Building Background Knowledge Through Text Sets

Students build background knowledge by exploring text sets to enhance reading comprehension
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About This Strategy

In this strategy, teachers will help students develop critical background knowledge in order to increase their reading comprehension in upcoming units of study.  Through the use of leveled texts related to a topic and activities to engage in meaning making, students  will be able to develop background knowledge about a particular topic to increase their reading comprehension of a text later on. Often a lesson requires connecting to background knowledge but if students don’t already have that background knowledge, then the teacher needs to support the students to build it up. Text sets are a great way to build background knowledge so that students are able to comprehend necessary text during unit instruction.

Implementation Steps

1. Select an upcoming unit of study, consider whether some students may have trouble accessing the unit if they have limited background knowledge on the topic. For example, in an ELA unit of study consider the types of text used in a unit or if there is a particular topic, theme, cultural reference, or societal reference in the text that students might not be already familiar with.And, in a Social Studies or Science unit, there are often prerequisite skills and knowledge for students to enter into learning. To support yourself to become aware of these topics that students might not already be familiar with utilize the planning page linked in resources to help identify these topics or ideas.

2. Consider doing a pre-assessment to determine students' background knowledge. An informal pre-assessment could include asking them to write what they know about that topic. 

3. Once you have identified the topics that you would like to support students to build their background knowledge in, identify the texts that will help students build their background knowledge.  A selection of texts should include easier texts or below level texts and on-level text.  Remember the goal is just to give students some knowledge to build on later during a unit of study. 

  • Refer to the resources below for online article collections such as Newsela and ReadWorks.  

  • Text sets could also include podcasts created for students that they could listen to. If using a podcast, you can still use a stop and jot method and have students stop a podcast and write down something interesting they have heard.  See Resources for websites that provide student oriented podcasts. 

  • Text sets could also include videos that will give students a general idea of a topic.  If a video is used, make time to discuss as a class and record ideas as a class, but don't require students to write as they watch the video.

4. Conduct an interactive read aloud with a text that is close to on-level or just below on-level. Refer to the resources  below for information on an Interactive Read Aloud. Modeling how to ‘stop and jot’ new knowledge gained as you are reading. See resources for Stop and Jot Examples.   

  • Discuss with students the information they gained from the text at the end. 

  • Have students share interesting and/or important facts. 

  • Identify ideas or connections they may have with the text.   These responses to reading could be recorded on a class chart, such as a KWL or web,  or the students can collect the responses from their Stop and Jot's and then as they continue to encounter information and connections they can add to what they have already written. 

5. Direct students to begin with the texts at the easiest levels and as students read and experience the books have them “Stop & Jot”  any new information they are learning or ideas that they have as they read then come together to discuss and bring out some essential knowledge that the harder texts will expand on. As students engage in the text sets, consider the following:

  • Students should spend 3-4 days for 10-15 minutes a day exploring the text sets.  This could be done 1-2 weeks before beginning a unit of study.  Text sets could be included in learning rotations or centers. 

  • Create a time each day that is an exploration time where students will explore the different texts and record thinking from the text in 'Stop and Jots.'

  • Students can work through the texts independently or with partners.  Working with partners allows students to discuss ideas as they practice reading. 

  • Continue to integrate increasingly difficult texts that discuss the topic and have students build on the knowledge that they gained from the easier texts.

  • Students might not read all the texts in a text set, but if they are exposed to 3 or 4 different texts that should give them enough opportunities to build background knowledge.

6. Model how to create a mind map of what they have learned about a topic through the study of the text sets.  As a whole class have students bring their 'Stop and Jots' then demonstrate putting the topic at center and determining common ideas from information and branching out using ideas the students have written down as they were reading. 

  • After modeling for students, give them time to create their own mind map.

  • Allow time to share their finished mind maps with groups or partners and give opportunities to add ideas they might have missed on their own. 

  • Refer back to the mind maps when you are within a unit of study to access background knowledge of the topic, make connections, and/or think critically about a topic.

EL Modification

For EL Learners, understanding key Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary is essential for gaining new knowledge.  To adapt this strategy for EL students, it is important to also include direct instruction on new vocabulary. You will be able to work toward building knowledge and understanding of academic vocabulary. For EL Learners there may be cultural differences that would impact access to background knowledge.  When considering topics for text sets remember to think about the cultures of EL Learners and what background they might need to build for the upcoming unit. A text set for EL Learners might include different texts than what is used for the rest of the class, because their texts might utilize more visual context in graphics or through videos. 

