Understanding Background Knowledge and the Internet

comprehension reading
Does the internet change the way readers use background knowledge? Can readers with greater inquiry skills or more open mindsets make up for a lack of background? These questions have perplexed me and have driven my educational research in the last few years.

The internet has shifted so many of our social practices and literacy acts I wonder if it also changes how we historically look at background knowledge.

Recently the role of background knowledge has come to the forefront of reading instruction. Common Core (which I do support) advocates have called for greater close reading with very little pre-teaching. The thinking is this will help alleviate differences in the reader caused by varying background knowledge. Underlying the philosophy is the idea that all meaning is contained within the text.

David Coleman, a major author of the Common Core famously stated that the meaning of a text “lies within the four corners of the text.” While I appreciate an increased focus on analytical reading with a higher frequency of informational texts I wonder what happens when meaning has no corners.

First the idea that we can eliminate any differences caused in comprehension due to differences in background knowledge collapses in the face of decades of research. Simply attaining to the text without taking opportunities to activate and build upon that which is (un)known isn’t wise.

Second texts today have no corners. Specifically the internet, a boundless space of recorded knowledge remains in constant flux as readers build their own books..

Close(d) Reading in Open Spaces

Yet these two observations are deeply connected. The role of background knowledge in predicting comprehension is one of the most stable findings in all of reading research. Yet researchers when examining meaning making in online spaces have not reached a consensus as to the role of background knowledge.

Some researchers have found background knowledge to be a significant predictor of online reading comprehension. Other researchers found opposite results. The difference usually involved including a measure of Internet use (likert frequencies).

Yet I believe the role of background knowledge shifted because those with savvy skills and open mindsets have access to unlimited knowledge. In fact many colleagues posit that opening up the Internet to allow for just in time schema creation favors comprehension. Thus students who move beyond the four corners of their original source with an open mind set may outperform students who do stay locked within the four corners of a text either physically or mentally.

Examining On Demand Knowledge Assembly

Let us turn to a few examples from my own reading experiences to demonstrate how prior knowledge can shift. I am currently building a list of public domain texts I can use and share. In two separate instances I engaged in knowledge assembly on demand.

I came across Struck it at Last by Edward Dyson. When I read the poem the optimism of the voice in the face of such hardship attracted me. Yet I knew nothing of the context. I examined a few lines of one stanza:

Here he brandished axe and maul ere
Buninyong, and after that
Fought and bled with Peter Lalor
And the boys at Ballarat.

I ended up Googling “Lalor Ballarat” and learned the poem described a miner revolt in Australia during a Gold Rush. The poem, by moving out of the four corners of text, took on new levels of meaning. I immediately gained understanding in the author’s perspective. I then went on to read about Peter Lalor.

The second example came about when I decided not to continue the Orson Scott Card Ender series after Xenocide. I read many reviews on goodreads and came across the phrase Due ex Machina. I remembered the phrase from my English classrooms and from a Simpsons episode. I had to learn more. So I once again turned to knowledge assembly on demand. My just in time schema building allowed me to realize the phrase “god from the machine” traces it roots back to Greek literary critics. Science Fiction (a genre new to me) audiences use the phrase to describe events when protagonists get out impossible situations through a mixture of machines and bad writing.

In each of the previous examples the role of background knowledge shifted. I recognized a lack of understanding than quickly filled in the gaps. In fact I not only filled in the holes but built new structures of knowledge in those holes.

We need to continue to investigate how background knowledge and internet inquiry affect our traditional view of literacy practices. We need to teach our students to savvy searchers and sifters. Finally we need to create learning opportunities.

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