Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog

Informational Texts Can Build Background & Augment Prior Knowledge

Today's guest blogger is Susan Weaver Jones, an elementary educator from Orlando, Florida, who currently works in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has taught students in Kindergarten through Eighth Grade as a Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, Reading Recovery Teacher, and Literacy Coach. She is also the author of three leveled readers in the   Kaleidoscope Collection .

As a child growing up in Florida, I had a nodding acquaintance with infrequent freezing temperatures during winter but none at all with snow. In school, I read stories about children playing in the snow, sledding down hills, and building snowmen, but I had no personal experience with such activities. However, I would see televised weather reports of blizzards in northern states and watch movies set in cold climates. Those media provided information that supplemented my knowledge about seasonal weather. Even though

I lacked prior knowledge about snow from my own life, I learned about snow from others' accounts. Their experiences served to broaden my snow-deprived background!

Our students also have gaps in their prior knowledge that can interfere with their learning if not addressed.   That's why we need to provide students with background information, relevant artifacts, and related experiences, so they have enough knowledge to make sense of what they're studying . Of course, because our students come to school with a variety of life experiences, they will have different strengths and needs. Despite those differences, we can even the playing field by providing shared experiences that introduce concepts to some students while reinforcing them for others.

Looking through sample copies of early nonfiction readers in Hameray's   Zoozoo Animal World   series, I reflected on primary-age students I've taught. What prior knowledge would they have already had about the animals in this series? What additional background might they have needed?

My students, as a whole, would have had some degree of knowledge about   horses , one of the animals included in the   Farm Animals Set . The students who lived in rural areas would have had firsthand knowledge about horses on their family farms. However, even most of my city kids would be familiar with horses from county fairs, parades, television, movies, magazines, and/or books. The overwhelming majority of my students would have had enough information about horses to feel comfortable discussing the subject. 

I've learned that allowing students to talk about what they know, perhaps in response to specific questions after introducing the topic   (i.e., How are horses the same as other mammals? How are they different?),   gives them the opportunity to learn from each other. If I listen to my students discuss their responses, I gain insights into what they know, what they don't know, and what misinformation is confusing them.

In contrast, most of the students I taught probably knew very little about   puffins, aquatic birds featured in the   Arctic   Set   of the   Zoozoo Animal World   series. If I mentioned puffins, my students would be more likely to think of the Big, Bad Wolf huffin' and puffin' in The   Three Little Pigs   than of colorful birds that live in cold regions! 

If I showed students photos or videos of puffins in their habitat, my students could develop frames of reference from which they could begin to note similarities and differences between puffins and other birds, linking the unfamiliar to the familiar. When I add to students' prior knowledge through various means,

I need to permit them the opportunity to discover some connections for themselves. Teachers can act as tour guides to the destination, stepping back as appropriate, so students revel in the joy of discovery as they explore new information.

In the midst of that exploration, students' interests are piqued, and because they're curious, they want to learn more!   Building background has a bonus: It motivates and creates a mindset for learning!


Though our students may have geographical bounds or other constraints that limit their personal experiences, we can intervene by enhancing their prior knowledge with additional information and experiences that expand the background they need!

- Susan Weaver Jones

If you'd like to learn more about our   Zoozoo Animal World   Series, click the image below to download a series highlight sheet!