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Building Knowledge and Accessing Prior Knowledge

Tell me about it

Knowledge and comprehension share a mutually supportive relationship. When readers have a stronger base of content knowledge, they are able to understand more complex texts. As readers are able to better comprehend, they are able to build more content knowledge.

Considerations for instructional planningAsk yourself and/or students:

  • What does the author think you already know?
  • What has the author intentionally left out?
  • Is there any historical or cultural knowledge needed?

Be sure to's

Let the text tell - don't give away information the text can explain!

Tools and Resources

  • Brainstorming: Before beginning a unit of study or an informational text, brainstorm about a related topic.  Ask students what questions they have about the topic.  Good questions often come from students who have more knowledge of the topic. This will also support the knowledge of other students. Collect these ideas and return to them when the unit or text is finished.
  • Effective Pre-Reading: Effective strategies address words, concepts, ideas, and events students cannot learn or understand from careful reading of the text.
  • Rearrange Book Bins: While studying a topic or reading informational texts, set up book bins based on complexity levels and topics.  Weaker students should begin with lower complexity levels, but after reading some of these books should move to higher complexity levels.  The lower, complex texts act as "apprentice" texts to the more complex texts.
  • Stair-step or Apprentice Texts: An "apprentice" text is a text, often less complex, that provides the information students need to comprehend the more complex text. As with pre-reading (see below), it should not provide information students can learn from careful reading of the more complex text.
  • How to Find Texts Online: A webinar with Meredith Liben on how to find texts online at different Lexile levels.
  • Newsela:  This site holds hundreds of informational texts. Newsela allows you to choose different Lexile levels for the same passage. This allows you to use a text for a whole class, or different levels for different groups. Text sets are available on the site, and are best suited for grades 5 and up.
  • Read Aloud Project: This collection of over 100 K-2 read-aloud lessons incorporates the principles and methods of close reading with quality children's literature.
  • Reading A-Z: A site that has hundreds of informational texts at different complexity levels (low cost subscriptions required).
  • Readworks: A site that has thousands of informational texts with varying Lexile levels, questions and activities. These can be used as they are or made into text sets.
  • Text Set Project: This collection of 40+ text sets were made by teachers around the country working with Student Achievement Partners. They are designed to grow knowledge and vocabulary, and many topics are aligned with state social studies and science standards, including NGSS. 


Building Background Knowledge For Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools, Marzano: Learn why insufficient background knowledge is a chronic cause of low achievement, and discover how a carefully structured combination of two approaches-sustained silent reading and instruction in subject-specific vocabulary-can help rescue low achievers and boost the academic performance of all students.

Beginning with What Students Know: The Role of Prior Knowledge in Learning, Campbell's: 17 research- and teacher-tested strategies for activating and building student background knowledge as well as resources for finding more.

'Can I Say "Once upon a Time"?': Kindergarten Children Developing Knowledge of Information Book Language, Duke and Kays: This study provides information about 20 preliterate kindergartners' knowledge of one genre of expository text, information books, at two points in time-in September, when the children first entered kindergarten, and in December, after children had spent 3 months in a classroom in which information books were read aloud on a near-daily basis.

Guidelines for Text Complexity Analysis: Resource on how to select complex text.

It's Complicated, Common Core State Standards Focus on Text Complexity, Varlas: Investing what does a focus on text complexity mean for schools.

Knowledge, Literacy, and the Common Core, Cervetti and Hiebert: Why we should focus attention on using the opportunity of reading more informational text to build students' disciplinary and world knowledge.

Learning to read and write genre-specific text:
 Roles of authentic experience and explicit teaching, Purcell- Gates, Duke, and Martineau: This study explored, with both experimental and correlational designs, the roles of (a) authentic, communicatively functional reading and writing and (b) the explicit explanation of genre function and features on growth in genre-specific reading and writing abilities of children in grades two and three.

Making a Case and a Place for Effective Content Area Literacy Instruction in the Elementary Grades, Moss: It identifies three critical reasons for including content area literacy in the elementary grades: Early exposure to exposition may facilitate development of non-narrative reading and writing skills; informational texts may motivate some children to read more; and Informational texts may increase student facility with new knowledge domains.

Rethinking Reading Comprehension Instruction: A Comparison of Instruction for Strategies and Content Approaches, McKeown, Beck, and Blake: A study examining the effectiveness of strategy based instruction compared to content based instruction.

Supporting Cumulative Knowledge Building Through Reading, Kintsch and Hampton: A study examining the typical reading materials used in classrooms today and the attention given to how to link ideas to form a network skills with comprehension.

The Real-World Reading and Writing U.S. Children Need, Duke: The article discusses that lack of informational reading experiences for students during their early elementary education inhibits their informational text reading abilities; and that increasing informational reading does not affect decoding and spelling skills in students.