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Background Knowledge Instruction and the Implications for UDL Implementation


Nicole Strangman, Tracey Hall, and Anne Meyer


National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum (NCAC)




Reading to learn is a fundamental literacy skill and one closely tied to success in all areas of the curriculum. This article examines the research on instructional approaches to support students’ use of background knowledge. Specialized forms of background include subject matter knowledge, strategy knowledge, personal knowledge, and self-knowledge. Applications across areas of the curriculum are discussed including evidence for effectiveness as a learning enhancement, effectiveness of strategies for building prior knowledge, and effectiveness of strategies for activating prior knowledge. Factors that may influence these areas are included. Direct instruction on background knowledge, student reflection on and recording of background knowledge, and activation of background knowledge through questioning emerge as best supported approaches. Next, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is discussed  as a theoretical framework to guide the design and development of learning environments that represent materials in flexible ways and offers a variety of options for learners to comprehend information, demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and be motivated to learn. Ways of developing and activating student background knowledge that support UDL at both the theoretical and teacher practice levels, better meeting the needs of diverse students, are identified. Lastly, general guidelines for UDL implementation and a list of Web resources are provided.

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Strangman, N., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. (2004). Background knowledge instruction and the implications for UDL implementation. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. (Links updated 2009). Retrieved [insert date] from

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