Background Knowledge & Close Reading

Posted on May 30th, 2012 by Vivian Mihalakis

If you've been following any of the talk around the CCSS, you know that David Coleman, one of the key architects of the CCSS, advocates a close reading approach that "focuses on what lies within the four corners of the text" (Publisher's Criteria). According to what's written in all eleven of the widely circulated exemplars developed by Student Achievement Partners—Coleman's group—"This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students."

This and similar statements made about background knowledge and its role in CCSS-aligned instruction has caused a fire-storm of criticism and debate.

The good news is that the ELA community has finally agreed that entirely too much instructional time is taken up with inefficient and ineffective pre-reading activities that ask readers do things like think about a time they met a nice, older woman before reading "Thank You, M'am."

The bad news is that background knowledge in any way, shape or form is getting a bad rap.

All the negativity around background knowledge has clouded an important distinction about it. Namely, there's a difference between background knowledge that takes you away from the text, and background knowledge that takes you further into the text. I would argue that the right background knowledge—accessed or provided at the right time and for the right purpose—is not only beneficial but also necessary. The strategic use of background knowledge does as much to level the playing field—if that's even possible—as anything else one might do.

Sometimes background knowledge is needed to access texts at even a literal level. I would put the "Gettysburg Address" in this category. The "Gettysburg Address" doesn't provide enough context to allow readers to fully comprehend it without some background knowledge. One can’t even grasp the first paragraph, for example, without knowing when and where Lincoln was when he gave this speech and what happened four score and seven years prior to when he delivered the speech. That knowledge is necessary to understanding that Lincoln is referring to the founding fathers—the men who signed the Declaration of Independence—when he says "our fathers" and not men with children.

My colleague, Anthony Petrosky, discussed this issue at length in his recent blog so I won't cover old ground. But I do want to share what happened at a recent professional development session I attended.

Taking heed of what's been written recently about background knowledge, the facilitator asked us to read the "Gettysburg Address" without providing or soliciting any background information. After reading the text, she asked us to write about and then discuss with a partner responses to the questions, What was Lincoln's central argument? What lines in the text lead you to say that?

I listened in as two different pairs were discussing this speech. One pair knew very little about the context, and the other pair was rather knowledgeable about when the speech was given and the arguments that were being debated at the time. As a result, the two different groups had very different discussions. The group with background knowledge analyzed specific words and phrases from across the text to determine Lincoln’s central argument. They traced how Lincoln unfolded his argument from the first paragraph with reference to the Declaration to the second paragraph and his repeated use of “that nation” to the final paragraph where he tells the audience that they must dedicate themselves to preserving the Union.

The group without background knowledge began by trying to figure out when the speech was given, calculating what four score and seven years amounted to, and then zoomed in on only the final line in the speech. They saw Lincoln's central argument not as a call for increased devotion to preservation of the Union, but as a call to continue fighting for "the cause," which they did not define.

The group with the background knowledge focused on what lay within the four corners of the text, and they engaged in a close reading of the entire text. The other group did not. And because the facilitator did not provide or solicit background knowledge, the depth of their conversations was remarkably different. In other words, the playing field was far from level.

Of course, not all texts—even historical texts—require as much background as "Gettysburg." Take, for instance, the "Letter from Birmingham Jail." You can learn a great deal about the context by reading the text itself and additional context might not be necessary for an ELA class where students' main purpose might be to do such CCSS-based tasks as tracing the development of a central idea or analyzing how King uses rhetoric to advance his purpose. Students might do a "cold" reading of this text and be encouraged to ask questions and research the answers when they want or need additional background.

To Kill a Mockingbird is another text that doesn't need a whole lot of background knowledge despite English teachers devoting days and days to having students learn about the 1930s, the Great Depression, Scottsboro Boys, Jim Crow laws, and so on. So much of that information can be gleaned through reading the text, and providing students with so much background knowledge takes away the work students do as readers when they read and work to comprehend a text that’s set in a different time period. As with "Letter from Birmingham Jail," students might begin reading this text with little building of background knowledge and be encouraged to ask questions and research the answers when they want or need additional background.

So the real issue about background knowledge is that it depends on the text and the purpose. Once a teacher determines that background is necessary, then it becomes a question of when and how to provide it.