Prior Knowledge: Can We Really Level the Playing Field?

  • Common Core State Standards
  • 10 November, 2014

            Spoiler alert: This blog entry is a two-parter. The first part (today’s entry) describes a problem to which the second entry will offer some nifty practical solutions (nope, no practical solutions today).

            An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).
            Research findings were very clear: readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.  
            Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that reader’s knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.
            Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading may have to be. If you already know much of what the author is going to say, you can kind of go on autopilot just watching for the new stuff. Your less informed classmates are going to have to attend to the text more carefully, trying to build up all of this information in their heads, proposition by proposition.   
            Let’s face it, if you have to figure out and remember 100 facts from a text and I only need to learn 50 facts from it (since I already had the other 50), then I’m going to look like I comprehended more.
            Another reason prior knowledge helps is that no author ever fully explains anything. There are always inferences that need to be drawn and connections that have to be made. Sometimes readers have to sort out an ambiguity in the text’s wording, and so on. All of those challenges are easier to deal with from a basis of knowledge.
            And prior knowledge affects memory matters, too. If I already have a lot of information in my memory about the ideas presented in this text, then storing the new information within those already created structures gets easier, too. (There’s a reason that P. David Pearson has long defined reading comprehension as “connecting the new with the known.”)            
          However, there are costs to prior knowledge as well. Research has shown that readers will sometimes allow their current beliefs to overwhelm the author’s message. Thus, readers thinking they understand how the physical world works (based on their perceptions of their experiences with processes like gravity), will disregard the author’s explanation of what scientists have figured out in favor of staying with their prior (though incorrect) “knowledge.”
            Of course, in most reading prior knowledge doesn’t make us miss the author’s message altogether, but it may lead us to read less carefully (since we assume that we already know it, we don’t need to put in the effort and, thus, miss the nuance). Reading less reflectively or thoughtfully, weighing the author’s words to a lesser degree, and so on, can’t be good. 
            Based on such research findings, school reading programs have gone off the deep end with prior knowledge discussions (maybe you have seen the ads for “Basals Gone Wild” videos on late night cable). Such activities had already been long in evidence--at least since the birth of the “teacher’s guide” in basal readers--but since 1975 the “Background” activities seem to have exploded.
            That means if kids are to read a story about a family vacation, there will need to be an extended discussion of family vacations prior to any reading. Of course, everybody has to be able to tell about their vacations and, perhaps, for the kids who haven’t had one, the teacher can have them talk about where they would like to go (we could call that pretend prior knowledge, I guess). 
            Apparently, there is no school text that wouldn’t benefit from a 15-minute discussion of prior knowledge before reading.
            Enter Common Core (the plot thickens). CCSS emphasizes “close reading” and a key idea of close reading is to interpret what is in the text rather than examining one’s presuppositions, the author’s biography, or other sources of information external to the text.
            Some CCSS proponents have gone so far as to claim that not discussing prior knowledge or asking questions about what children already know will somehow level the playing field when it comes to reading comprehension. Their hope is that the poor kids and the rich kids will then be held accountable for the same work—making sense of the information that they all had equal access to in the text itself. 
            That sounds great (I’m for poor kids, too), but it ignores a basic fact about reading: Prior knowledge plays a role in text interpretation whether there is a background discussion or not. 
            We can make it look like the playing field has been evened by not talking about prior knowledge, but the more advantaged kids will then just appear to be smarter and better when it comes to reading (since all or most of the advantages of having prior knowledge will still be there). 
            Funny thing is that I agree with those critics who think we’ve gone off the deep end when it comes to prior knowledge in reading. The discussions go on too long. The questions about it aren’t thoughtful or strategic. Frankly, our instructional practices don’t seem especially consistent with the research studies. In other words, we have taken a valuable set of insights and turned them into a dogmatic and inflexible set of practices that accomplish very little.
            What role should prior knowledge play in classroom reading discussions and how should teachers handle prior knowledge in the classroom? For some brilliant (yeah, right) answers to these provocative questions, tune in next time.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Mike Jun 13, 2017 06:37 PM


It seems as if the rationale for not discussing prior knowledge would not be to "level the playing field," but rather to have students practice reading carefully rather than as you said, "allow[ing] their current beliefs to overwhelm the author’s message." I can't say whether or not this is a valid strategy, but seems interesting, and a much more likely explanation for why some are setting aside discussions prior to reading.

Of course our prior knowledge influences our thinking as we read, whether or not we discuss before reading. However, would there be some merit in asking students to consider the idea of "setting aside" (to the extent possible), what they think they know, and read through text carefully to understand the author's message, explanation, etc?

Perhaps they could write what down (offload) what they think they know and physically fold or set aside their notes before reading to simulate the idea of setting aside preconceptions, and then review their notes after reading.

Aren't there times where we encounter complex texts (I can think of college science texts I had) and we have no "good" background knowledge to bring to bear? Is there a way to teach students to recognize when this might be the case?


Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:38 PM



Good insights these. You are correct that although the "level the playing field" argument holds no water, that doesn't mean that there are other reasons to tone down the prior knowledge emphasis. Indeed, it is essential that we not allow the readers' interpretations to overwhelm the text (and that is more likely to happen when you champion readers' knowledge overall), and there definitely are times when readers know little about a topic and kids need to know how to read in those situations, too.

In my next post, I'll make some suggestions about what to do when prior knowledge is low. Actually, there are several studies about texts that violate reader's preconceptions (some of them done by my wife, Cyndie). I'll address that issue in the next post.

thanks for your thoughtful contribution.

Amy Sparks Jun 13, 2017 06:38 PM


In the second paragraph of this article you state: "an idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn't talk about students' "prior knowledge," and that such avoiding such discussions somehow "levels the playing field" when it come to learning to read."
I have never heard this idea suggested during discussions regarding Common Core. Can you please elaborate? Can you cite an article or other forum in which it has been suggested that prior knowledge should be limited in order to "level the playing field" for students? I'd be interested in reading these sources. Thank you in advance.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:39 PM


I can get you started down this road, but there are so many quotes and there has been so much discussion I can't provide anything like a definitive summary of the arguments on both sides.

Here are some David Liben, School Achievement Partners, quotes from recent stories that have run on National Public Radio and American Radio Works.

Here is one example from those sources:
“David Liben, who works for Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit set up by the authors of the Common Core to help teachers put the standards into practice, says the “text to self” technique often puts kids from poor families at a disadvantage in the classroom. He says if assignments are about kids’ “experience outside the text, that privileges those children who have that experience outside the text.” But when students have to cite evidence from a text, they can all find something to say, says Liben.”

Or how about this quote from the Gettysburg Address lessons of School Achievement Partners?
The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset…This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address."

Or here is some of the push back (yes, it has been a subject of public discussion):

“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.” P David Pearson
(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).

Or this piece published by Catherine Snow:
Cold Versus Warm Close Reading: Stamina and the Accumulation of Misdirection (June 6, 2013)

I think if you go back to the original version of the the Advice to Publishers released by David Coleman and Susan Pimentel through the Chief State School Officers you will find the beginnings of the argument.

My summation of the arguments from the CCSS side: given that kids are unequal in their knowledge, it is unfair to focus on such information in reading. The response: it doesn't matter whether you focus on it or not, knowledge makes a difference in reading, so teaching students to use what they know is a good idea.

What Are your thoughts?

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Prior Knowledge: Can We Really Level the Playing Field?


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