subset of background knowledge is domain knowledge which refers to knowledge of a specific and defined field.”
It’s becomes necessary to take every learning experience as an opportunity to strengthen background knowledge because it may become useful later, or in circumstances not anticipated by the reader.
It all boils down to what we do at home and in school and the varied experiences we engage with in the public. Every opportunity must be taken as a teachable moment with students, teachers and parents exploring the world in new ways and enriching their knowledge as they engage with new ideas, new vocabulary and new experiences.