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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Effective instruction develops students’ skills to make links to prior knowledge

Students’ ability to understand a written text is affected by how much prior knowledge they have about that subject. One of the simplest ways to help your students comprehend a more challenging text is by activating their prior knowledge.

As well as using prior knowledge activities routinely when introducing a next text or writing task, it is important that teachers:

  • identify gaps in students’ knowledge, build necessary background knowledge, and correct misunderstandings
  • help students develop independent strategies for activating and using their own prior knowledge, for example, students could learn to:
    • survey organisational features to ‘get the gist’ then reflect on what they know about that topic and type of text
    • check the adequacy of their prior knowledge as they read.

Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5-8 has a useful section on  prior knowledge that is just as relevant for secondary teachers.

Another useful  overview of the relationship between prior knowledge activation and reading comprehension is also available.

Some activities that are useful for activating students’ prior knowledge:

Some key questions to focus teachers’ inquiry about students’ activation of prior knowledge

  • What student knowledge can I build on in my teaching of this topic or text?
  • What gaps and misunderstandings have to be addressed?
  • Do my students understand why I (as a teacher) routinely provide them with prior knowledge activities before they read or write challenging texts?
  • Do my students routinely activate their own prior knowledge of content and texts before they read or write, for example, on the basis of what they can predict from surveying organisational features before reading?
  • Do my students have strategies for identifying when the prior knowledge they activated is not relevant, or unhelpful?

Extended opportunities to develop strategies for activating prior knowledge:

  • have students engage in a prior knowledge activity such as a brainstorm, concept star, K-W-L, anticipation guide, or discussion
  • teach strategies that students can use to activate their prior knowledge, for example, skimming and scanning a text before reading closely and using that general overview to consider questions such as, “What do I know about this topic?”, “Where have I read a text like this before?”, “What does this remind me of?”
  • cue in their knowledge about the importance of activating prior knowledge, for example, “Remind me, why do we always do activities like this before we read?”

Deepening students’ strategies for activating and making use of their prior knowledge

Consider what you can do to help your students:

  • activate their own prior knowledge, for example, by surveying organisational features of a challenging text and completing a mental K-W-L before reading in more depth
  • select the most appropriate prior knowledge to activate, for example, when reading a mathematics word problem it may be more important to activate knowledge of the problem type than it is to activate prior knowledge of the specific context
  • review and check the accuracy and relevance of their prior knowledge as they read and write
  • activate analogous prior knowledge, for example, if they do not have a direct experience of that context or text type.

Case study

In Aneeta’s science class, students are encouraged to survey organisational features of text and think about their prior knowledge before closely reading any new text. She displays this poster in her room to remind students:

Skim and Predict

Click image to enlarge

Download the following Word document and create your own Skim and Predict poster.

skim and predict (Word 28KB)

Published on: 08 Jan 2018