25 Years

Tutor Tips: Foundational Knowledge

The following Tutor Tip from Dr. Carmine Stewart appeared in the December 2021 issue of Tutor News for Seeds of Literacy volunteers.

‌If learning came easy to you, you probably take for granted the background knowledge you have acquired along the way. Everything you have ever learned created a solid foundation for all future learning.

The things you have read, the places you have traveled, the cultural experiences you have enjoyed….they all played a role in helping you make sense of the world. When you read, you are able to draw upon these things to help you make sense out of what is on the page in front of you. As we read we make connections between what is on the page and what we already know from previous learning and experiences.

For students who have cracks or entire holes in their learning foundation, that background knowledge may not exist. (Think about students who grew up without the benefit of affording travel, museums, and other cultural experiences.) What can you do to help? Plenty! 

1) Before you begin working with a student, ask them what they already know and understand about the topic to see if they have background knowledge. For example, “What do you already know about the Civil War?”  

2) If they do not have background knowledge, you may want to search for a short video, or share a brief overview of the topic to help prepare them for what they are about to read. Help them see the bigger picture. For example, “Well this was a war between the north (called the Union), and the south (called the Confederacy). There are lots of theories for why the war was fought. Let’s see if this lesson tells us some of those reasons.” Searching for Google images can also help students understand concepts and build background knowledge. 

3) Before you have the student read the passage you may want to have them look through it for any words that they don’t know and understand –vocabulary is a huge part of background knowledge. Help the student understand the terms and how they relate to the topic. Ask the student to write the words and to write the meanings in their own words- they are not likely to remember them if they don’t write them down. 

4) As the student is reading, help them make connections; 

5) If as you are working on something you see that a student does not understand a key concept that is keeping them from having that “a-ha moment,” you may need to help build background knowledge on the underlying concept as well.

When students understand, and build understanding, they enjoy the learning process. Building background knowledge is a part of this process.

One word of caution though is to make sure that you don’t veer too far from the lesson the student is hoping to complete; students are often very focused on completing work, so try to stay focused on the goal. Building background knowledge should look like providing tuckpointing to fill in the gaps, not building a bridge in a different direction.

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A recognized leader in the field of adult education, Dr. Carmine Stewart currently maintains dual roles as:

  • Vice President of Programming for Seeds of Literacy – overseeing the development of workforce partnerships, the creation and launch of the Beginning & Struggling Readers program, professional development for tutors, and the GED in Spanish initiative
  • President & CEO of ACES (Adult Consulting and Educational Services, formerly Aspire) – conducting research, evaluation, assessment, data analysis, and professional development training for school districts and adult literacy agencies. 


Vocabulary…for Math