7 Tips for Using Background Knowledge to Improve Students’ Literary Analysis

Last month, I wrote about how to help your students analyze language. However, we’ve all read literary analysis essays that are mostly just a list of language features and their effects. To use this skill effectively, students need to be able to relate the language to the wider themes of the text and to the author’s purpose for using those language devices. In short, they need to deeply understand the meaning of text.

In today’s post, I want to explore the role of background knowledge in literary analysis, and give you some ideas for how you can both build your students’ background knowledge and teach them how to apply it to their analysis. The importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension is well-supported by research. If you want to know more about that, I recommend starting by reading some work by Daniel Willingham and Natalie Wexler.

In high school ELA, we tend to take surface-level comprehension for granted, unless we’re working with a text with particularly complex or archaic language. However, insightful analysis of a text’s characters and themes is essentially advanced comprehension; it just involves comprehending meaning that is more layered and nuanced than a simple plot summary. So, it makes sense that building background knowledge would help students add depth and sophistication to their understanding of the underlying ideas of a text.

There’s a great example of how background knowledge helps with literary analysis in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Stephen Chiger’s Love and Literacy, which I highly recommend if you’re looking for great advice on using annotation, writing, and discussion to teach literature in a way that is meaningful for your students (I get a small commission if you purchase through the link above – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!). They’re looking a scene from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home that references this line from The Great Gatsby:

“This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too–Didn’t cut the pages!”

Two pieces of background knowledge help us unpack this scene. First, David Balasco was a famous theatre producer who was known for making his sets look incredibly real. From this, we can tell that the speaker is impressed by the appearance of realism in Gatsby’s library – he’s impressed by the façade rather than by Gatsby actually being well-read.

Secondly, in the 1920s, when Gatsby was written, books were printed on large sheets of paper that were folded up into smaller pages. Readers would need to cut the pages apart to read the book. Since Gatsby “didn’t cut the pages,” we know that he has not read the books in his library, and that the whole room is really just for show. This gives us greater insight into the chasm between Gatsby’s reality and the face he presents to the world. Bambrick-Santoyo and Chiger go on to explore how these and other pieces of context can be applied to deeply understand the Gatsby reference in Fun Home.

To be honest, when I first read about that example, I was a bit overwhelmed. Are you telling me that by the time they read Gatsby my students should somehow just know about 1920s publishing practices and big names in 20th-century set design?

The answer to that, of course, is no. Texts like Fun Home and Gatsby provide us with the opportunity to build background knowledge in a context where it can immediately be applied to further their understanding of the text. What this example does illustrate, however, is how crucial background knowledge is for understanding a text, not just in the sense of knowing what’s going on, but in understanding the choices made by the author. Why does Fitzgerald reference Balasco? Why does it matter that the pages of Gatsby’s books are uncut? These are questions that relate directly to Gatsby’s characterisation and to the themes of the novel, and they cannot be answered if students aren’t given the information.

This example also points to the importance of background knowledge that is thorough and detailed, rather than just a few surface-level facts. Watching a movie with a similar historical setting is a great way to get students acquainted with the ‘feel’ of the setting before they study a text, but it doesn’t provide the kind of details that will generate insight. Likewise, basic biographical information about an author may be interesting, but without delving into the details it’s probably not going to add a huge amount to your students’ analyses.

I’ve split the seven tips in this post into two categories; first, advice for integrating knowledge-building into your literature and ELA lessons, and then suggestions for teaching students to actually apply their newfound knowledge in their analysis.

Integrating knowledge-building into your lessons

1.     Assign tiered texts to build knowledge cumulatively

Reading is, of course, a great way to build knowledge. It’s particularly effective if you give students a sequence of multiple texts about the same topic, starting with a simple text and working up to more sophisticated ones that require students to draw on the information they learned at earlier in the sequence. You probably do some context and pre-reading work before your class dives into a novel – think about how you can select and sequence 2-4 (or more) short texts introduce knowledge that will be useful when reading the main text.

Non-fiction articles are great for this, of course, but you don’t have to stop there. Consider poems by the same author or from the same time period; news articles about relevant historical events; picture books; short stories; videos; podcasts; philosophical essays – anything that provides background knowledge and, for later in the sequence, prompts students to apply the knowledge they’ve already learned. Some of these, especially the simpler texts, are best for the start of the unit, while others will be more relevant after students have read some of the text. Here’s a couple of examples of sequences I use:

Beowulf (usually ages 13-14)

  1. Article about the characteristics of epic poetry (we read this while studying either The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Odyssey, or both, so those two texts are really also a part of this sequence).
  2. Video of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English
  3. Short one-page summary of the plot of Beowulf
  4. One-page overview of the context of the poem, written for middle-schoolers
  5. Excerpt from Spark Notes about the tensions between Christianity and the Germanic heroic code
  6. Longer article about Viking blood feuds
  7. Bible verses related to Christian ideas about vengeance

Frankenstein (Ages 14-17)

There is a lot of good stuff to read related to Frankenstein, and unfortunately there’s just not time for it all. I usually have students read one of a selection of articles and then report back to the group about what they’ve learned. I’d prefer for them all to read each article themselves, as I know a lot of juicy knowledge gets lost in translation, but I try not to let perfect be the enemy of good and ensure that the knowledge we need is somewhere in the room, at least.

