Teach Kids to Build Their Own Prior Knowledge

By Laura Robb

“Build prior knowledge.”

In the Common Core era, these three familiar words of advice cause frustration in teachers, and their frustration trickles down to students. Why? Because many state education departments have requested that teachers not build students’ prior knowledge before reading.

The Common Core recommendation that supports this stance is that students need to engage in close reading to comprehend unfamiliar, complex texts. “Let students read a text three or four times—even more if necessary—reading closely until they can unpack its meaning.” That’s the advice teachers hear today.

This strategy, reading without prior knowledge, developed because the Common Core’s goal is for students to be able to read grade-level complex texts by the end of the school year. But it is untenable. As P. David Pearson points out:

“It is not as though prior knowledge was an ‘optional’ cognitive move that one could turn on or turn off at will. A reader cannot build a text base or a situation model without invoking relevant prior knowledge; there is nothing voluntary about it.”

(from “Research Foundations of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts, p. 255, In Quality Reading Instruction in the Age of Common Core Standards, Newman & Gambrell, Editors, 2013, International Reading Association).

To Build or Not to Build Prior Knowledge

Catherine E. Snow, professor of education at Harvard Graduate School, calls reading unfamiliar texts with no prior knowledge “cold close reading.”

Dr. Snow tried cold close reading on an unfamiliar topic. Here’s what she said about her experience:

“…cold close reading was often unproductive. It was discouraging. I found I couldn’t read about the unfamiliar topics for more than a few minutes at a time, and that I was exhausted at the end of such efforts.” (Reading Today, June 6, 2013).

If Catherine E. Snow – a brilliant researcher, teacher, and writer – had difficulty with cold close reading because she lacked prior knowledge, why have the framers of the Common Core recommended this reading practice for elementary, middle, and high school students?

Having taught middle school students for more than 40 years, I recognize that if a task is too difficult and the material is not relevant to students’ lives, their attitude becomes “Why bother?”

Moreover, a close reading of the students in any public school classroom across the United States reveals a diversity of experience and reading expertise. Mandates among states for cold close reading not only frustrate and greatly diminish motivation and engagement for grade-level readers, but they are particularly damaging for English language learners, special education students, learning disabled students, and students reading two or more years below grade level.

I am all for raising the bar; I am for helping students think deeply about texts and explore multiple layers of meaning. I am not for discouraging students by pushing them to “read” texts with vocabulary, content, and syntax demands far beyond their instructional reading levels.

If we want to stretch students’ reading ability by developing their reading skill, then it’s important to set the stage for reading complex, unfamiliar texts by helping students build prior knowledge before reading, so close reading becomes a positive and engaging experience that’s within their reach. Snow calls this a “warm close reading.”

For our students, a warm close reading should also mean that they are reading complex texts at their instructional level—texts they can comprehend. Because we teachers know that if students can’t comprehend a text, they can’t learn from it.

Teach Students to Activate Their Prior Knowledge

After Common Core proponents announced that teachers should not spend time activating and/or constructing students’ prior knowledge, I felt frustrated and angry. Why? Because teachers and educational researchers recognize that prior knowledge and experiences, stored in the brain as schema, improve students’ comprehension.

Once my anger and frustration over the CCSS cold close-reading recommendations abated, I directed my energy to developing a method that would put students in charge of activating their own prior knowledge. As I tested the method among students, I learned from their reactions that they prized the strategy because it developed independence and supported the reading they did on mandated state tests.

Tips For Modeling the Prior Knowledge Lesson

Use an anchor or teaching text to think aloud and show students how you activate prior knowledge. Anchor texts are short and relate to the theme or topic you’re teaching. You can use a picture book, a short text such as a myth, or an excerpt from a long text. Throughout the unit, you’ll be able to return to the anchor text to review a skill or strategy you’ve modeled with students.

Follow the steps for activating prior knowledge listed below; you’ll also find a handout for students at the end of this article. I suggest that you immediately engage students in the lesson so they invest in the strategy and listen to your think aloud. Here’s how you can involve students in the model lesson:

  • Read the title out loud. Ask: “Do I know anything about this topic?” If you don’t, then tell yourself to slow down the reading and reread confusing parts.
  • Read aloud the preview sections: the first two paragraphs and the last paragraph if the text is nonfiction.
  • Organize students into partners.
  • Have partners turn and talk about all the details they recall from listening to the first two paragraphs and the last paragraph.
  • Start writing the prior knowledge notes on chart paper or a whiteboard.
  • Ask students to volunteer to add details to the prior knowledge notes.
  • Have partners use their prior knowledge notes or the title of the selection to set a purpose for their first reading.

Model the process for students until you feel they can build their own prior knowledge with an instructional or independent reading text. Ask students to turn and talk about details recalled from the preview for three to four months.

Next, tell students that talking to a partner is a dress rehearsal for in-the-head conversations with themselves because that is what they will do on mandated reading tests.

I recommend that teachers stop paired conversations about three to four months before the state tests and have students practice in-their-head discussions independently. (You can also find the following handout on page 9 of this PDF.)

Closing Thoughts

Students can build their own prior knowledge and set purposes when reading longer texts as well. With fiction and nonfiction, they read the title, study the cover illustrations, and read the first chapter.

Not only does the strategy develop independence with learning, but it also offers students a way to build prior knowledge on a topic they know little to nothing about.

You’ll find guidelines for this lesson, 45 complex texts, teaching units for seven genres, and much more in Unlocking Complex Texts: A Systematic Framework for Building Adolescents Comprehension by Laura Robb (Scholastic 2013). See a MiddleWeb review here.

Laura Robb is a Literacy Coach at Powhatan School in Boyce, Virginia where she coaches teachers in grades K to 8. She also teaches students all year in public schools in and around Winchester VA. Robb is a veteran educator with over 43 years of teaching experience to her credit. Her many books weave classroom strategies with research-based practices. Visit her website.

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