Teaching reading comprehension strategies - activating prior knowledge


Today I'm continuing my series on teaching reading comprehension strategies guided by the Sheena Cameron book of the same name.  This time I'm sharing some of my ideas for teaching the strategy - activating prior knowledge.

Previously I'd posted about visualising which you can read here


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Prior knowledge is, of course, all the unique experiences and knowledge a student brings to their reading each time they open a book.  Some students may have this prior knowledge but not make a connection to a text so as teachers we can help students make those connections. 

By activating their prior knowledge, we are asking students to connect to what they already know, providing them with a base to build new knowledge and understanding onto.  Encouraging students to share their experiences also allows others to build on their own background knowledge where previously they might had none.  Books and even television or movies can also provide useful information for children to build on their knowledge.

Cameron defines knowledge as -

' - what the student already know about the reading process
 - vocabulary knowledge
 - topic knowledge
 - concept knowledge
 - text types or genres and the language features of these.' (2009, p.32)

Children belong to a culture when they are born.  They begin to negotiate meaning from their earliest experiences with family and community and start to acquire their first language within this setting - experimenting with sounds and words, their efforts scaffolded by family as they seek to communicate with others, making their needs, wants and ideas known.  Accomplished teachers recognise that talk is at the centre of English curriculum and pedagogy and confident speakers have greater success with reading and writing.





'Oral language is the basic resource with which individuals grow and express their identity as well as participate in and comprehend their social groups' (Christie, 1998, p.50). 
 
When a child starts school, they bring with them unique ways of knowing.  This makes Australian classrooms some of the most diverse in the world with Standard Australian English (SAE) being a second or third or even fourth language for some children (Malin, 1998).  This can provide educators with some challenges.  Effective teachers will seek to extend the early literacy learning of all children by incorporating multiple ways of knowing (Kalantzis & Cope, 2005), that builds on what children already know, helping to extend their acquisition and use of language for communication and participation.  This particularly useful for teaching Aboriginal students and others for whom English is a second language (Martin, 2008).  Every child’s capacity to learn are increased by such language-based interactions and proficiency in oral language provides children with vital tools for thinking as emphasised by Bruner (Marsh, 2004). 

Appropriately, oral language development is a key focus in the Foundation year and can be found in most content descriptions in the Australian Curriculum.  In the Early Years, children need to experiment with different strategies as they develop in confidence as listeners, viewers and speakers, and then as successful readers and writers of texts.  Of greatest benefit are teaching strategies that use oral language to helping young children develop the vocabulary, comprehension and critical thinking skills they will need when they begin reading and writing.
When I first start teaching the reading comprehension strategy - activating prior knowledge, I focus on oral language firstly.  It might be as simple as talking about a book before beginning to read - What sort of book do I think it will be?  What does the cover tell me?  Why do you think that?  Have I read anything similar?  Do I recognise the author's name?  And then along the way, I might pause to talk about a key word or the pictures and what they remind us of.


Where's the Gold?
For example, I read the book Where's the Gold? by Pamela Allen to a class I was relieving in last week.  I've written about this book in my post about picture books and prepositions.  Pamela Allen is  a reasonably prolific Australian author and illustrator.  Her books are quite distinctive.  I knew that they had been digging for treasure in the sandpit the week before so many of the students could answer the book's question about where to find the gold.  They had made the connection between the illustrations of pirates and the treasure they had been finding.  Others realised that the pictures looked like ones they'd seen before and made the connection that the same author/illustrator was the reason.
Sheena Cameron provides some useful suggestions to introduce this strategy to your classroom.  My favourite would be her stand and share activity although with younger students I let them share with a partner beforehand.  Essentially, after asking what they know about a particular topic, you allow them a minute or so to discuss what they know with their partner then you have everyone stand up in a circle and then once they've shared, they sit down.  It's a great way to engage in sustained shared conversations with children to extend their thinking.
Drawing is a great alternative to writing for pre-writers.  Cameron's activity Draw It! is not new to Early Childhood but encouraging students to label their drawing can help make their thinking more visible.  Bring the class back together as a group to share people's drawing is another useful oral language exercise.





Digital technologies can also be used to support student learning. Programs like VoiceThread can be used to capture students’ illustrations and students can add spoken words to create their own read-aloud books to share. Others, allow students to create their own dictionary to share with others (Sharing Culture Online).

For older students, a before and after web is a useful template to start and then return to, to when investigating a new topic.  Students record what they already know on the inner circle of the web then after studying a topic, they return to write new information on the outer circle of the web.  This can be done as individuals or small groups.  The template is available in the Cameron text.

Next in the series - making connections.


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