Using prior knowledge is an important part of reading comprehension for children with dyslexia. Students relate written word to their previous experiences to make reading more personal, helping them to both understand and remember what they have read. Some experts believe that activating prior knowledge is the most important aspect of the reading experience.
What is Prior Knowledge?
When we talk about prior or previous knowledge, we refer to all of the experiences readers have had throughout their lives, including information they have learned elsewhere. This knowledge is used to bring the written word to life and to make it more relevant in the reader's mind. Just as our understanding about the subject can lead to further understanding, misconceptions that we accept also add to our understanding, or misunderstanding as we read.
Teaching Prior Knowledge
A number of teaching interventions can be implemented in the classroom to help students effectively activate prior knowledge when reading: preteaching vocabulary, providing background knowledge and creating opportunities and a framework for students to continue building background knowledge.
In another article, we discussed the challenge in teaching students with dyslexia new vocabulary words. These students may have a larger oral vocabulary than their reading vocabulary and they may have a difficult time both sounding out new words and recognizing these words when reading. It is often helpful for teachers to introduce and review new vocabulary before beginning new reading assignments. As students become more familiar with vocabulary and continue to build their vocabulary skills, not only does their reading fluency increase but so does their reading comprehension. In addition, as students learn and understand new vocabulary word, and relate these words to their personal knowledge of a subject, they can invoke that same knowledge as they read. Learning the vocabulary, therefore, helps students to use their personal experiences to relate to stories and information they read.
Providing Background Knowledge
When teaching math, teachers accept that a student continues to build upon previous knowledge and without this knowledge, they will have a much more difficult time understanding new mathematical concepts. In other subjects, such as social studies, this concept is not readily discussed, however, it is just as important. In order for a student to understand written material, no matter what the subject, a certain level of prior knowledge is needed.
When students are first introduced to a new topic, they will have some level of prior knowledge. They may have a great deal of knowledge, some knowledge or very little knowledge. Before providing background knowledge, teachers must measure the level of prior knowledge in a specific topic. This can be accomplished by:
- Asking questions, beginning with general questions and slowly increasing the specificity of questions
- Write statements on the board based on what students have shared about the topic
- Have students complete a worksheet, without grading, to determine knowledge
Once a teacher has gathered information on how much the students know, she can plan lessons to students further background knowledge. For example, when beginning a lesson on the Aztecs, questions on prior knowledge might revolve around types of homes, food, geography, beliefs and accomplishments. Based on the information the teacher gathers, she can create a lesson to fill in the blanks, showing slides or pictures of homes, describing what types of food were available, what major accomplishments the Aztecs had. Any new vocabulary words in the lesson should be introduced to the students. This information should be given as an overview and as a precursor to the actual lesson. Once the review is completed, students can read the lesson, bringing in the background knowledge to give them a greater understanding of what they have read.
Creating Opportunities and a Framework for Students to Continue Building Background Knowledge
Guided reviews and introductions to new material, such as the previous example of the teacher providing an overview, before reading are extremely helpful in providing students with background information. But students must learn to find this type of information on their own. Teachers can help by giving students specific strategies for increasing background knowledge about a new topic:
- Reading summaries and conclusions of chapters in a textbook
- Reading the end-of-chapter questions before reading the chapter
- Reading the headings and subheadings
- For books, reading the back of the book for information on what the book is about
- Older students can review cliff notes before reading the book
- Skimming the book, reading the first line of each paragraph or reading the first paragraph of each chapter
- Skimming for unfamiliar words and learning definitions before reading
- Reading short articles on the same topic
As students learn how to find background information on a previously unknown topic, their confidence in their ability to understand this information increases and they can use this new knowledge to build and learn about additional topics.
"Increasing Comprehension by Activating Prior Knowledge," 1991, William L. Christen, Thomas J. Murphy, ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills
"Prereading Strategies," Date Unknown, Karla Porter, M.Ed. Weber State University
"The Use of Prior Knowledge in Reading," 2006, Jason Rosenblatt, New York University