6: Accessing and Activating Prior Knowledge

In cognitive student strategy 5, we discussed the importance of background knowledge and some ways that teachers can make use of what students already know.  Prior knowledge, learning that students gain as a result of their school experiences, is equally important.  We can think about the role of prior knowledge in two ways: activating what is already known and building new knowledge, which serves as prior knowledge when students read. Teachers who collaborate with each other and who know something of what others teach increase the probability that their students will be able to activate that knowledge from other content areas or earlier grade levels in service of reading.  As with background knowledge, what a teacher does before the students read a given text is critical. Many of the classroom structures discussed in the next section are designed, among other things, to activate both background and prior knowledge.

Learning to Predict

  1. Pay attention to vocabulary that is derived from the selection students are about to read. There are many activities that promote vocabulary knowledge, though these are beyond the scope of this book.  Students who have learned something about the vocabulary they will encounter will read more fluently and with greater comprehension because they will not have to spend cognitive resources dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary. It helps to think of vocabulary as words that represent concepts from the content and represented in the reading rather than as separate vocabulary-building activities that have no relation to the reading.  In addition to classroom structures designed to introduce vocabulary or activate the prior knowledge the reader already has about the concept, teachers can facilitate word learning by using the words in speech with students (embedding the sentences with strategically placed synonyms), seeing the words written on chalkboards (we know—there are more and more white boards, these days), having students try out the words in small group activities, and so on.    
  2. When teaching content like social studies or science, teachers can facilitate building prior knowledge before students read by thinking about the activities already planned. For example, in science, a teacher may have planned a lab experience, a demonstration, and reading a course text.  It may be beneficial for students to watch the demonstration or even participate in the lab before reading the material; the authentic experiences of the lab and demonstration build knowledge that will make reading a more meaningful experience for students.  Reading about things that are somewhat familiar is reading that makes sense.
  3. As with background knowledge, prior knowledge can help direct students’ attention to important attributes of the content in the reading selection which enhances good predictions.

Applications and Examples

Secondary Classroom.  When Chad Semling’s sixth-grade social studies students learn about economics, he introduces the important vocabulary from the text to them in advance with a strategy called “Meet and Greet.” Note that some words will be familiar (such as “want”) while other terms will be fairly new (recession).

Figure 6.1

Words I Know Words I Have Seen or Heard but Do Not Use Words I Have Never Seen or Heard.

Secondary Classroom: Analogy Boxes. Analogy boxes (Rule & Furletti, 2004) are a concept learning tool teachers might use to improve how students compare what they learn with what they need to learn.  Analogy boxes are included in this section about prior knowledge because students learn to find and compare common attributes of an analog and target and they learn content that improves the prior knowledge students can bring to bear in approaching reading tasks.  To create analogy boxes, teachers make a set of cards from a current unit of study that represents an analog including a form and a function.  Then, the teacher will create a card that corresponds to the target concept. The cars are placed in a box, hence “analogy boxes.”

When students are given the boxes, they must select a target card and sort through the analog cards to find an analogous relationship.  Once this is done, students map the analogy showing the relations of the analogy; in the example, this is done by underlining. In the final step, students create a chart showing the target, the analogy, and the similarities and the differences.  Students might also be asked to provide an alternate analog other than the one provided on the analog cards.  See Figure 6.2

Figure 6.2


Elementary Classroom.  During their unit on “people who make a difference,” second grade teacher Heather Mills wanted her students to read a number of biographies about famous Americans.  She planned to extend this unit of study to people who have made a difference across the world and across time, but based on her students’ background knowledge, she decided to focus on people that her students knew personally.  She started the unit with a class discussion about the idea, “people who make a difference.”  Ms. Mills asked, “who is it that has made a difference in your lives and what did those people do?”  The class discussion was lively, and Ms. Mills recorded the responses to this question on a language chart.  The language chart would serve as a record of the class knowledge that each student could refer back to during his or her personal investigation.  Over several discussions, the class agreed upon characteristics of people who made a difference, including: cares, didn’t get paid to do it, was in the right place, and so on.

As they selected the American who made a difference to profile, students used their prior knowledge and new information about characteristics to make predictions about the people they were studying.  During their small group discussions about the Americans they studied, they extended their prior knowledge by adding to the characteristics with examples.

Eventually, when they studied people around the world who had made a positive impact, they had developed significant prior knowledge such that they predicted what the biographies would contain and were to find the information they were looking for.

Figure 6.1 In his own words: Chad Semling, Menomonie Middle School, Menomonie, Wisconsin.

A Strategy to Pre-Assess Students’ Vocabulary Knowledge

Economics Vocabulary: bond, barter, capital, consumer, depression, demand, dividend, economic interdependence, entrepreneur, equilibrium point, federal Reserve Banks, Gross Domestic Product, law of demand/supply, need, producer, recession, service, single proprietorship, and want

Meet and Greet (Chapman & King, 2003) is such a simple yet seemingly effective way to pre-assess what students already know.  The strategy presents a very clear picture of what vocabulary students do know and which still need to be developed.  Each student is presented with a list of words and then fills in the chart like the one below.  Both teacher and student learn what words the student should attend to the most in developing their vocabulary and associated concepts.


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