When you work with a text, you enter into a conversation with it, responding with your thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The way you respond to any text has a lot to do with who you are: your age, education, cultural background, religion, ethnicity, and so forth.
The process of conversing with a text occurs even before a full reading, when you skim a text and your inner voice makes connections between the words, your life, and your prior knowledge. The more closely you connect to a text, the higher the level of comprehension. At times, connecting is simple, when ideas in a text obviously relate to something in your own background. At other times, especially when the text is not in an area in which you have background knowledge, connecting is difficult. However, to support understanding of a text, try to connect that text in some way to something in your background – an experience you’ve had, books you’ve read, people you know, or even the experience of reading a different difficult text. To be a better reader, think about how the text might relate to your life.
When connections between a text and your own background occur easily, note those connections in mental or physical notes so you have some concrete examples to stimulate and prime your brain for the new information to come. To relate a text to your background when connections do not immediately occur to you (or even when they do), ask and answer some of the following questions:
This is similar to/different than my experience of . . .
This is what I currently know about this topic . . .
Something like this happened to me when . . .
This reminds me of . . .
This is similar to/different than a problem I have faced . . .
My purpose for reading this text is . . .
What feelings or biases might I have toward this topic . . .
This is similar to another text I read . . .
This different than another text I read . . .
This reminds me of the experience of . . .
This is similar to the news story about . . .
This is different from the documentary about . . .
This reminds me of a particular person/group whom I know. . .
Linking new knowledge to existing knowledge is the way that your brain learns. A paragraph in a chapter entitled “Background Knowledge: The Glue that makes Learning Stick,” in Lent’s book Overcoming Textbook Fatigue  states the following:
“How important is background knowledge? According to Robert Marzano, “What students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content” (2004, p. 1). John Guthrie is equally adamant as he writes about comprehension as impossible without prior knowledge (2008, p. 11), and the National Research Council states definitively, ‘All learning involves transfer from previous experiences. Even initial learning involves transfer that is based on previous experiences and prior knowledge'” (2000, p. 236).
The following video, done with an audience of educators in mind, offers interesting results of a study on the importance of background knowledge to young readers.
The video below uses clips from television and film to illustrate the concept of background knowledge and how to build it. The latter portion of the video offers interesting tips on building background knowledge when you have absolutely no background in the topic. The video also previews the concept of context, which is discussed on the next page of this text.
Skim the article “Why You Forget What You Came For When You Enter a Room.” Based on your skimming, what background experience or knowledge did you link this to?
I have experienced this many times when searching for my glasses. I also thought of my mother who consistently loses her car keys. The concepts I got from skimming also relate a bit to some other articles I’ve read about the brain, in terms of emphasizing the complexity of the human brain and how it works. I also started to wonder if there were any way to retrain the brain to not experience the doorway effect, given that the other articles talked about brain plasticity and the ability for continuous learning.