Gradually Releasing Students to Build their Own Background

I often get ideas for reading lessons from my own life as a reader. When I read anything historical, fiction or non-fiction, I usually end up browsing the internet for more info and background. Gilbert King’s The Devil in the Grove had me reading about Thurgood Marshall and looking up maps of Florida before I finished the first few chapters.


(Sidenote: I’d recommend this book for adults, I would never mention this or recommend it to young students.)


Our students have the power to be independent learners and build their own background knowledge to support their personal reading. I like to model this and have them practice.

This simple lesson strategy can be used to help students practice building their own background knowledge:

1. I explain to my students that recently I was reading a book that described several train routes around London. I have been to London, once but I’m very unfamiliar of the suburbs surrounding it so I had trouble visualizing these smaller towns and the train routes that went around them. After a few chapters, I decided to look up a map of the London area to help me visualize. I tell them that sometimes I even look up information about a book’s setting before I read it, because I want to visualize it clearly.

2. I model this with Tua and the Elephant by R.P. Harris. I do a basic think-aloud as I model studying the cover and reading the summary on the book jacket or on the back of the book.


“The title and cover show me that Tua and an Elephant are probably the main characters. As I look inside I read here that this little girl lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had a friend who went to Thailand once, but I have never been there. Before I read this book, I want to know a little background on the setting so that I can visualize it as well as possible.”

3. I go on to model my research using World Book Online or Kiddle. I explain to them that I am not trying to learn every possible thing about Thailand; I want to read a bit, study a map, and view a few photographs to prepare myself for my reading.

4. Next, I have around 10 copies of novels for kids to examine with a partner. (You can have multiple copies of the same novel, as long as each pair has a book.) Each pair gets a book and a sticky note. I have to look at the cover, read the summary, and possibly even the first page or two. Then, I challenge the pairs to discuss what type of background knowledge they might need before reading that particular book including elements of the setting such as location and time period. I tell them to pay attention to dates or historical events referenced, and record this information on their sticky note. Walking around, listening and glancing at their sticky note helps you quickly determine if they are on the right track. Finally, I give them 5-7 minutes to use the class devices to search for information. I challenge them to record 2 things they think would be important to visualize before reading this book. If time allows, students can share their book and information to the class, or they can pair up with another group to share their findings.

5. To conclude the lesson, I ask them what they would think if I gave up on reading my book, just because I couldn’t visualize the train stopping in different cities. Of course, not! If one thing is confusing in a book, it doesn’t mean you give up, especially with all of the resources available. I explain that it is great to build background before you read, but you can also stop and do a little research in the middle of your reading. Students need to feel empowered as readers, researchers and learners. Through the year I continue to model this type of think-aloud to show them how I search for information to support my visualization.


This strategy works well with historical fiction, because typically the setting or historical event is listed somewhere on the book jacket. Be sure that all the books you choose have searchable items of interest on the cover or book jacket flaps. Titles that work well include:

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Watsons go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

Blood on the River, by Elisa Carbone

Books from the My America Series such as Our Strange New Land: Elizabeth’s Jamestown Colony Diary by Patricia Hermes


*This lesson could be done in a lower grade classroom using books from The Magic Tree House or The American Girl series.


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