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Reading strategies: Building background knowledge

April 08, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

What are the most practical reading strategies you can share with your students? We asked ourselves this question and came up with 8 different approaches which we will share with you throughout the year. Reading in a foreign language is both fun and challenging. Students discover new worlds through a new language, and not only does this experience make them feel good, but it also gives them access to new territories. However, reading in a foreign language also poses challenges: these new words often open up new knowledge areas, and there’s a new logic in the sentences, paragraphs, genres, and narrative structures. In this first series, we share some tips you can adapt and use with your students. 

In our first post, we focused on INTERACTION, and in the second on QUESTIONS. In this third post, we give you ideas on BUILDING BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE.

Why is background knowledge important?

Plunging into a good book can be an exciting adventure. If we get into the story, time outside the pages suddenly stops. However, when reading in a foreign language, we often need support to really understand and enjoy both stories or non-fiction articles. Not only do students feel more comfortable, but they also have a more beneficial reading experience when they know some background information about the text they are about to read. As this article on reading comprehension points out, knowledge and comprehension work in a reciprocal way. Students will be able to better organize, understand and recall reading experiences if they have sufficient background knowledge to rely on, and they will be able to make inferences. More vocabulary gets activated, more cultural references can be deciphered, and more information can be revealed about the plot, the setting, and the characters. All this information creates more memorable reading experiences with more efficient language use.

When is it best to build knowledge?

The answer is simple: all through the reading process, all around the text. We often link knowledge building to a preparatory stage in the reading process. However, it is best to encourage students to engage with the text in a meaningful way all through the reading process.

What knowledge can be built?

When building knowledge in preparation for or connection with a text, focus on the following areas:

  • Cultural, situational, and contextual knowledge. This helps students recognize concepts and situations. For example, if the story talks about friends meeting, it may be good to talk about where and how people meet (e.g., in restaurants, cinemas, parks) and what they do. Cultural knowledge focuses on the wider cultural context of the story, for example, the place, the time, and the conventions of the particular cultural context of the story. Is it set in rural Canada or urban France? What are these places like? What is there to know about these places?
  • Lexical/grammatical knowledge of language to be found in the text such as essential vocabulary and specific grammatical features.
  • Knowledge of the text. We often want our students to recognize typical features, structural elements, and stylistic choices in a text. It is a good idea to talk about the purpose of the text, its genre, and its style. 

For example, a Regency-era story, such as the Jane Austen novels, is typically set in rural England and London, includes characters from various social classes, and takes place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The social conventions of the era dictate what the main events are like and how people behave and speak. This is why the storyline is built around social calls, balls, concerts, walks, and dinners. The style of the language might sound complicated to modern-day English speakers with its long sentences and eloquent word choices.

How is building knowledge different from activating background knowledge?

Activation assumes some previously shared knowledge. However, thinking of knowledge as something we build all through the reading process offers more opportunities to widen our students’ learning.

Before reading, we negotiate the context (setting, characters, themes) of the text and create a safe place for reading. During reading, we help students not to navigate the text and notice any details which add to the meaning. We can also guide them in understanding interesting examples of language use (idioms, phrasal verbs, proverbs, collocations, similes). After reading, we can create bridges between the text and other disciplines, other stories, and our own personal experiences.

What activities and questions support building knowledge?

There are several ways of approaching knowledge building before reading. You can start by introducing the general themes of the novel, for example, love, pride, family, and relationships in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

You can also introduce the time and place of the story (rural England at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries). You can search for images of the countryside, typical manor houses, and clothing to introduce the setting. We know that the story takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, but the war is not the main concern of the story. It is a good idea to build knowledge of the social conventions of the time and talk about the different families (they come from different classes), the social events, and the roles people had in families (what was expected from women and men?). You can also talk about what marriage meant and how it was related to financial security. Then, introduce the main characters and their families. Once you have built contextual and cultural knowledge, you can focus on the type of novel you are reading and perhaps talk about the author. Finally, introduce basic vocabulary that will be typically found in the story, for example, pastimes of that period (e.g., embroidery, painting, riding, hunting, letter writing). Ways of talking and interacting with others (e.g., chat, argue, persuade), and ways of looking (e.g., glance, stare). You can also introduce adjectives that describe the personalities of the characters.

In the Helbling Readers series, you will find activities focusing on different aspects of knowledge building before, during, and after reading the story. Before reading, you can read about the author and some general information about the story. You will find some cultural files and dossiers which explore some themes of the novel. The vocabulary and grammatical exercises focus on the language of the text. The reflection boxes inside the text have several functions. They help students link personal experiences to the narrative and reflect on them. They also provide some help with interesting language and its significance in the particular context. They also point out cultural and thematic questions which can be discussed to help reading comprehension. The after-reading activities provide focus on general comprehension, vocabulary building, grammar practice, thematic discussion (exploring the themes of the novel), character analysis, and further research ideas to make links with other knowledge areas. If you feel that doing all the preparation for knowledge building is time-consuming, you can rely on these activities. 

Read more about the Teaching-Learning Cycle and the role of knowledge building in literacy development here.