Beat the “I Don’t Get It” Mentality: Background Knowledge
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Beat the “I Don’t Get It” Mentality with Background Knowledge

JJ Janikis
Sep 5, 2023

“All new learning builds on prior learning,” say experts who wrote the book, Planning Powerful Instruction, and we agree. It’s why babies crawl before they can walk. It’s why you can’t skip straight from Algebra 1 to Calculus. It’s why we still teach history and social studies classes. You can’t learn—or more importantly, you can’t understand—something new if you don’t know the backstory.

When you build background knowledge with your students, you set them up with a foundation to understand what came before, why it matters now, and how it influences their future. And you can do this in any class, with any grade, at any time.

You can use Newsela to build background knowledge at any point during your lessons:

  1. Before: Share texts and videos that help students build that foundation of key concepts before introducing new information.

  2. During: Assign content throughout that connects prior knowledge to new concepts as students encounter them.

  3. After: Extend learning on topics students found most interesting with more articles and videos.

Two of our Newsela Fellows, Yvonne Gray and Aishia King, found ways to use articles, videos, and text sets to build background knowledge in the classroom and boost students’ confidence and understanding.

As Fellows, Yvonne and Aishia committed to a yearlong quest to drive more teacher and student engagement with Newsela in their districts. During that time, they completed capstone projects to show how their training positively impacted student outcomes. You can use them, too, to plan lessons.

Yvonne is an instructional technology coach in Soledad, California. She spent 20 years as an elementary school teacher before becoming a technology coach. Her project, Bringing Science to Life, aimed to get everyone at her school more engaged in their life, physical, and earth science classes. Yvonne encouraged more active student and teacher participation in lessons by using Newsela and all its skill-building resources and tools to learn more about the topics discussed in class.

“Using visuals such as infographics can help put meaning behind concepts and words,” she said. “Build content-specific vocabulary or explain a process behind a skill. Assign infographics along with articles to provide a comprehensive lesson.” 

The more students understand curricular topics and connect them to what they already know, the more interesting they become. Newsela has a wide range of content and daily instruction tools like annotations that make it super easy to discover what students already know, encourage whole or small group discussions, and connect new topics to previous learning.

You already met Aishia in our diverse perspectives blog post and at our Teach with Newsela webinar. What made her project, Making Connections To Increase Comprehension and Critical Thinking Skills, so special is that it showed how background knowledge and diverse perspectives work together to help increase how students understand and experience a topic.

“Prior to reading a piece of literature, teachers can assign a Newsela article that connects to either the author of the literary text or to the setting, time period, or central conflict of the work,” she said. “This can then enhance the ‘discovery’ of central ideas and themes of the literary piece, which will deepen their students’ understanding of the text and the world around them.”

The more you can help students make a personal connection to a topic and see it from someone else’s point of view, the more you help them build critical thinking skills. When they think critically, they spend more time with the information, which increases their comprehension.

Watch an on-demand recording of our background knowledge webinar for more information about how to set the stage for your lessons with Newsela. Highlights of this event include:

  • Resources to use Newsela to build background knowledge in your weekly lessons.

  • Pro tips to use Newsela as an instructional tool to build background knowledge in all your classes.

  • Peer examples of how building background knowledge in your lessons helps drive students’ confidence when exploring new or unfamiliar topics.

After you watch the video, download more resources to start planning your own lessons!

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