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Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles

Meaning Skills

Background Knowledge

learners at computers

Background knowledge (or background information) directly influences comprehension. A skilled, fluent reader who knows a lot about American history, for instance, will have an easier time understanding a passage about the Civil War than a reader who does not bring such Background Knowledge to the reading. We usually gain much of our Background Knowledge when we are children and adolescents in school.

Many of the adults in ABE programs, however, have not had this opportunity because either they could not read texts well enough in middle and/or high school to take advantage of information or they dropped out of school by the ninth or tenth grade. They have gained some information associated with school curricula from personal interests, educational television, their jobs, and their peers.

As accomplished readers, we are often not aware of how much understanding of what we read comes from the knowledge we bring to the text. "Reading comprehension is ... the process of 'constructing meaning' from a text. Comprehension is a 'construction process' because it involves all of the elements of the reading process working together as a text is read to create a representation of the text in the reader's mind."RR The more prior knowledge we have of the subject presented in a passage, the richer will be our understanding. Prior knowledge of a subject forms a framework (schema) into which additional ideas can be assimilated and remembered.


Two formal published assessments of the kind of Background Knowledge that is usually acquired in school are:

  1. Information subtest of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Survey (WAIS)
  2. Academic Knowledge (Science, Social Studies, Humanities) subtest of the Woodcock-Johnson - III

Approaches to instruction

Content-rich texts drawn from science, social studies, and literature for both oral reading Fluency and Silent Reading Comprehension can help to build learners' Background Knowledge. Familiar texts on sports and popular culture are engaging, but provide fewer opportunities for this growth. Similarly, though important to learners, most work-related texts tend to be overly specific as compared with selections from academic subject areas.

Activating prior knowledge (Background Information) can improve passage comprehension. This can develop learners' awareness that reading comprehension is an interactive process by asking them to think about what they already know about a subject before they read a passage. "Thinking about what you know" is important in all areas of learning. As readers become aware that the meaning of a passage is constructed between the author and the reader, they will engage in the active reading that is necessary to understanding more challenging texts.

View a sample passage of how Background Knowledge can affect comprehension.

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