You can find out more about my online Frankenstein course here.

  1. Mary Shelley episode of the BBC podcast You’re Dead to Me (I recommend this to my students but sadly don’t have time in class to listen to it all)
  2. School of Life video about Romanticism
  3. Article about the conventions of Gothic literature
  4. Article about the trip to the Villa Diodati and the storytelling competition that led Shelley to write Frankenstein.
  5. Video summary of the Icarus myth from Overly Sarcastic Productions – we watch this as a part of a debate about the costs and benefits of ambition, but it also ensures that students will understand other references to this very popular Greek myth, whether it’s in Hamilton or Die Another Day.
  6. Article about the scientific discoveries and theories that inspired Shelley.
  7. Article from The Conversation (one of my favourite sources of supplemental texts!) about whether artificial intelligence should have rights.

Incidentally, I think that the need for background knowledge is a strong argument in favour of the now somewhat old-fashioned chronological survey course. Teaching texts chronologically allows students to apply their knowledge about an older text to one that came after it; they can see what an author might be influenced by or reacting against, and understand both the literary and historical context that led to a text’s creation. There are plenty of arguments for a thematic approach as well, of course. Either way, think about how you can build knowledge in one unit that will also be applicable to texts you study later in the year.

2.     Give students the knowledge they need at the exact time that they need it

Reading supplemental texts before and during reading a novel is great for big concepts, but it’s less helpful for the granular details, like the page-cutting example from Gatsby. In these cases, it’s best to be prepared to give them the knowledge at the moment when they need it.

As I’ll discuss in more detail below, ideally this will happen when the students themselves realise that they’re missing some important information. However, especially when you’re getting started, it’s likely that your students will simply skim over the things that don’t make sense to them. You’ll need to slow them down and point out spots where some background knowledge would help.

It’s tempting to take ideas from the floor in this scenario – “does anyone have any ideas for what “didn’t cut the pages” might mean?” – but I try to avoid this. Asking students to fill in this knowledge from their own brains can make them feel as if they’re supposed to already know it, which can be a blow to their belief that they can do well in English. It also invites guessing and the embedding of misconceptions, and there’s no guarantee that your students will remember the correct information they give them and not the wild guesses of their neighbour. So, just tell them what they need to know, and have them apply their brainpower to applying that knowledge to the text.

3.     Integrate extra bits of knowledge into grammar practice and test prep

Ideally, we’d like our knowledge-building to be very systematic, and this is certainly what I’d go for when it comes to planning knowledge related to the major texts in our courses. However, there is so much other knowledge out there that will enrich our students’ lives and help them understand texts and the world better. So, I look for any opportunity to throw a bit more knowledge their way. Thankfully, I don’t have to do a lot of test prep, but if students are preparing for a multiple-choice reading comprehension test I always try to have them practice with passages that are rich in interesting and valuable knowledge.

Run-on Sentence Correction Example from my History of Ancient Literature Collection

The main way I integrate extra knowledge into my teaching, though, is through my grammar teaching. Rather than using super-generic examples and exercises about my students’ everyday lives, I write sentences about knowledge I want my students to know. For instance, run-on sentences are by far the biggest grammar issue I see in my students’ writing, so I wrote a series of over one hundred run-on sentences for them to correct that take them through the history of literature, from the earliest writing to the twentieth century. I start each lesson with one or two of these, always ensuring I include a bit of discussion to get students focusing on the content as well as the grammar. My students won’t remember everything from these exercises, but they’re remember some of it, and that puts them ahead of where they’d be otherwise. Any time our students learn a bit of extra knowledge they’d otherwise miss out on, we’ve done them a great service.

4.     Get students writing about their new knowledge

It’s not enough to just give students new information, or even to have them immediately jump to applying it to the text. If we want students to deeply understand and take ownership of their new knowledge, they need to write about it. This can be as simple as a few sentence-writing tasks that get them putting the information into their own words and expressing it in different ways, or you might assign longer tasks that require them to dig deeper and think about both the big ideas and the small details.

