What do criminal profiling, the ‘getting-to-know-you stage of a relationship, the job application work history and reference check process, and school learning all have in common? The need for background information.
Whether it’s the earlier stages of a flourishing relationship, reference and employment checks when applying for a new job or profiling people to prevent crime, background information is crucial in developing understanding and making meaning. What we are doing in each of these scenarios is trying to comprehend or understand a person.
In the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, one of the three main principles relates to information presentation. Naturally, comprehension is a key theme.
So, what is comprehension?
Comprehension is about making meaning; about understanding. In Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading (p 25), Kerry Hempenstall defines reading comprehension as “Extracting and constructing meaning from written text using knowledge of words, concepts and ideas.” CAST, the home of UDL, explains that comprehension is about transforming accessible information into useable knowledge. Both sources agree that it is the educator’s duty to support learners to access knowledge to develop understanding in teaching.
A key component of comprehension is background information. Pre-existing or taught knowledge of the domain studied is crucial for students to develop their understanding. So how can we help our students to develop background information?
First, take every opportunity to introduce or develop domain-specific knowledge. This can be through pre-reading or pre-teaching. Using demonstrations or models help to achieve this.
Next, support the development of general knowledge through engagement with news and current affairs, documentaries or video-clips. Link this to existing knowledge by supporting students to make connections to what they already know. Encourage linking and drawing on prior knowledge by using anchor charts, making visuals and embedding opportunity for mastery of concepts.
Also, develop a culture of curiosity in your learning spaces. Model thinking aloud that highlights your curiosity. Then, model how to uncover knowledge of your curiosity through, for example, effective searches on the internet. Mind-mapping, or developing metaphors to make connections, are other effective strategies.
Additionally, making use of graphic organisers is beneficial. Students benefit from making explicit connections across and between key learning.
There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.