Totoket Valley Elementary School
1388 Middletown Ave.
Northford, CT 06472
Parents frequently ask me how they can help boost their child’s academics. There are so many ways to accomplish this! In June I sent out a letter describing opportunities for summer tutoring and enrichment camp, listing some fun educational websites, encouraging participation in the Governor’s Summer Reading Challenge, and suggesting “Boredom Busters” day trips. In this letter, I would like to talk about ways to build background knowledge.
Background knowledge is what a person already knows about a topic. The educational researcher, Robert Marzano, has studied background knowledge in depth. He determined that what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information about the content.
Some of the ways we build background knowledge at school is by providing experiences such as field trips to museums and nature centers, assemblies, school events, visiting artists, guest speakers, and creating an art gallery in our hallways. Building background knowledge is also an embedded task within our curricula.
Families can extend the opportunities provided by school. For instance, after their child takes a field trip they can do the following: (1) take the child to the same site and ask him/her to describe what he/she learned; (2) take the child to a similar site and compare them (e.g. Peabody Museum followed by Museum of Natural History in NY); (3) take the child to a different site that extends information learned from the first (e.g. Peabody Museum followed by Dinosaur State Park).
As an added benefit, research shows that students benefit from the number of experiences they have. The more times a student processes information, the more likely the student will remember it. Most students require four exposures to information to adequately integrate it into their background knowledge. That said, even surface-level background knowledge can be useful.
Bear in mind that a tight budget doesn’t need to limit opportunities. Many museums offer nominal or free admission. The local libraries provide free presentations to the public. Hiking local nature trails, going to the beach, visiting a local farm, camping in the backyard, collecting butterflies or fireflies, and fishing are some inexpensive options. There are also worthwhile educational programs on TV and the internet (with adult supervision).
To maximize the benefit of these (and any) experiences, parents should encourage their child to talk about their experiences, and whenever possible, compare them to similar ones to help the child make connections. For instance, a child can compare his/her experience hiking Sleeping Giant with West Rock Park, or Hammonasset beach with Silver Sands Beach, etc. Students may like to write or draw about their experiences in a journal, or take photographs and keeping them in a scrapbook or photo album and labeling them. Expressive writing, in particular, is one of the best ways to deepen students’ understanding and enhance their language experience.
Students benefit from interactions with adults that foster rich language development. This can occur during dinnertime conversations, trips in the family car, and reading aloud. In addition, parents can “front-load” their child’s vocabulary before an event takes place. For instance, before a child goes fishing, he/she can learn terms like lure, sinker, tackle box, casting, trolling, and bait. He/she can then use the words in context during the trip. This will enrich his/her vocabulary, experience, and ability to store it into memory.
Another way to build background knowledge is through imagination. For instance, a child could imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut voyaging to the moon in a space shuttle. He/she could describe the kinds of sensations, sights, and sounds that he/she would experience. Then, the child can use the local library or internet to research the experiences of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin to find out what space travel is like from their perspectives. (There are many excellent IMAX movies about space and other topics at the Bridgeport Planetarium and Norwalk Aquarium). Home-based play or projects can further support this. For instance, the child could build a space shuttle out of Legos, draw or paint a picture of outer space, or create a mobile of planets to hang on the ceiling.
Reading is a great way to build background knowledge. I’m always amazed by how much content is included in the Magic Tree House and Magic School Bus series, in particular, but there are countless others. (Our StoryTown reading program contains lots of background information. Students read main selections during class, but repeated readings will improve comprehension. Please visit Thinkcentral.com to access them). Our school librarian, language arts consultants, and the town librarians can all assist you in making good reading selections for your child.
As an extra incentive, research shows that the more children read, the more skilled they become at reading; this, in turn, makes reading easier and increases the chances that they will read more. In short, students will build background knowledge and experience increased academic success by reading (on their own level) at home as often as possible. Reading magazines counts too!
I hope this letter inspires you to do some fun and educational activities with your child to build his/her background knowledge! We will continue to do our part at school.
For additional ideas and resources, please feel free to contact your child’s classroom teacher and local libraries. For those of you who are interested in learning more about building background information, you may want to read Robert Marzano’s text, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement (2004).
Good luck and have fun!
Dr. Lindsay, Principal