Five Ways to Help Students Build Prior Knowledge

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Teachers are continually looking for ways to improve their students' reading skills. We teach reading strategies such as decoding. We use graphic and semantic organizers. We “color code,” highlight, and annotate. But while students may eventually be able to decode and decipher words, they cannot always comprehend everything they read; that comprehension requires prior knowledge.

If a student is reading a passage about baseball but has no knowledge about the sport, no amount of decoding will help that student fully understand the reading. Prior knowledge is necessary to help students process and integrate new information.

It is of paramount importance that we as teachers of English and literacy use reading materials that teach students about the world, but we must also provide them with a variety of opportunities and experiences that will build background knowledge and enable them to become better readers, writers, and learners.

Here are five ways to achieve that goal:

1. Read across the curriculum.

Teaching reading is not solely the English teacher’s job—it must be done across the curriculum in science, math, art, music, and social studies classes. Teachers need to provide their students with a variety of reading materials that advance and enhance the curriculum while also increasing a student’s academic vocabulary.

For example, this year I am teaching an elective on the TV series “The Walking Dead.” Students not only read critical reviews of the show, but they also explore readings on psychology, sociology, ethics, business, and international relations, and then apply that knowledge to the series. “The Walking Dead”—a show much beloved by teenagers—has proven to be an excellent platform to increase student knowledge on a variety of topics.

2. Use a variety of reading materials from different sources.

When I was growing up, I remember how much I loved to read the Weekly Reader and Highlights magazines. I even read my brother's Boys’ Life and my parents' Reader’s Digests. Those magazines taught me a great deal about the world, and they opened my eyes to different cultures and experiences. One source I use now in the classroom is Scholastic’s Upfront magazine. This resource includes stories about the world, including articles which focus on politics, the environment, culture, and science. If funding is an issue, Scholastic and other magazines are available through DonorsChoose.

3. Stock school and classroom libraries.

A 2005 study by Library Research Service, Colorado State Library, and University of Denver noted that increased library spending correlates with higher test scores. Students who read more become better readers. Stocking school and classroom libraries with a wide variety of books and providing students with time to read will also go a long way toward increasing a student’s knowledge. There are many grants to help build school and classroom libraries.

4. Plan field trips.

I am adamant about learning that takes place outside the classroom walls. I like to take my students on field trips to museums, ballets, lectures, plays, and other performances. These experiences have provided my students with a wealth of knowledge about the world and a vocabulary that can assist them in their reading. For example, at least twice a year, I take my students to the event One Day University—which provides free tickets for students—where they have the opportunity to listen to a variety of college professors speak on topics from political science to art history.

I’ve also taken my students to see plays at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where they’ve seen performances of "Prometheus," "Porgy and Bess," and "Pippin." These opportunities have opened up a whole new world for my students. Most theaters and museums will provide free or low-cost tickets for students.

5. Organize community service and other activities.

Community service opportunities can also help build student knowledge. About four times a year, the nonprofit Honor Flight transports World War II veterans to Washington D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Each time they do, my students meet me at the airport to cheer and express their gratitude to local veterans for their service. For my students, who were born in 2000 or later, World War II seems far away. But after the students meet the veterans, speak to them, and shake their hands, their knowledge increases. The experience provides a context for them which activates their prior knowledge and inspires them to seek out more information.

Each year I also arrange for my students to take part in a pen pal project. One year, the students shared letters with Tibetan students studying in India. I know my students will gain new perspectives about culture in another part of the globe. Providing students with historical, cultural, and social activities can help them gain important knowledge about the world they live in.

With the dawn of a new year and in light of the changing educational climate, helping students build their knowledge base is essential. Strengthening students' skills for learning new things will enable them not only to become better readers, writers, and learners, but also ensure that they become knowledgeable citizens.

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