Background Knowledge for Comprehension

One often overlooked factor which can really make-or-break a child’s comprehension of a passage of text is background knowledge.

Just today, I was working on summarizing 3 short 5th grade level paragraphs with a 5th grade student who is dyslexic but reads at her grade-level. As we read through the paragraphs, I asked her some comprehension questions and came to realize that she had little to no background knowledge of the topic we were reading about (World War II).

In order for her to understand these short passages, we had to talk about many different things that were implied knowledge in the text, including:

  1. World War II happened in the 1940s (roughly her great-grandparent’s time)
  2. Germany (specifically Nazi Germany) was invading other countries in Europe and North Africa
  3. We looked at a map, and discovered where Germany was in relation to other countries mentioned in the text: France, Great Britain, and North Africa and we compared with where we are in the United States.
  4. We talked about how Great Britain/England/and the United Kingdom are all basically the same place.
  5. How it’s called the United Kingdom because they have a Monarchy (king/queen) and we don’t have that here
  6. The meaning of the words “French Resistance”
  7. Who Winston Churchill was

Having not studied yet about WWII in school, nor read much about it, she really had no concept of any of these things. For starters, she believed the war was a very, very long time ago and she did not understand the geography of the world at all. So this made reading the passages very confusing to her.

Part of her confusion about geography may stem from a dyslexic’s difficulty with directionality. I find my students are also very confused by terminology and have trouble differentiating between what is a continent vs a country or state or city. And, I am often quite shocked by the lack of geography and Social Studies knowledge my students have (this particular student has an IQ which is in the Superior category and does very well in school).

After we explored these different topics, she was then able to read the passages and have a much clearer understanding of what the passage was saying, and was then able to get the “main idea”. While she may still have been able to answer some basic test questions about the passage without all that knowledge, some other details may have escaped her completely. For example, the meaning of the word “Resistance” when it was applied to the French Resistance. What were they resisting? She had no idea about that, or what those words would have meant without that background knowledge.

When working with a dyslexic student, it’s especially important to realize that while they may be quite intelligent, they may lack the reading experience of other children and they will often have a lack of background knowledge of many topics. Therefore, they may not do well on test questions for reading comprehension on those topics.

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Don’t make this mistaking when reading aloud to your children

Educator Pam Barnhill shares in this post on the Ed Snapshots Blog the #1 mistake that parents make when reading aloud to their children.

Everyone knows that we should start reading aloud to babies as soon as possible.

But, once children develop reading skills, parents often feel relieved that they are more independent now and read aloud to them less. Or stop altogether.

However, at this point they really need you to be reading aloud to them more, not less. This is because reading aloud to your children helps them develop language skills beyond decoding the words on the page. It helps with vocabulary, sentence structure, and most of all, comprehension skills. It also helps your children develop higher-level thinking skills.

It exposes your child to a wider background knowledge and words they won’t hear spoken in conversation. It helps them to hear the language spoken out-loud to know the patterns of language. This is especially important for kids with dyslexia, who may not be very strong at decoding, or kids with ADHD who may have trouble focusing on text when reading by themselves.

Other ways to expose your children to this type of language is to have them listen to audio books, or podcasts, or old radio shows. All of these auditory formats will help their brain’s language centers and further develop vocabulary, background knowledge, and comprehension.

When I was in school, I attended a school for kids with dyslexia, and our teachers always spent at least 30 minutes per day reading aloud to us. I credit this as helping me to score in the 99th percentile in verbal abilities on standardized tests. Your child may not get that type of instruction in his or her school, but it is easy to provide it at home.

If you find that when you’re reading aloud to your child they can’t follow an appropriate grade-level story, or they are only focusing on details and don’t get the bigger picture, then your child may have trouble with visualizing what they hear or read. This is a specific deficit in their comprehension skills, and our tutors can help with this type of problem.