Prior Knowledge Part II

  • 17 November, 2014

      Last week, I focused on a controversy over prior knowledge. Common core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.

           That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—such telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information—information not provided by the author. 

            They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean. 
            The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because you simply can’t stop students from using what they know when they read.
            I promised to provide some instructional guidance for dealing with prior knowledge during reading comprehension lessons (and shared/guided/directed readings). I thought I could do this in two entries, but it will take three. Here are 10 guidelines for dealing with prior knowledge.
1.     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 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.
2.     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).
3.     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. 
4.     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.  
5.     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).
6.    Culturally different students may benefit from a different prior knowledge input. Not all ids 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 their culture, what would they need to know to make sense of that material?  
7.    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. 
8.    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?”—that’s 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). 
9.    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. 
10.   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. If I wasn’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.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Amy Sparks Jun 13, 2017 06:31 PM


Again, I ask you to cite your evidence that the CCSS asks teachers to disregard prior knowledge in order to "level the playing field." As someone familiar with the ELA standards, I have never read this suggestion in any of them. Can you provide where this is set out?

Believe in Reading Jun 13, 2017 06:32 PM


I am loving this! So many teachers are confused about Prior Knowledge it's crazy! Your explanation is very clear and transparent. No one should have any problems understanding the role of Prior Knowledge and how to use it during instruction. Thanks for posting this.

Martha Strader Jun 13, 2017 06:32 PM


Martha Strader (through Linked In)

Tim, What is the advantage to not allowing a child to access prior knowledge or external resources when reading a text? Assuming the text being read is nonfiction, how does one examine the text's validity without outside resources. What am I missing here? CCSS has certainly taken a different turn than we expected 13 years ago, hasn't it?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:33 PM


The benefit of not allowing access to external resources when reading is an issue of independence. It is useful to know how to figure out a text through recourse to other resources, but kids need to also learn how to read without a teacher telling them what the text will be about.

There is no way to read without access to prior knowledge, but a reason for reducing an emphasis on this is to ensure that readers' interpretations do not overwhelm an author's message. Research shows that too much attention to prior knowledge can lead students to misinterpret text.Evaluating a text's validity through external sources is fully supported by CCSS. Readers are asked to determine the key ideas and details of a text by focusing on the text, and to analyze the craft and structure of a text in the same way. However, to evaluate a text, students are asked to compare the texts with other texts.

BryanF Jun 13, 2017 06:33 PM


Finally, death to the KWL chart...

BryanF Jun 13, 2017 06:34 PM

I used to spend 5-10 minutes on this daily, which I now realize was incredibly useless and fairly illogical (at least I figured it out eventually).

I've repurposed that time for additional reading (7th grade). That's about an extra 22 hours of reading over the course of the school year.

That's got to be worth something in terms of moving the needle, right?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:34 PM


I think that is a very intelligent shift in time. It is a trim to a routine that doesn't justify the time expenditure, and devoting that time to reading, rereading, and writing about text would likely give your students a bigger learning payoff.

A few more decisions like that and you could see measurably higher reading achievement on a standardized test--not because you were teaching to the test, but because the students would be able to read better.

Jared Jones Jun 13, 2017 06:35 PM


I notice the Smarter Balanced ELA performance task begins with a class discussion on the topic. (The sample test directs the teacher to lead the class through a laboriously scripted discussion on financial literacy.) That doesn't seem to square with your description of CCSS as nearly phobic about prior-knowledge strategies. Is this a recent shift in CCSS, or is it a misalignment between CCSS philosophy and SBAC design?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:35 PM



I don't know if what you say is true about SBAC. I haven't seen that or haven't seen it yet, but I kind of doubt the veracity of the claim. That example doesn't seem to be on the SBAC website, but it sounds very much like the info they provide about a writing stimulus (not a reading comprehension one).

In any event, close reading is specifically noted in the standards and David Coleman, Susan Pimentel and others involved in the development of the standards have been very clear about what this entails with regard to prior knowledge.

Jared Jones Jun 13, 2017 06:35 PM


Prof. Stranahan, I think we talked past each other. My first comment referred to the SBAC performance task, and your response distinguished SBAC writing from reading comprehension.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the CCSS seeks to integrate reading comprehension with writing, and that the SBAC performance task does indeed integrate the two. A student would have to comprehend and synthesize the readings in order to score well on the writing.

So my question, in response to the original blog post, remains this: If "prior knowledge" is dramatically de-emphasized by CCSS, why is SBAC asking schools to spend time building prior knowledge before students begin the reading for the performance task? Is it backpedaling or mis-alignment?

Regardless of the answer, I appreciate the critical history about building prior knowledge as a reading instruction strategy.

As you noted, close reading is indeed a focus area under CCSS, and one which I endorse. I had not thought of that as a trade-off with activities intended to build prior knowledge. Of course, time is limited, so it is something of a trade-off.

Thanks for your time!

Jared Jones Jun 13, 2017 06:36 PM


Here's what I was directed to do with my students last week:

They call it a "classroom activity," and it is required before beginning the SBAC Performance Task. Everything I have learned in the past several months has reiterated that this will be the format of the 'real thing' this May.

Here is the Performance Task itself, including the four "stimuli" (articles) that students are expected to read prior to writing an argumentative essay.

Clearly the "classroom activity" is a prior knowledge-building activity.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:36 PM



SBAC is treating reading and writing differently and separately. For example, kids won't get a reading comprehension score from their writing activity. Reading and writing are different.

Looking at the posted assignments, there is no expectation that students will engage in a close reading to undertake those projects. We don't do close reading all the time, but we are still suppose to teach kids to do it.

Again, CCSS does not prohibit students from using prior knowledge (especially when presenting through writing or speaking). But it does eschew the practice of relying on prior knowledge for reading someone's text. The idea is to accord the author maximum respect by not reading things into what the text is telling you/showing you from your personal beliefs or background.

However, when you are trying to convey your own ideas through writing, the knowledge you bring to the task is essential.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Prior Knowledge Part II


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