Why background knowledge?

What does background knowledge have to do with how little kids learn?


Background knowledge–what is already known about a topic–can vary from barely having heard of an idea to full expertise. Background knowledge helps everyone  make sense of new information and experiences.

Take cherimoya, for example.  I recently ran across this word, and it was completely new to me.

Is this a deadly germ or maybe a small aquatic animal? Perhaps a type of cheese?

I had no information to connect to this word.

Later, I found this statement:

“Cherimoya is a delicious fruit.”

Hearing that cherimoya is a delicious fruit completely changed my understanding.

My prior knowledge about fruit quickly created a mental slot for cherimoya.  I’ve never tasted, touched, or seen it, but next time I hear or read “cherimoya”, I’ll know something about it, because I know about bananas, apples, oranges, and peaches.

Background knowledge creates buckets to hold new information. Linking new information to old information helps the new information to stick. The more background knowledge a child has, the chances increase that he’ll be able to find a bit of common ground to link the new information to the old.

How do small children acquire background knowledge?

Talking to your young child is a primary way to build that important store of background information. Ordinary conversations between parents and children have huge potential to contribute to the knowledge children need, starting in infancy.

The learn now moment sets the stage to learn more later.

A small learn now conversation can set the stage to learn more later in many areas:

Talk to Learn: Geography

Do you want the sticker from our new bunch of bananas? It says this bunch of bananas came from Honduras. That’s pretty far away!

  • Learn now: Food can come from far away places. Honduras is the name of a far away place.
  • Learn more later: Other foods and things we use can come from far away places. More names of countries, continents, and regions of the world.
Talk to Learn: Science

The weather is so sunny today for our picnic.  All the trees are getting some sun.

  • Learn now: Sunny is a weather word.  Trees use sun.
  • Learn more later: Other weather words. More about how trees grow.
Talk to Learn: Math

Let’s put on our shoes. One-two for you and one-two for me!

  • Learn now: Counting two shoes.
  • Learn more later: Counting more than two. Counting other objects that aren’t shoes.
Talk to Learn: Writing

I’m going to write a list of what I need at the grocery so I can remember what to buy.  Do we need more juice?

  • Learn now: Making a list helps us to remember. Making a list is a reason people write.
  • Learn more later: Other reasons people use writing in daily life.

A quick clarification: I’m not implying, of course,  that talking once about where bananas come from ends all future conversation about bananas. Understanding grows over time.

Little moments of conversations add up and build a large treasury of information for your child to use to connect to other bits of new information. Even something as simple as reading a banana sticker can make a contribution!

Plan to be a background builder for your child. Use conversation now to help your child be ready to learn more later.

Photo by keepon

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