Have you ever heard a joke and just not "get it?" Did you ever read a magazine while waiting for an oil change and not understand the articles, even though they were in your language? We depend on background knowledge on an everyday basis to make sense of our world. The things that we are exposed to give us a frame of reference with which to connect new and existing information. The kind of background knowledge that we acquire is dependent on many factors, including culture, family, living conditions and socioeconomic status. Although someone many have a wealth of background knowledge about their surroundings, this may not apply to the content being taught in school.

Academic background knowledge is exposure to information that can be related to what is being taught in school. According to Robert Marzano (2004), academic background knowledge is a very strong indicator of student academic success.
The combination of information gathering skills and exposure determine how background knowledge will acquired.

Schools can help students gain academic background knowledge by providing exposure to content related activities either directly - through field trips - or indirectly, through reading and virtual experiences like WebQuests and Virtual Field Trips.

Facilitating acquisition of background knowledge is especially important for English Language Learners (ELLs).

This brief video clip from the movie Outsourced shows the misunderstanding that can occur when there is a lack of background knowledge:
Outsourced - Learning about the products

Carefully designed WebQuests and virtual field trips can help to build academic background knowledge. Although they are similar in design, there are some differences:

What is a WebQuest?
What is a virtual field trip?

An excellent article on designing WebQuests for English Language Learners is: