ERIC Identifier: ED328885
Publication Date: 1991-03-00
Author: Christen, William L. - Murphy, Thomas J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills
Increasing Comprehension by Activating Prior Knowledge.
Research 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.
It 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
PRETEACHING 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 for.
Research 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.
Additionally, 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,
It 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.
For 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.
Engaging 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 meaning.
LEVEL OF PRIOR KNOWLEDGE
Students 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:
*BRAINSTORM the topic. Write all the information solicited from the
students on the chalkboard, a piece of paper, or transparency.
*ASK specific and/or general questions about the topic. See what responses
*POST a PROBLEM or a SCENARIO. Based on this description, find out what
the students know about the idea presented.
Once the data is collected, a decision about the appropriate forms of
instruction can be made. The following diagram can be helpful:
MUCH: superordinate concepts; definitions; analogies; linking.
SOME: examples; attributes; defining characteristics.
LITTLE: associations; morphemes; sound alikes; firsthand experiences.
Teachers should remember to
(1) Present information which builds:
(2) Show, don't tell through--
(3) Use outside resources, trips and speakers
(4) Tell about topic from your experience
(5) Use any combination of the above!
Alvarez, Marino C. "Knowledge Activation and Schema Construction." Paper
presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association,
Boston, MA, 1990, 25p. [ED 317 988]
Beck, 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]
Davis, Susan J. and Janice Winek. "Improving Expository Writing by Increasing
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[EJ 402 129]
Graves, Michael F. and C.L. Cook. "Effects of Previewing Difficult Short
Stories for High School Students." Research on Reading in Secondary Schools
6, 1980, 38-54.
Graves, 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]
Hayes, David A. and Robert J. Tierney. "Developing Readers Knowledge
through Analogy." Reading Research Quarterly 17(2), 1982, 256-80. [EJ 257
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Procedure for Teaching Word Meanings on Comprehension and Recall." Reading
Research Quarterly 17(3) 1982, 367-88. [EJ 261 430]
Miholic, Vincent. "Constructing a Semantic Map for Textbooks." Journal
of Reading 33(6) March 1990, 464-65. [EJ 405 094]
Reutzel, 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]
Rumelhart, Donald E. "Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition." In
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(33-58). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1980.
Stevens, Kathleen C. "Can We Improve Reading by Teaching Background
Information?" Journal of Reading 25(4) January 1982, 326-29. [EJ 257 791]
Tierney, 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 Reading Association, 1985. [ED 262 389]