Ten rules for teaching reading with prior knowledge

[Editor's note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading. The first post can be found here.]

 In my first post, I focused on the 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—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.

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). Here are ten 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 no 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 fifteen-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 that you provide about a text 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 be aware of 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 twenty-first-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 just read chapter five of a novel? Obviously that’s something most of us don’t do; students, on the other hand, are often taught to read from anthologies aimed at providing them a breadth of experience with valuable literary artifacts. There’s 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 it. When guiding students to read excerpts, providing them with previously omitted information 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 if the first reading could be used to create prior knowledge, students would be able to use the knowledge drawn from an initial go-through to buttress their second reading.
  6. Culturally different students may benefit from a different prior knowledge input. Not all kids know the same things, and there isn’t much we can do about that. However, you might have students from particular cultural groups who lack key information because of their backgrounds. 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 in order 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 the text topics themselves. Thus, if the point of a 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 perhaps 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 doing that before reading may simply reveal 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, but it can also 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 weren’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, which another good reason not to send students off to inventory what they already know about a subject. That’s just overkill.

Tim Shanahan is a distinguished professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.