The Effect of Providing Explicit Background Knowledge on Reading Comprehension

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The construct of adolescent literacy instruction remains less well-defined. The challenges of supporting middle school and secondary readers is evident in both national and international data—the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that only 35% of eighth-grade students were able to comprehend grade-level text, and likewise, the Programme for International Assessment reported the average Reading Literacy score of American 15-year-olds as lower than peers in 14 other countries.

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Conjectures about the causes of adolescent reading comprehension difficulties vary, but generally include increased demands for learning through text. The well-known shift from learning to read to reading to learn that occurs around the fourth grade may result in poor comprehension as students are exposed to text with demanding vocabulary and complex structures. One explanation in particular, and the basis of this study, is that students may falter as a result of limited background knowledge, as comprehension is heavily reliant upon what a reader knows relative to the text.

The Common Core standards recommend the use of connected texts to foster the development of background knowledge; however, few studies exist to determine the effect of using paired informational text as a means to improving knowledge and, subsequently, reading comprehension. What level of background knowledge is necessary to improve comprehension of the narrative text that follows—is providing a paired text before reading a fictional piece sufficient, or is comprehension improved by the teacher making explicit connections between the informational and narrative text prior to reading? 

The relationship of background knowledge and reading comprehension is rooted in Kintsch’s theory of reading comprehension, which posits that readers build a situation model when interacting with a text. In this model, readers first evaluate relationships among words, clauses, and sentences and then, at a broader level, the relationship of large portions of the text to each other. These two levels together form the textbase, a literal representation of the text’s meaning. However, to generate deeper meaning, a reader must apply his or her background knowledge in conjunction with the textbase to generate inferences. Without sufficient background knowledge, readers are unlikely to make the inferences necessary for comprehension.

To determine the effect of providing background knowledge on reading comprehension, we need to answer the following questions:

  1. As compared with a no-treatment control group, do students provided with a short informational text prior to reading a chapter from a fiction book demonstrate greater comprehension of the text as evidenced by responses to questions after reading? Additionally, does providing explicit connections between the informational and narrative text prior to reading improve comprehension of the narrative text?
  2. Is comprehension of the narrative text and amount of background knowledge provided (none, text only, or text + connections) moderated by the students’ existing level of reading comprehension at pretest?

Hypotheses

The following two hypotheses will be tested in this study:

1) There will be no statistically significant difference in the passage comprehension scores of students who have been provided background information at varying levels (text only or text + connections) as compared to a no-treatment control (no background knowledge provided).

2) Students’ existing level of reading comprehension has no effect on the relationship between the condition in which they participated and the passage comprehension outcome.

Overall understanding of this topic will provide some guidance to teachers in potential methods for building background knowledge. Should the method of building knowledge prove effective for this particular population of learners, resulting classroom practice may include more precise selection of paired texts and carefully selected prereading activities in order to facilitate reading comprehension. While extant research supports the link between background knowledge and comprehension, it is important to consider specific pedagogical practices in varied settings that facilitate this connection.

07 July 2022

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