Posted in Instructional planning

Get On the Phantom Bus, It Is Time for A Virtual Tour!


Utilizing Background Knowledge         

Before crafting a lesson, it is important to assess the learners’ needs by evaluating their existing knowledge base, or background knowledge. Background knowledge refers to a learner’s experiences, skills, and understandings of a topic. Background knowledge is also known as prior knowledge and it is essential in understanding themes, improving comprehension, and making connections.

The ability to connect what the learner already knows with new information improves performance, ability, and deepens comprehension. Prior knowledge is a strong indicator of how well new information will be processed.

A goal for successful instruction is to activate schema by engaging what the learner already knows with the excitement of expanding and delving into new, deeper knowledge. Here are some thoughts on how to start:

How to Start

Questions to ponder. Instructional designers need to be aware of learners’ needs when designing a lesson. With the target learner in focus, evaluate the knowledge and skills essential to completing the lesson or module. Some questions to ponder:

  • Is there unique vocabulary that the learner will need?
  • Are there practiced skills that the learner will need?
  • What context will define the learning?
  • Can the learner connect the new information to what they already know by activating schema?
  • How can instruction utilize prior knowledge to improve academic success?

Once these questions are addressed, evaluate the lesson flowchart. Look for and fill in knowledge gaps to start learners on equal footing. Provide a branching in the lesson design for more information for those less knowledgeable or allow learners to skip forward as needed.


Nothing can outshine real-life experiences for building background knowledge. Unfortunately, the classroom is limited in this capacity. But, there are several other methods to address learner experience.


Use technology!  laptop-icon Engage the learner with virtual artifacts and tours. Pose an essential question to focus the learner and then provide the learner with video clips, photographs, primary documents, primary sources, music, online presentations, speeches, museums tours, science games, or interactive maps.

Extract important ideas prior to delving into the module and ensure that all learners are starting off with the tools, skills, and information needed to take on new learning.


Survey the learner. Another idea to activate prior knowledge is to provide an anticipatory guide. An anticipatory guide is a list of topical statements given to the learner before the unit. The learner either agrees or disagrees with the statements revealing what they already know about the subject. Anticipatory guides will also engage the learner as they will be checking their answers as they complete the module. Here’s a quick list of steps to get you started in designing an anticipatory guide:

  • Evaluate the learning unit for essential skills, topics, and knowledge in alignment with the learning objectives.
  • Write 5 -10 short, concise statements with user-friendly vocabulary.
  • Tally the answers to see areas of knowledge or needs.
  • Construct the lesson accordingly.

laptop-iconFor those technology savvy classrooms, Kahoot! is a great, fun tool to create an anticipatory guide and will provide feedback data for instruction.


Help organize the learner. Another tactic is to fire up that schema with an advanced organizer. Graphic Organizers help the learner categorize and organize information. Two graphic organizers for developing background knowledge are the KWL Chart and a Fill-in-the-Blank Mind Map.

The KWL Chart is easy to introduce. It prepares the learner through questioning activities:


  • Write the topic at the top of the organizer.
  • Learners list what they Know under the K column.
  • Learners list what they Want to know, or questions to be answered, under the W column.
  • After the unit, learners return and write in what they Learned under the L column, making sure to address the questions posed in the W column. This L column can be used for summarizing the unit.

Or map your mind with a fill-in-the-blank organizer:


A fill-in-the-blank organizer, or mind map, provides a visual chart that has the information for the unit organized by categories and function. Leave several pieces of information blank within the chart. Learners are asked to predict the missing information and then check their answers in the chart as they progress through the module. Create your own fill-in-the-blank chart with .

laptop-icon For those technology savvy classrooms, use Wikispaces for students to predict, edit, and add information to pages as they progress through the module.


Stimulate the brain with pictures. One last idea is to build background knowledge with the use of picture books as they use visual images as well as text to build knowledge. Explore picture books whole group or assign exploration to co-operative groups, providing an opportunity for a jigsaw sharing when finished.

Hope your learners enjoy the ride!



Adolescent Literacy Resources: retrieved from

British Movietone retrieved at

Lent, R. C. (2012). Overcoming Textbook Fatigue: 21st Century Tools to Revitalize Teaching and Learning. Alexandria, US: ASCD. 30-49. Retrieved from

Library of Congress Website retrieved at

Marzano, R. J. (2003). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. Alexandria, US: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD). Retrieved from

Neuman, S., Kaefer, T., & Pinkham, A. (2014). Building background knowledge. Reading Teacher, 68(2), 145-148.


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