For my students, I normally ask them to write single-sentence answers along the way as they read an article, allowing me to check for understanding while also getting them to engage with the content beyond just highlighting it or reading it back to me. Then, after completing the reading, we’ll write a summary paragraph that requires them to pull out the most important information that they’ve learned. These summary paragraphs become a great resource for them to draw on as we move onto the next stage: using that knowledge to analyse texts.

Teaching students to use background knowledge in their analysis

1.     Make knowledge part of the annotation process

If, like me, you use annotation as your main tool for getting students thinking about the text, you’ll definitely want to make background knowledge a part of the annotation process. If you teach a color-coded system or an acronym that gives your learners some structure to guide them through a text, add in a ‘knowledge’ or ‘context’ component.

A lot of what we’re trying to do here is increase our students’ awareness of when some additional knowledge might help them get more out of a text. Students tend to be quick to assume that if something doesn’t make sense to them, it’s because of a problem with either the text or the student, rather than something we can do something about. I think that a huge part of English teaching is getting students to recognise that there are things they can do when they don’t understand a text.

So, the first thing we want to do is have students mark any parts of the text where they think they’re missing some context. Chances are you already have them marking parts of a text they find confusing, but it’s useful to have them attempt to distinguish between parts where the syntax is a bit tricky and the parts where they need some outside information to help them. This will help them work out what kind of strategy to apply to figure out each confusing bit of text – do they need to slow down and figure out the relationships between the words, or do they need to do some research? Asking this question will also help to ward them off simply typing every challenging line into Google.

In addition to marking their knowledge gaps, I encourage my students to jot down in their annotations when they see a part of the text that they can apply their existing knowledge to. This is a part of recording their thought process about the text. It also wraps in some retrieval practice, since they’ll need to remember the information in enough detail to write it down, and it helps them practice the application of knowledge to their analysis.

2.     Give research time and strategies

Once your students have identified some lines from the text that they think some background knowledge would help them with, give them the time and the strategies they need to find at least some of that information for themselves. This is a chance to develop research skills, too; sometimes, simply typing the relevant part of the text into Google will yield an explanation, but with more obscure texts a bit more digging can be required. This is a chance for students to practice finding key words and skimming multiple sources to find what they need. Obviously, you won’t have time for every student to do this with every text, but weaving a quick research task into a few close reading tasks or assigning a student to be ‘researcher of the day’ will remind your students that the knowledge they need is accessible to them if they take the time to look for it.

3.     Give students the knowledge and ask them to apply it

While having students research the missing knowledge themselves centres the knowledge itself, this approach is a bit more efficient and puts the focus on actually using that knowledge to deepen one’s understanding of a text. The key here is to offer a bit of knowledge without explaining exactly how it applies to the text. Then, hand over the reins to your students and let them do the mental heavy lifting of working out what light that information sheds on what they’ve been reading. I tend to weave this kind of question into my close reading exercises, such as these questions from my short story digital close reading activities:

Knowledge is Power

I hope this post has given you some ideas for how to integrate knowledge-building into your literature classes and use it to help your students think more deeply about the texts they’re studying. This is yet another example of how knowledge-rich teaching isn’t just about stuffing students’ heads full of lists of facts for no apparent purpose – knowing more about the world helps us think more deeply about the world. That’s why I continue to centre knowledge-building in my teaching and in the resources I make for you!

Resources to help you

The majority of the resources I create have a knowledge-building component, but here are a few that I think are particularly relevant for teaching literature:

History of Literature Run-On Sentence Correction Tasks

These will give your students an overview of the literary conventions and intellectual history of the major periods in literary history, while also getting them to practice crucial grammar concepts. Includes a PowerPoint slide option with a related image for each sentence, which provides additional context and is a great jumping-off point for further discussion and knowledge-building.

Run-on Sentence Correction History of Literature Bundle

Short Story Digital Close Reading Tasks

The resources for ‘The Open Window’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ include a slide with important background knowledge, while contextual information is included throughout the ‘Miss Brill’ resource. I’ve focused on providing knowledge about topics that will be useful for other texts as well.

The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe Digital Close Reading
Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield Digital Close Reading
The Open Window by Saki Digital Close Reading

Resources for specific historical periods

My Great Depression Sentence Writing Bundle will get your students writing about the key aspects of this important historical event, and is a great way to establish solid background knowledge before reading The Grapes of Wrath or Esperanza Rising. The tasks are based on an article which is available for free on CommonLit, but can also be used with other sources containing similar information.

If you’re teaching the Odyssey, Greek mythology, or perhaps a contemporary novel set in ancient Greece, my bundle of reading passages and writing tasks will give your students an overview of four key periods in Ancient Greek history. This set includes tasks for writing both sentences and paragraphs to help build deeper knowledge and develop writing skills at the same time.

Great Depression Writing Tasks Bundle
Ancient Greece Reading Passages and Writing Tasks Bundle

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