Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Editor’s Note: In our previous two installments of this blog post series, we identified two barriers to students’ comprehension of informational text: text structures and high vocabulary demands. In this post, we address a third source of difficulty: background knowledge demands.

Amanda is in seventh grade. Today, Ms. Stinson, her social studies teacher, announces that the class will be reading about immigration in the United States. During class, Amanda is supposed to read and answer questions about a short informational passage on current immigration patterns.

Amanda is confused as she reads the passage. She does not understand the text’s main idea, or even the meanings of individual sentences. By the end of the passage, Amanda feels very discouraged. She cannot answer any of the questions assigned by Ms. Stinson.

This is a representation of what Amanda experiences as she reads. The gaps represent information that is unfamiliar to her. This is how Amanda reads the text:

In recent years, requests for ___ in the United States have surged. As a result of ___, more migrants are arriving at the southern border. Given the controversy about ___, the futures of many of the migrants remain uncertain. Yet, ___ continues, as does the likelihood that people from other nations will come to America in search of a better life and a small piece of ___.

Why is Amanda struggling to understand the text? She is missing key pieces of background knowledge, or information about the topic or domain of the passage that contribute to the text’s meaning (De La Paz & Wissinger, 2015). If Amanda had the background knowledge necessary to comprehend the passage, this is what she would have seen:

In recent years, requests for asylum in the United States have surged. As a result of poverty and gang violence in the Northern Triangle, more migrants are arriving at the southern border. Given the controversy about immigration reform, the futures of many of the migrants remain uncertain. Yet, the widespread violence continues, as does the likelihood that people from other nations will come to America in search of a better life and a small piece of the American Dream.

Background Knowledge

Background knowledge is a primary contributor to adolescents’ reading comprehension (Cromley & Azevedo, 2007). In order to make inferences about the text, readers must integrate prior knowledge with the information currently being presented (Elbro & Buch-Iversen, 2013). When relevant prior knowledge is lacking, the ability to make inferences about implicit and explicit ideas in the text suffers (Elleman, 2017). Inferencing difficulties may affect not only comprehension of the text’s main idea but also individual sentences (Barnes, Ahmed, Barth, & Francis, 2015).

A lack of background knowledge may particularly inhibit comprehension of informational texts, which often require students to generate many inferences (Best, Rowe, Ozuru, & McNamara, 2005). In the secondary grades, student success in content area courses is linked to the ability to learn new content from informational texts (O’Connor et al., 2017; Reed, Petscher, & Truckenmiller, 2017). Therefore, it is important for educators across the secondary curriculum to implement evidence-based instruction that builds background knowledge.

Text Sets

Prior to planning and implementing instruction, teachers must purposefully select relevant materials that will foster the building of background knowledge. One type of instructional material teachers may use is called a text set, or a collection of texts organized for a specific instructional purpose. To build background knowledge, a text set should contain a range of information students may use to make inferences about the targeted topic or domain. A text set might be constructed to include a range of genres (particularly those of high interest to students; Elish‐Piper, Wold, & Schwingendorf, 2014) or levels of difficulty (Lupo, Strong, Lewis, Walpole, & McKenna, 2018). It is important to note that although analyzing media such as videos or podcasts is now included in national literacy standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010), increased use of written texts has been found to improve students’ reading comprehension and content knowledge acquisition (Wanzek et al., 2018). Therefore, we recommend that most texts within the set be written texts, such as passages, articles, speeches, poems, and stories. Other types of media, such as videos, should be used less frequently and only for specific instructional purposes.

The following content outlines a backward design process, also referred to as backward mapping or backward planning, for creating a text set for a seventh-grade social studies unit. In backward design, instructional plans and materials are derived from the content and skills targeted in a unit of study (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). However, text sets can be used in any grade level in which students are reading connected text and in any content area.

1. Identify Standards and Develop a Unit Assessment

When planning a new unit of instruction, identify the standards by which students will be assessed. For example, a seventh grade social studies teacher might select the following from the Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (Iowa State Board of Education, 2019):

SS.7.7 With guided practice, construct arguments using claims and evidence from multiple sources.

SS.7.16 Examine the origins, purposes, and impact of laws, treaties, and international agreements.

SS.7.21 Evaluate the push and pull factors involved in human population movement and patterns.

Then, create an assessment to evaluate students’ mastery of the targeted standard(s). In this example, the teacher plans for students to compose an essay in which they (a) explain the origins and impact of current U.S. immigration laws and (b) make recommendations for reforms. Importantly, the teacher constructs an anticipated student response, or exemplar, for the assessment in order to backward map the content and skills students will learn over the course of the unit.

2. Determine Requisite Knowledge and Skills

Next, review the anticipated response and determine the content that students will need to learn, as well as any background knowledge required to access the new content. Throughout the seventh-grade unit on immigration, students will learn to identify and synthesize textual evidence and construct arguments. They also will learn new content: current immigration policies, related push-pull factors, and proposed reforms. As they progress through the unit, students will need background knowledge about the following topics:

  • Immigration patterns of various groups in United States history (e.g., Irish, Chinese, Syrians)
  • Previous immigration policies and related reforms
  • Previous push-pull factors
  • Personal experiences of immigrants
  • Current events that influence push-pull factors (e.g., gang violence in El Salvador)

3. Identify Texts

The next step is to choose instructional materials for the unit. In social studies, these materials might include primary source documents, textbooks, articles, and artifacts. To support students’ acquisition of the content, the teacher should also identify a set of texts containing relevant background knowledge, such as passages, articles, poems, and books. Importantly, text sets may be created through collaboration between teachers of different subjects to build background knowledge simultaneously across subject areas and with multiple text genres.  

