Building Background Knowledge, Bit by Bit

Snippets currently available:

"A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep or drink not of the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain."
Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism

With all due respect to the eighteenth century's greatest poet, Alexander Pope might have gotten it wrong. Or at least he might have for those of us not in the habit of drinking at the Pierian spring. (In Greek mythology, the Pierian Spring was where the gods and goddesses would drink in knowledge about art and science. But most of us aren't functioning at the goddess (or god) level.) For mere mortals, a little learning can be a big help when we try to absorb new information from a text.

Having some background about the topic or issue under discussion can make a big difference in comprehension. It can make the difference between reading with ease and struggling to reconstruct the author's intended meaning. In other words, the more you bring to a text, the better off you will be. Will you be able to re-construct the author's meaning without any background knowledge about the subject? Absolutely, but it will be slow going. Background knowledge speeds things up and makes your reading more efficient. It also makes it easier for you to recall what you've read, because you have a framework or pattern into which you can plug new pieces of information.

Now upon hearing this advice, you might be inclined to think, "Yeah, right, and how much time will it take me to get background knowledge about my chapter on the causes of the civil war or the history and origin of Tsunamis?" The answer is, not as much as you think. Reading just little bits, or snippets, of information about the topic or issue under discussion can improve your comprehension. The question, of course, is how big do those snippets have to be? Not all that big actually. When readers bring background knowledge into play, they seldom have all the details of the issue or event mentally in place. What they have is a broad general framework that allows them to, for instance, narrow the range of meanings a word can evoke.

Readers who have a very general idea of how hotels take reservations, for instance, will quickly pull up the right meaning for the word "book" in this sentence: "The receptionist said she would book the reservation." Similarly, a reader who knows that Appomattox was where Lee surrendered to Grant to end the Civil War will have an easier time creating and recalling the time sequence in the following excerpt, even if he or she has no idea what happened at Fort Sumter. Knowing that Appomattox ended the Civil War, the reader will correctly infer, or figure out, that the battle at Fort Sumter got it started.

Following the two-day battle at Fort Sumter in 1861, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion of the Southern states. In defiance, four more states seceded and joined the Confederacy. The Civil War would rage on until Lee met Grant in Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

If I've convinced you to start building your store of background knowledge bit by bit, please start looking at the snippets listed in the side bar on the left.

I hope to add a couple of topics or issues per week, largely because I've badgered and bothered several friends, colleagues, and former students to contribute small bits of information on topics they think were central to their education. You can also write me to suggest both topics and sources for other people, places, events, and ideas that you think are central to your textbooks.

Last change made to this page: July 19, 2012