Activating Background Knowledge

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For readers who have an autism spectrum diagnosis, what we might consider an obvious connection to make, may not occur to them.

A first-grade teacher told me the story of a young student whose teacher was working to help him share with the class about a pending adoption his family was completing.

The teacher chose a book to read aloud to the class about a family welcoming home a new baby. When the teacher asked the class if anyone could make a connection to the text, the student who was about to have a baby sister join his family did not raise his hand.

When the teacher encouraged a response from him, he insisted that the book had nothing to do with what he was going through, because his sister was being brought home as a one-and-a-half-year-old. The baby in the book was just born.

The teacher shared that in the student’s mind, there were no similarities between the two events. However, after the teacher used a classic Venn Diagram to show the similarities (and differences) between the two events, the student realized that he did have something in common with the book. The teacher had to “notice” and think aloud with the student (with the help of peers) these commonalities.

Any type of building of (through videos or hands-on experiences), or activating background knowledge will need to be done through modeling, especially with students who can struggle to make connections with some classroom learning.

Sometimes, the student has background knowledge to activate but is unaware of the connection between their experience and that of the content in front of them.

Communicating with the parents prior to a unit launch, to learn what understandings the child may have with the information can go a long way to supporting his or her making connections during schema activating activities.

Fortunately, because this was the case with the teacher mentioned above, she was in a position to support the child, not one where the teacher was left with “no connections” made.

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