Prior knowledge. Or as we learned in teacher school, schemata. (Doesn’t that feel like a made up word? It’s fun to say. Schemata. Schemata. Someone needs to write a song…)
Whatever you call it, using our students’ prior knowledge means building on a foundation, not loose sand. You figure out what your students know. And then build on it.
Does the foundation have some chunks missing? No worries. We repair them. Then — build.
‘Cause we all know what happens when we build on sand. The waves come and wash it all away. There’s zero staying power.
What does “activating prior knowledge” look like?
So how do we go about figuring out what our students already know?
The old standby. It’s written into so much of our curriculum.
- K: What do I know (or think I know) about this?
- W: What do I want to know (or learn) about this?
- L: What did I learn?
You can download a premade chart and have students use that. But what I like to do is teach them to make their own. Just have them fold a piece of notebook paper lengthwise to make two columns. Use those for the K and W columns and use the other side of the paper for the L. (Teaching them to make their own graphic organizer creates more independence!)
To make the first two columns more doable for our overwhelmed kids, consider setting a timer for 1-3 minutes. Seeing the end time tick nearer gets them using their time more efficiently and takes the pressure off of producing the perfect answers. (The first time you do this, you’ll want to model how it’s done.)
So before reading reading Wonder, you can tell them to put their pencil at the top of the K column. “You’ll have just two minutes to jot down everything you know about bullying.” or “In three minutes, write down what you think you know about what it’s like to change schools.”
2. Using Art or Pictures for Prior Knowledge
A technique that is becoming more popular is using a photo or painting. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. So try it!
Let’s say you’re running a book group on The Penderwicks. Display a photo or painting of a mansion and ask them to say everything they think is true about the picture.
Then when it’s time for them to start reading, they’ll have a better feel for the unexpected stay the Penderwick girls encounter.
3. Turn and Talk
Have students ping-pong back and forth in a turn and talk. Make a game of it to see how many things they can come up with!
Once your kids have brainstormed all they know about a subject, you need to get a read on their understanding (or lack of understanding).
Collect their work or do a group brainstorm together. Write down all the ideas on chart paper even if you know some of their ideas are wrong. (Later, after your lesson or read aloud, you’ll go back and correct any misconceptions. But for now, leave ’em. They’ll stand out later!)
While this works with any subject, it’s particularly useful when teaching active reading strategies.
Why prior knowledge works
Brainstorming what they already know gets learners’ brains primed. It’s a review for them. And it’s assessment for you.
And when it’s time for the lesson or book? They’ll notice where they were right and wrong. (Both forms of feedback are equally important to the brain!) So if that foundation has cracks (or misconceptions) you’ll correct them together. And then build on that foundation with more learning.
If kids don’t take this crucial step or activating prior knowledge. then they’re less invested. Consequently, they don’t learn or retain as much.
It’s like when you bought your last car. You never noticed that car before. But now, when you drive around town, you notice when someone else is driving “your” car, right? Same thing with building on prior knowledge. They notice when new facts support (or don’t support) their preconceived ideas! It jumps out the same way!
If you’ve “activated their schemata” — sounds like a medical procedure! — then pat yourself on the back. Go you!
If you haven’t, give it a try this week! You’re going to be amazed at how much more your students remember your lessons.
More Active Reading Strategies You Might Like
Ready to learn other active reading strategies?
- Why Turn and Talk is Like Diamond Earrings
- Text to Text Connections (and Swimming Pools) in 4th Grade
Now It’s Your Turn!
Tell us in the comments below:
- How do you figure out the prior knowledge of your students?
- What will you try this week?
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