Instructional Routines & Practices Instructional Routines & Practices

Building Background Knowledge


Researchers and educators recognize that background knowledge about a topic is one of the most important factors in student comprehension of new texts and their contexts. It is important for teachers to be able to build that background knowledge quickly, without giving away the content of the new text. To read more about the importance of background knowledge, consult this article from ASCD.


In building background knowledge, the first step is to determine what students need to know. Background knowledge is usually most powerful in broad strokes: share overarching concepts or events rather than try to instill knowledge of a lot of details. Remember that students will come to class with different knowledge bases; eliciting from students can be a powerful strategy.


Following are some ideas for building background knowledge, some of which are described in more detail in the subsequent routines. Remember to have students orally discuss before, during, and after building background knowledge to firmly cement key concepts, facts and terms in their minds:

  • Anticipation Guides to elicit knowledge, beliefs and misconceptions before learning.
  • Picture Walk of the text. Allow students to really study pictures and talk about what they can glean.
  • Picture Walk of the subject. Gather photos related to the topic and distribute or post these photos. Ask students questions, which the students can respond to orally or in a Chalk Talk
  • Scavenger Hunt of the text. This strategy can help students internalize the organization of a text while also learning key facts about a new topic.
  • It’s important to have students interact with the material, so don’t let video-viewing be a passive experience. Give students a prompt for notetaking, questions to answer orally, or a retelling/re-enactment assignment after watching a video.


Anticipation Guides activate students’ prior knowledge and build curiosity about a new topic. Before reading a new text, students respond to several statements that challenge or support their preconceived ideas about key concepts in the text. Using this strategy stimulates students’ interest in a topic and sets a purpose for reading. Anticipation Guides can be revisited after reading to evaluate how well students understood the material and to correct any misconceptions. This strategy is best suited to grades 4 and up. To create an Anticipation Guide, follow these steps:
  1. Identify the major ideas students will focus on for the topic.
  2. Consider what beliefs your students are likely to have about that topic.
  3. Write general statements that challenge your students’ beliefs.
  4. Require students to respond to the statements with either a positive or negative response.
SAMPLE GUIDE: Directions: Before reading, look at each statement and decide whether you agree or not. Put the letter that corresponds on the left side. Write your reason under “Why?” Then after you read the text, put whether you agree or not on the line and why. Write your new reason under “Why” or write “same.” A  = Agree strongly a  = agree somewhat d  = disagree somewhat D  = Disagree strongly Sample statements for a Guide:
  1. In the old days, America welcomed immigrants with open arms.
  2. Colonists were united in wanting to rebel from England.


Use the Gallery Walk routine for building background knowledge by posting photos, quotes, or pieces of information on large pieces of chart paper around the room. Either give students questions to answer as they peruse these (which gives them a purpose for reading them closely) or make a space in each chart for students to share their Notices and Wonders. Afterwards, ask students to summarize what they have learned about the topic.



Photos can be a great way to develop a good deal of background knowledge quickly for students at all levels of literacy. After defining what students need to know about, gather a selection of photographs about the topic. (The Prints & Photographs Collection of the Library of Congress, Critical Past, and Retronaut are all great resources for historical photographs; Science Source and Science Photo are great links for scientific images.)

Use the photographs in one of the ways listed below. In all cases, it is ideal for students to closely read photographs with a partner and talk together as they work—this will support them in using the language of the topic and in actively summarizing and making connections as they study the visuals:

  • Photo Detective: Ask students to closely read the photographs, summarize what they see, and draw one inference about the historical period or event.
  • Caption Matching: Give students captions to match to the photos. The captions should include information about what the photo shows, or its historical relevance.
  • Cloze Activity: Provide students with cloze statements that they need to complete after viewing the photographs. You can provide a word bank for this activity.
  • Photo Jigsaw: Give each student pair a different photo or sets of photos. After studying, partners meet with a new pair to explain what their photograph shows and why they think it is important.


Using a module text, design a scavenger hunt that will support students in looking through several sections of the text or photos, in familiarizing themselves with the structure of the text, and in identifying important details about the topic. The scavenger hunt should provide a series of questions that encapsulates some basic concepts or facts about the topic. Provide a menu of places in which students can search, such as the index, table of contents, and particular chapters or sections. The questions can either be specific questions that include basic concepts or facts, or they can be more open-ended such as:

  • Choose five words you think will be important to this topic (don’t include bolded vocabulary words).
  • Choose one picture, chart or other visual and explain why it is important.
  • List three things that interest you, and three questions you have about the topic.


A virtual field trip provides an interactive experience online. This activity can be an open exploration of resources, a directed exploration, or an online meeting with an expert in the field. A virtual field trip can both build background knowledge and create excitement for a new topic. Many museums, aquariums, zoos, and historical societies have virtual field trip possibilities on their websites, such as Ellis Island. There are also websites that specialize in different types of field trips to different historical periods or cultures, such as Project Explorer, and Internet 4 Classrooms Virtual Field Trips, and even a virtual visit to Bridges of the World. NASA and Discovery Education have robust offerings on science topics. Good resources for historical field trips include the many museums of the Smithsonian.


Whether you let students explore freely, or provide them with a directed experience, students should have questions to answer and/or a task to work toward. Since the purpose is to build background knowledge, this activity should not be a long, detailed list, but rather a few high-level activities such as name 3 important events or describe a foundational aspect of the topic.


Depending on the resources of your immediate area, a live field trip to a historical site, museum, research center, or geographical location can serve the dual purpose of building background knowledge while also creating excitement for a new topic. To get the most out of a field trip, follow these guidelines:

  • Visit the site yourself to determine key learning opportunities, as well as management considerations such as transitions, breaks, timing, etc.
  • Prepare students before the field trip for both procedures and learning goals.
  • Provide students with a learning task and notetaker/drawing pad during the trip.
  • Communicate with your visiting site and see if they will provide a facilitator or guide.