Accessing Prior Knowledge
When students read, their prior knowledge greatly impacts how they comprehend a text and learn new information from it. This prior knowledge includes both school-based and personal experiences, including previous instruction, academic and out-of-school texts, personal experiences, videos and movies, and discussions with teachers and peers. It is critical that readers are able to connect this prior knowledge to new learning for the most effective understanding of text ideas.
But prior knowledge isn’t just what students know about the topic itself; it’s also what they know about how to read a particular type of text, such as understanding the text structure, text features, language structures, and strategies for learning new information.
For example, students may come to a history unit about abolition knowing something about the slave trade, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. But they may also have an understanding of how to identify organizational text structures often found in history texts (e.g., cause and effect, problem/solution), how to use different text features that support informational text (e.g., headings, captions, timelines), and/or how to analyze, synthesize, and corroborate ideas by comparing and contrasting sources on the same topic.
Given that students will have a range of prior knowledge as they begin a particular reading, teachers need to assess the text (what prior knowledge is necessary for effective comprehension of new content) and the students (what they already know). Based on this assessment, teachers decide what content knowledge students need to develop, how to access it using a variety of resources, and how to help students connect what they know to new learning. It’s important to note that even when students possess prior knowledge, they often need reminders to activate and connect it to specific reading situations.
Setting a Purpose for Reading
Many students, especially struggling readers, have difficulty determining important information during and after reading, particularly as the disciplinary texts become more complex. Having a specific purpose for reading will support students’ comprehension of important text ideas, focus their attention on the text and accompanying text features, and provide motivation for learning new content. However, too often, students are given a generic purpose, such as reading a chapter to answer concluding questions. In this case, the purpose is simply to complete a task after reading.
In contrast, a specific purpose should address the text content—important information, key concepts, and author’s purpose or point of view. For example, in science, students may read to compare and contrast features of sustainable and non-sustainable energy. In math, they may read real world earthquake measurement data and use that information to create and interpret a graph.
In the earlier grades, teachers usually set a purpose for students before they read. However, the goal of this important component of reading is for students to learn how to set their own purpose as independent readers. As students become more proficient readers in each discipline, teachers may continue to model setting a purpose while still encouraging students to determine their own purpose, build upon their knowledge, and think more critically about text ideas. Setting a purpose often occurs before reading; however, as students read, they may revise their purposes and set new goals for learning. For example, a student may set an initial reading purpose of identifying the causes of the Civil War. During reading, the student may refine this purpose to focus on specific causes related to different geographical regions of the United States. In science, students may set a purpose for reading an article on climate change to understand the factors related to this issue. As they read, they may revise this purpose to discover specific human behavior that affects climate change. Again, this sophistication develops as a student gains an expanding view of the topic.
Using Prior Knowledge to Set a Purpose
Not surprisingly, students’ ability to set their own purpose for reading is closely tied to their prior knowledge. In other words, students must have a general understanding related to the topic in order to set a purpose for reading about it. A familiar strategy for connecting prior knowledge with purposes for reading is the KWL (Know-Want to Know-Learn) strategy (Ogle, D., 1986). With this practice, students determine what they already know about a topic, what information they want to know related to the topic, and finally, what they learned after reading and discussion. This process promotes connecting prior knowledge to new information, which leads to effective learning. Charting these understandings helps students to engage in the process of reading to learn. Also, teachers must have a clear understanding of what needs to be learned about a topic, because in many instances students have difficulty identifying what they want to learn due to limited understanding of the topic. These student and teacher understandings before reading influence the teaching that will occur.
Ogle, D. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. The Reading Teacher, 39 (6), 564-570.
Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.
Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” and part 2: “Literacy in the 21st Century.”