by Tim Shanahan
- Don’t overdo it. Research shows that providing readers with key information about a text can improve comprehension, as does reminding them of relevant information that they already know. But in the research studies these things were usually accomplished pretty economically; often the researcher did not do more than tell students the topic. To stimulate students to use what they know while reading doesn’t take more than this: “We’re going to read a story about a family vacation.” It doesn’t require having each student in the group tell a story about his or her family vacation. Students can make sense of a text without a 15-minute discussion of what they already know about a topic. It’s simply not necessary.
- Respect the reader-text relationship. Whatever pre-reading information about at text that you provide should not be information that will be stated or implied by the selection. It is usually enough to tell students the topic and/or the genre. “This is a history chapter about the American Revolution.” Or, “ this is a science fiction story.” Anything you reveal ahead of time is something students won’t have to figure out from reading—which means you are swiping their opportunity to learn.
- Don’t be afraid to fill students in on some appropriate background information. Remember, many texts used for teaching were not originally written for students—they may even be texts from another era—so the author may have assumed his or her readers would know certain things; certain things that your students might not know. It’s hard to imagine William Shakespeare didn’t presume his audience knew Julius Caesar was a Roman emperor. Telling kids that information won’t hurt a thing. What Shakespeare didn’t bank on was the cultural literacy of the average 21st century American ninth graders, who might not even know there was a Roman empire. Filling kids in on some of that assumed context won’t hurt anything.
- Excerpts are special. How often do you read chapter 5 of a novel? Obviously that’s something most of us don’t do. But students are often taught to read from anthologies aimed at providing them a breadth of experience with valuable literary artifacts. Nothing wrong with that. But excerpts create a special problem for readers—the author has made pertinent information available earlier in the text, but the reader in this case is cut off from that info. When guiding students to read excerpts, providing them with key information omitted during the excerpting process is appropriate.
- Use multiple readings to solve the prior knowledge problems. If a text is only going to be read once, and students are to gain full understanding, then conducting a thorough review of existing prior knowledge might seem like a powerful introduction. But what if, “money read” would be the second one, and the first reading would be used to create prior knowledge (students would use the knowledge drawn from their first reading go through to buttress their second reading)?
- Culturally different students may benefit from a different prior knowledge input. Not all kids know the same things. Not much we can do about that. However, you might have students from particular cultural groups who may lack key information because of their background. What is it that Guatemalan or Chinese immigrant children may not know about the culture shown in a particular text? Or if “mainstream” students are reading about Chinese culture, what would they need to know to make sense of that material?
- Only deal with prior knowledge if it is likely to raise a comprehension problem. Years ago, Hansen and Pearson showed the value of focusing kids on topics relevant to the comprehension issues at hand rather than to the text topics themselves. Thus, if the point of the text is to explore the nature of friendship, inventorying what students know about Europe isn’t likely to help even if the friendship in the story takes place in Europe). Not all prior knowledge is equal when it comes to making sense of a text.
- Prior knowledge issues can be addressed during and after reading. I often read about topics I don’t know about, and it isn’t much of a problem. What I don’t grasp right away, I can often figure out from the text itself. I rarely look up information prior to reading, but I might fill some gaps with Google along the way or I may do that after the reading. Avoid exploring what kids know ahead of time if it will spoil the reading (point 7 above suggests focusing on the key ideas, but if done before reading it may simply be revealing what the text is really about). During reading, I might ask students questions. If they are missing a key point and don’t seem able to grasp it, I can ask a question about their awareness of some outside information that may jump start their thinking (“Have you ever been called a name like that? How did it make you feel?”—a sequence of questions that would stimulate the use of prior knowledge at a key point in the story without taking kids too far afield).
- Do not focus on prior knowledge for texts that present information that will challenge readers’ current concepts. Science texts often tell us things that run counter to our perceptions of the world. A famous example is the explanation of the path of a falling ball dropped by a runner; the actual path runs counter to most people’s expectations. Some teachers want to get kids to predict the paths—to apply their prior knowledge—to prepare for reading. But that’s a bad idea because it increases the chance students won’t grasp the explanation. Prior knowledge is a two-edged sword—it can increase learning and it can encourage readers to impose their own beliefs on a text.
- Analogies are a powerful way to bring prior knowledge to bear on a text. Just because I don’t know much about a topics doesn’t mean I don’t know anything that’s relevant. For example, I know next to nothing about cricket. But I do know some things about baseball that I might be able to use to try to understand a cricket article. But what if I weren’t a long-suffering Cub fan? Then, I’d use what I know about games or sports competition to help me make sense of it. I might not know how one scores in cricket, but I suspect scoring is important—it is a game—so I’d use that insight to guide my attention towards how one scores. Prior knowledge does not have to be specific knowledge – another good reason not to send students off to inventory what they already know about a subject; that’s overkill.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Tim Shanahan is a member of the CDL Professional Advisory Board.