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Building Background Knowledge in the High School English Classroom

Deborah Reck
March 4, 2024
Riveting Results Blog

The typical approach to building background knowledge is first to give students non-fiction texts that provide the particular knowledge they need to understand and appreciate a complex piece of literature. But I’ve long wondered how to get high school students interested in those non-fiction texts that are simply providing the background knowledge for a reading experience to come.

When students are reading these dry informational texts, they have no inkling about what they need to get from the texts in order to read the piece of literature to come. Younger kids might do that kind of reading just to be compliant or out of a desire to simply learn new facts about the world. But assume groggy adolescents whose first inclination is to put their heads down, or poke the kid next to them. How do we get those students to muster the energy necessary to dive into a dry text that imparts what probably seem like random facts?

In the process of piloting a new unit around the play Twelve Angry Men, I’ve noticed something that may be useful about sequencing texts to build background knowledge. Instead of giving the students background information about the rights of a defendant and the history of jury trials before reading the play, we had them read the play first and then read the 6th and 7th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Instead of the English teacher (who is more comfortable doing textual analysis than teaching history) explaining why these seminal texts mattered, students, who, by acting out the play, had entered into the experience of real people determining the fate of a defendant, could figure out a rationale for the key legal phrases that the amendments’ authors included in our country’s founding documents. 

One student, Gabriela, wrote about the fact that eleven of the twelve jurors started the discussion sure that the defendant was guilty and should be executed. She quotes the juror who calls the defendant “a common ignorant slob” and then she points out that the 6th amendment makes sure that “everyone has the right to a trial even if most people don’t like that person and think he is automatically guilty and does not need a trial. That person is a human being who has the right to ‘a public trial by an impartial jury.’”

Let us know if you are interested in piloting our new unit around the play, Twelve Angry Men. It doesn’t require any software other than Google Classroom. 

Deborah Reck

Chief Product Officer

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