Velcro products are a fascinating invention. Their “sticking power” is useful for everything from children’s shoes to America’s space program. Kelly Gallagher (2003), noted English teacher and author, calls students’ background knowledge “prior knowledge Velcro” (Reading Reasons: Motivational mini-lessons for middle and high school). Background knowledge, or “prior knowledge,” is a key factor to students’ success in school. Students learn new information by making connections with information they already know. Simply put, the more a person knows, the easier it is to learn more. Reading, traveling, talking with people, and learning new skills open up new worlds for us–and build background knowledge. Learning new material is much easier when it can be connected to previous experiences or acquired knowledge–in other words, when there is something for it to stick to.
A recent trip to Hawaii provided a good reminder of the value of background knowledge. For example, after hiking to the summit of Diamond Head, the term “crater” took on new meaning for me—certainly more than could be gained from memorizing the definition from a list of vocabulary terms. Another day I thought immediately of the 1959 Newbery award book The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I had to “gain my sea legs.” And a visit to Pearl Harbor is unforgettable; the history books truly come alive as you watch the oil continue to leak from the wreckage of the USS Arizona.
Unfortunately, we can’t all take field trips to exotic places to increase background knowledge. So what practical applications can we make to our everyday teaching? First, activate the background knowledge your students already have. Encouraging students to make relevant personal connections to what they are learning in the classroom is accomplished in many ways: class discussions, Q&A sessions, learning logs, KWL charts, or quickwrites. A second very important application is to help your students build background knowledge when you begin the study of a new topic. Direct experiences (e.g., field trips, experiments, or simulations) are the most powerful, but not always the most feasible. Reading, conversation, a generous use of visual aids, and preteaching vocabulary are other effective ways to prepare students for learning. Creative and informative introductions help students make sense of new material easier and more quickly.
Consider using the power of background knowledge the next time you and your students delve into a new reading selection or unit of study. Its “sticking power” might be just what your students need to hold on to that new information.