William L. Christen and Thomas J. Murphy
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English,
has been conducted to determine the value of providing activities or strategies
to assist in providing students with ways to activate their prior knowledge base.
Studies looked at three possibilities: (1) building readers' background knowledge;
(2) activating readers' existing background knowledge and attention focusing BEFORE
reading; and (3) guiding readers DURING reading and providing review AFTER reading.
appears that when readers lack the prior knowledge necessary to read, three major
instructional interventions need to be considered: (1) teach vocabulary as a prereading
step; (2) provide experiences; and (3) introduce a conceptual framework that will
enable students to build appropriate background for themselves.
VOCABULARY (to increase learning from text materials) probably requires that the
words to be taught must be key words in the target passages (Beck, et al, 1982;
Kameenui, Carnine, et al, 1982), that words be taught in semantically and topically
related sets so that word meaning and background knowledge improve concurrently
(Beck et al., 1982; Stevens, 1982), and that only a few words be taught per lesson
and per week (Beck et al., 1982; Kameenui et al., 1982; Stevens, 1982). To be
an effective strategy, an extensive and long-term vocabulary strand accompanying
a parallel schematic or background-knowledge-development strand is probably called
on ENRICHING BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE has demonstrated that activating such knowledge
increases comprehension. Graves and his associates (1980; 1983) developed previews
for short stories that had, as one component, the building of prior knowledge
important to understanding the selection. Data indicated that reading the previews
before reading the stories increased students' learning from stories by a significant
and impressive amount. Stevens (1982) increased learning from text compared with
a control group for 10th-grade students reading a history passage by teaching
them relevant background information for that passage. Hayes and Tierney (1982)
found that presenting background information related to the topic to be learned
helped readers learn from texts regardless of how that background information
was presented or how specific or general it was. Alvarez (1990) used case-based
instruction to develop students' abilities to assemble and incorporate different
knowledge sources in memory. He taught them how to employ thematic organizers
and hierarchical concept mapping in their reading.
scant attention is paid to the role of the reader's schemata, or background knowledge,
when learning from text (Tierney & Pearson, 1985). Yet research clearly emphasizes
that for learning to occur, new information must be integrated with what the learner
already knows (Rumelhart, 1980).
appears that providing students with strategies to activate their prior knowledge
base or to build a base if one does not exist is supported by the current research.
It is our contention that this is one way teachers can have a positive influence
on comprehension in their classrooms.
example, Reutzel and Morgan (1990) advocate two pedagogical alternatives for teachers
who wish to improve students' comprehension of causal relations which often are
implicit in content area textbooks. Teachers may rewrite the text to make the
cohesion relations explicit (a daunting task), or they may assist students in
building, modifying, or elaborating their background knowledge prior to reading
expository texts. Miholic (1990) outlines the construction of a semantic map for
textbooks which he recommends for use at adult, secondary, and college level.
For a class of gifted seventh grade students, Davis and Winek (1989) developed
a project for building background knowledge so that the students could generate
topics for writing articles in history. The teachers devoted one class period
a week for eight weeks to various group activities to build background knowledge,
culminating in prewriting activities focused on brainstorming for the eighth week.
The articles were then written by the students at home.
students in prior knowledge experiences becomes a form in classrooms where teachers
value understanding what knowledge students possess. We know that prior knowledge
is an important step in the learning process. It is a major factor in comprehension:
that is, making sense of our learning experiences. Brain-based research confirms
the fact that the learning environment needs to provide a setting that incorporates
stability and familiarity. It should be able to satisfy the mind's enormous curiosity
and hunger for discovery, challenge, and novelty. Creating an opportunity to challenge
our students to call on their collective experiences (prior knowledge) is essential.
Through this process we move students from memorizing information to meaningful
learning and begin the journey of connecting learning events rather than remembering
bits and pieces. Prior knowledge is an essential element in this quest for making
OF PRIOR KNOWLEDGE
generally fall into three categories: MUCH, SOME, or LITTLE prior knowledge. In
each instance, the teacher will make specific instructional decisions based on
what is discovered in the prior knowledge part of the lesson. To check out what
prior knowledge exists about a topic, idea, or concept, you may choose to do some
of the following activities:
the topic. Write all the information solicited from the students on the chalkboard,
a piece of paper, or transparency
specific and/or general questions about the topic. See what responses are given.
a PROBLEM or a SCENARIO. Based on this description, find out what the students
know about the idea presented.
the data is collected, a decision about the appropriate forms of instruction can
be made. The following diagram can be helpful:
superordinate concepts; definitions; analogies; linking.
attributes; defining characteristics.
associations; morphemes; sound alikes; firsthand experiences.
should remember to
information which builds:
don't tell through
outside resources, trips and speakers
about topic from your experience
any combination of the above!
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at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston,
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Isabel L. et al. "Effects of Long-Term Vocabulary Instruction on Lexical
Access and Reading Comprehension." Journal of Educational Psychology 74(4)
August 1982, 506-21. EJ 267 794
Susan J. and Janice Winek. "Improving Expository Writing by Increasing Background
Knowledge." Journal of Reading 33(3) December 1989, 178-81. EJ 402 129
Michael F. and C.L. Cook. "Effects of Previewing Difficult Short Stories
for High School Students." Research on Reading in Secondary Schools 6, 1980,
Michael F. et al. "Effects of Previewing Difficult Short Stories on Low Ability
Junior High School Students' Comprehension Recall, and Attitudes." Reading
Research Quarterly 18(3) Spring 1983, 262-76. EJ 279 344
David A. and Robert J. Tierney. "Developing Readers Knowledge through Analogy."
Reading Research Quarterly 17(2), 1982, 256-80. EJ 257 814
Edward J. et al. "Effects of Text Construction and Instructional Procedure
for Teaching Word Meanings on Comprehension and Recall." Reading Research
Quarterly 17(3) 1982, 367-88. EJ 261 430
Vincent. "Constructing a Semantic Map for Textbooks." Journal of Reading
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D. Ray and Bonnie C. Morgan. "Effects of Prior Knowledge, Explicitness, and
Clause Order on Children's Comprehension of Causal Relationships." Reading
Psychology 11(2) 1990, 93-109. EJ 408 397
Donald E. "Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition." In Rand J. Spiro
et al., Eds. Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension (33-58). Hillsdale, NJ:
Kathleen C. "Can We Improve Reading by Teaching Background Information?"
Journal of Reading 25(4) January 1982, 326-29. EJ 257 791
Robert J. and P. David Pearson. "Learning to Learn from Texts: A Framework
for Improving Classroom Practice." In H.S. Singer and R.B. Ruddell, Eds.
Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (860-78). Newark, DE: International
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publication was prepared (Digest#61, EDO-CS-91-04, May 1991) with funding from
the U.S. Department of Education under contract number RI88062001, and published
by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication.
opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or
policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products,
or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.