Lack of background knowledge can hinder reading comprehension

Have you ever found it difficult to read something because you lack knowledge on the topic?


A new study highlights how vital background knowledge is for reading comprehension. According to the study, students probably face difficulties while understanding specific topics if they don’t have the necessary background knowledge.

Scientists examined data from 3,534 high-school students at 37 schools in the United States. The students finished a test that quantified their background knowledge on ecosystems. For the topical vocabulary section of the test, scientists gave students a list of 44 words and asked them to choose which were related to the topic of ecosystems. They likewise finished a multiple-choice section that was intended to quantify their factual knowledge.

Students read some texts based on the topic of ecosystems and finished 34 items intended to quantify how well they comprehended the texts. These comprehension items tapped into their ability to summarize what they had read, recognize opinions and incorrect information, and apply what they had learned to reason more broadly about the content.

Scientists then used a statistical method called broken-line regression to analyze the students’ performance. The found that a background-knowledge score of about 33.5, or about 59% correct, functioned as a performance threshold. Below this score, background knowledge and comprehension were not noticeably correlated; above the threshold score, students’ understanding appeared to increase as their background knowledge increased.

Scientists also found that students’ ability to identify specific keywords was a reasonably reliable predictor whether they would perform above or below the threshold.

Lead researcher Tenaha O’Reilly of Educational Testing Service (ETS)’s Center for Research on Human Capital in Education said, “Reading isn’t just relevant to English Language Arts classes but also to reading in the content areas. The Common Core State Standards highlight the increasing role of a content area and disciplinary reading. We believe that the role of background knowledge in students’ comprehension and learning might be more pronounced when reading texts in the subject areas.”

Scientists are further planning to investigate whether a similar kind of knowledge threshold emerges in other topic areas and domains; they note that it will be essential to extend the research by focusing on diverse measures and populations.

If the pattern holds, the findings could have important applications for classroom teaching, given the availability of knowledge assessments that can be administered without taking valuable time away from instruction.

O’Reilly said, “If we can identify whether a given student does not have sufficient knowledge to comprehend a text, then teachers can provide background material — for example, knowledge maps — so that students have a context for the texts they are about to read.”

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.


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