In addition to materials provided by the district or school, the following websites contain free resources for building text sets:

New York Times Text to Text

  • Multi-genre text sets by theme and topic
  • Includes multimedia resources


  • Nonfiction text sets by curricular area and topic
  • Option to vary text difficulty for individual students

PBS Learning Media

  • Multimedia resources by subject, grade level, and standard

Library of Congress Primary Source Sets

  • Primary sources by theme
  • Includes multimedia resources

Newton Free Library

  • List of historical fiction by topic and recommended grade level

Smithsonian Tween Tribune

  • Nonfiction texts by grade level
  • Option to vary text difficulty for individual students

There are several important factors to consider when creating a text set. First, consider including a range of genres. This might include interviews, passages, news articles, novels, or poems. In addition, decisions on the difficulty of texts included in a text set should take into account students’ abilities and how the texts will be used in instruction. Some sites, such as Newsela and Smithsonian Tween Tribune, provide an option to vary the level of nonfiction texts to match the reading abilities of individual students. Most importantly, only select texts containing background knowledge critical to learning the unit content.

In the example below, the social studies teacher selects a variety of texts to build students’ background knowledge during the immigration unit. She purposefully chooses several different text genres and incorporates texts of varying difficulty levels, including several that can be differentiated by reading level. Finally, she identifies the background knowledge specifically contained within each text to ensure that, over the course of the unit, students will have the opportunity to learn the grade-level content on immigration in the United States.

Text Genre Lexile Source Background knowledge
The Book of Unknown Americans Fiction HL 760 (high interest, low level) ISBN-10: 0061962791 Personal experiences of Central and South Americans immigrating to the United States and related push-pull factors
"Issue Overview: Immigration Reform" Nonfiction 580L-1200L Newslea Summary of past and current immigration reform efforts
"Surges and slips: Immigration in America over 200 years" Nonfiction 570L-1140L Newslea History of United States immigration policy and related push-pull factors
"Interviews with Today's Immigrants" Interviews Various Library of Congress Personal experiences of immigrants from around the world
"Comparing Jewish Refugees of the 1930s With Syrian Refugees Today" Nonfiction 1100L-1200L New York Times Push-pull factors for and United States reaction to immigration during World War II and today
"Why So Many Central Americans Are Seeking Asylum in the U.S." Nonfiction cartoon 1000L-1100L PBS/KQED Push-pull factors for current immigration from Central America to the United States

Note: A Lexile measure is a numeric representation of reading ability and text complexity (MetaMetrics, 2019).

The ability to learn content from informational texts is critical for success in middle and high school (O’Connor et al., 2017 Reed et al., 2017). When students lack the background knowledge necessary with which to integrate new information, they may struggle to comprehend texts and acquire grade-level content (Elbro & Buch-Iversen, 2013). Thus, teachers of all subjects should create text sets that will build students’ background knowledge and open the door to the grade-level curriculum, regardless of prior knowledge and experiences.


Barnes, M. A., Ahmed, Y., Barth, A., & Francis, D. J. (2015). The relation of knowledge-text integration processes and reading comprehension in 7th- to 12th-grade students. Scientific Studies of Reading19, 253-272. doi:10.1080/10888438.2015.1022650

Barth, A. E., & Elleman, A. (2017). Evaluating the impact of a multistrategy inference intervention for middle-grade struggling readers. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools48, 31–41. doi:10.1044/2016_lshss-16-0041

Best, R. M., Rowe, M., Ozuru, Y., & McNamara, D. S. (2005). Deep-level comprehension of science texts: The role of the reader and the text. Topics in Language Disorders25, 65-83. doi:10.1097/00011363-200501000-00007

Cromley, J. G., & Azevedo, R. (2007). Testing and refining the direct and inferential mediation model of reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology99, 311-325. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.311

De La Paz, S., & Wissinger, D. R. (2015). Effects of genre and content knowledge on historical thinking with academically diverse high school students. Journal of Experimental Education83, 110–129. doi:10.1080/00220973.2013.876228

Elbro, C., & Buch-Iversen, I. (2013). Activation of background knowledge for inference making: Effects on reading comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading17, 435–452. doi:10.1080/10888438.2013.774005

Elish‐Piper, L., Wold, L. S., & Schwingendorf, K. (2014). Scaffolding high school students’ reading of complex texts using linked text sets. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 57, 565–574. doi:10.1002/jaal.292

Elleman, A. M. (2017). Examining the impact of inference instruction on the literal and inferential comprehension of skilled and less skilled readers: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology109, 761. doi:10.1037/edu0000180

Iowa State Board of Education. (2019). Iowa Core. Retrieved from https://iowacore.gov/

Lupo, S. M., Strong, J. Z., Lewis, W., Walpole, S., & McKenna, M. C. (2018). Building background knowledge through reading: Rethinking text sets. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy61, 433–444. doi:10.1002/jaal.701

MetaMetrics. (2019). About Lexile Measures for Reading. Retrieved from https://metametricsinc.com/parents-and-students/lexile-for-parents-and-students/lexile-for-reading/

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). English language arts standards. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/

O’Connor, R. E., Beach, K. D., Sanchez, V., Bocian, K. M., Roberts, S., & Chan, O. (2017). Building better bridges: Teaching adolescents who are poor readers in eighth grade to comprehend history text. Learning Disability Quarterly40, 174–186. doi:10.1177/0731948717698537

Reed, D. K., Petscher, Y., & Truckenmiller, A. J. (2017). The contribution of general reading ability to science achievement. Reading Research Quarterly52, 253-266. doi:10.1002/rrq.158

Wanzek, J., Martinez, L., Fall, A. -M., Roberts, G., Stillman, S., & Kent, S. C. (2018). Text reading supports in social studies content instruction and their relationship to student knowledge acquisition. Reading & Writing Quarterly34, 349–360. doi:10.1080/10573569.2018.1446858

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.