Reading & Literacy

Teachers Are Told to ‘Activate Prior Knowledge.’ Here’s How That Works in Reading

By Sarah Schwartz — January 31, 2023 5 min read
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When students are reading something new, teachers often try to get them to draw on their prior knowledge to help them understand the text in front of them.

Doing this can help kids make sense of ideas that are unfamiliar. But it can also be a hard skill to master.

A new study suggests an approach that can help. The research, published in the Journal of Education Psychology earlier this month, finds that teaching elementary students about conceptually related topics—and explicitly showing them how to make connections between vocabulary words and ideas—can help them apply their knowledge in new contexts.

The finding has implications for a critical part of reading instruction: comprehension.

Over the past few years, some education advocates have promoted reading curricula that aim to develop students’ content area knowledge in social studies and science.

These programs are motivated by the large evidence base showing that background knowledge is an important component in reading instruction. The more children know about a topic, the better they can understand a book or article about it: If students are taught a lot about the American Revolution, they’ll understand texts about the American Revolution better.

But it’s less clear whether knowledge-building programs can have a broader effect. To extend the example above, will they be able to apply that knowledge to understand other political movements? Will it improve their reading comprehension in social studies topics as a whole?

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“The million dollar question in education is, ‘How far can all of our interventions travel?’” said James Kim, a professor of education at Harvard University and the lead author on this new study.

Kim and his colleagues set out to investigate that question.

Creating a ‘unifying intellectual structure’

The study included 30 elementary schools in one urban school district in the southeastern United States. These schools used a mix of different reading methods in 1st and 2nd grades.

Researchers randomly assigned the schools to either treatment or control groups. In the control group, teachers conducted their usual science or social studies instruction.

Treatment group teachers delivered thematically related literacy lessons about how scientists study past events. These students also read books on related topics during the summer between 1st and 2nd grades.

The lessons that the treatment group teachers used across both grades were all building toward the same theme: how scientists study past events.

First graders learned about how animals survive in their habitats, 2nd graders about how paleontologists studied prehistoric animals and events. The goal was to help students in the treatment group build a set of interrelated knowledge, called a schema.

A schema is a sort of mental framework—what Kim called a “unifying intellectual structure.” It helps readers keep facts and ideas related to the same concept in one place in their mind. That way, they can retrieve and apply them when they need to use this knowledge to understand something new. And they can add related things they learn into the schema, building it out to be more complex, robust, and interconnected.

To do this, teachers in the treatment group did topically-connected read-alouds, had students read text, and explicitly taught vocabulary like “survival,” “adaptation,” and “extinction.” They also had students apply their knowledge, using these words and concepts to write and discuss, and participate in collaborative research projects.

Students in the control group were learning similar content to students in the treatment group. But these control group students didn’t get the same support aimed at helping them build a schema.

Measuring transfer

On a science content test, the students who received the intervention outperformed their peers, suggesting that this focus on building interconnected conceptual understandings made a difference.

They also did better than control group students on general reading comprehension tests, and by the fall of 2nd grade, students in the treatment group showed less summer learning loss than students in the control group.

These are the two kinds of outcomes that knowledge-building interventions usually test, said Kim: whether students learn the content they’re being taught, and whether it moves the needle on reading comprehension more generally. But he and his colleagues also went one step further.

They wanted to see exactly how far students could transfer the knowledge that they learned, using the mental models that they had created. Would they be able to draw connections to new topics on their own?

The researchers gave students three separate passages to read. All three were conceptually related to what students had learned about paleontologists studying dinosaurs, but the texts varied in how explicitly they drew those connections.

The first was very similar to what the students had learned in both the treatment and control groups. It also focused on paleontologists, but it introduced a new species that students’ hadn’t learned about—ammonites, an extinct type of shellfish.

The second passage was about archeologists studying the ruins of Pompeii. It used some of the same vocabulary and concepts, and it drew a few explicit connections to paleontology—for example, saying the event was “like a mass extinction” and describing the remains as “fossilized humans.”

The last passage, about genealogists mapping people’s descendants, had the fewest explicit supports. It was still conceptually related—about how scientists study past events—but the passage didn’t include any of the language students had learned.

Students who had been through the intervention did better on comprehension assessments of the first and second passages than their peers in the control group. But there wasn’t a difference for the third passage.

Using assessments like these presents a more fine-grained picture of what students actually know than general comprehension tests, Kim said.

The paper’s recommendation, that policymakers introduce these kinds of content-aligned reading assessments, would pose steep challenges in most states, where English/language arts standards are content-agnostic and districts vary in the topics they cover. Only one state, Louisiana, has experimented with such a test.

But gauging transfer can be useful for individual educators in a more informal setting, too, Kim said.

“If you know how far kids are transferring knowledge, it’s a signal to teachers of what they need to go back and discuss,” he said.

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