Implementation steps:

  1. Consider all Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary that a student will need to know for the upcoming unit for EL learners and provide opportunities for that instruction. See resources below for more on how to select and teach Tier 2 vocabulary: 8 Strategies for Teaching EL Students Vocabulary Words and using the Frayer Model. 

  2. Include visuals that will enhance the texts in the text set and provide a way to visually represent information connected to the topic or vocabulary related to a topic. 

    • Simple videos are especially useful for providing a visual representation. 

    • Select videos that have limited speech and strong visuals. 

  3. For students with very limited English, consider providing the text in English and the students primary language. 

  4. Consider creating an audio recording of the text for EL students to listen to as they read. Research demonstrates that listening to a fluent reader can help EL comprehension. Tools such as Loom and Screencastify make this easy.

Special Education Modification

Students with disabilities will benefit from increasing their background knowledge on a new topic before a unit of study. Students with disabilities that impact comprehension or reading capabilities should be given short passages or opportunities with auditory and visual materials.  The goal is to give students something to build on in a later unit.  Providing students with disabilities the opportunity to simply discuss and consider new ideas and represent these ideas in whatever form is best for that student is necessary to give them opportunities for comprehension later on. 

Implementation steps:

  1. Provide multiple texts at the students reading level if that is at a lower grade level. 

    • Consider modifying a text found at grade level to shorten a passage and change higher level vocabulary to simpler vocabulary. 

    •  Special Education Service providers are excellent at modifying texts, consider consulting providers at your school for ideas on how to modify a text. Rewordify, found in the resources below, can also adapt texts.

    • If a text is above level provide an audio version so students can listen to the text. This can be done with screencastify, loom, creating a read aloud video and sharing with students. See resources for a Common Sense Media list of tools. 

  2. Provide opportunities for students to represent their thinking in the stop and jot in multiple ways, such as,  written or artistic form or verbally discuss with a partner.  

    • After discussing with students, have a scribe record responses.

    • Resources such as padlet or flipgrid allow students to record short videos.  These can be used in place of note taking and it provides a source for students to return to if needed. 

  3. Show short videos that correspond with texts and information in the texts. 

    • Scholastic News digital formats are excellent at including short videos to enhance a topic of an article. 

  4. Include visuals that will enhance the texts in the text set and provide a way to visually represent information connected to the topic or vocabulary related to a topic. 

    • Simple videos are especially useful for providing a visual representation. 

    • Select videos that have limited speech and strong visuals. 

    • Find simple graphics and/or diagrams that demonstrate a topic

  5. Consider using podcasts for students and break the podcast into short chunks that allow for time to reflect about information within the podcast. 


Building Background Knowledge through Text Sets for Distance Learning

Building background knowledge is a critical tool when students are engaged in a new unit in distance learning. Use text sets to support students to build their knowledge about a topic before engaging in a new unit. Distance Learning poses different challenges for engaging students in text and providing opportunities for them to engage with each other in regards to text.   This strategy can be used through synchronous and asynchronous methods.  By providing text sets in digital format you are giving access to the texts for all students.  

Implementation steps:

  1. Create a video as a teacher reading a text and completing a stop and jot. Use screencastify, loom or other tools to record a video.  

    • You can read a short portion of a text and then model for students how you would stop and jot about that portion of the text you read.  

    • This could be created in Google slides and students could have space to watch your video of reading a text and stop and jot.  

    • Then the next slide could be a video of you reading more of the text with space for students to do their own stop and jot. 

  2. During a synchronous lesson read aloud and pause periodically to allow for students to stop and jot. Alternatively, record yourself reading the text aloud so students can listen during an asynchronous lesson.

    • Have students stop and jot while you are reading in the chat, on a google doc, on a Padlet, Jamboard,, etc. 

  3. After assigning a text for students to record their stop and jots allow time during a synchronous meeting to review these as a class.

  4. Consider using tools such as Padlet and Flipgrid that allow students to record short videos.  Students could complete a short reading passage and respond through these tools with information that they learned from the passage.  

  5. Creating a mind map digitally could be done on Google slides or drawings.  A template is included in the resources.

Culturally Responsive Learning Alignment

This strategy is aligned with Culturally Responsive Learning because it takes into account each students' culture and the background knowledge they may or may not have in order to build their knowledge through reading text sets.  For example, a student who lives primarily in the city may not have the requisite knowledge about a farm if the students were to about to read Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.  Therefore, building their background knowledge by using text sets before reading the anchor text will support all students to be successful.

Related Lessons

  • This strategy can be used with my Text Set Exploration Lesson  because it demonstrates how I would plan for students to explore text sets. 

  • This strategy can be used with my Mind Mapping Lesson because the lesson models how I would have students take their stop and jot notes and create a Mind Map.