5. Activating Your Student's Prior Knowledge

As you begin your lessons with your student, you will need to guide her in setting a purpose for reading, activating her prior knowledge, and selecting appropriate reading strategies. To illustrate this point, please read the following passage:

What does this passage describe?

What would you need to understand this passage better?

Would it have helped you to know the title?

Now reread the passage. Does it make more sense? Why?

Setting a purpose for reading

Good readers set a purpose for reading. Poor readers will often begin to read a passage right away without pausing and examining the title of a book or article, skimming through the pages to view illustrations, or reading the synopsis inside a book jacket or a summary at the top of an article. Often they'll just jump right in.

If you notice your student doing this, you will need to slow her down. By discussing the topic ahead of time, she can draw on a variety of life experiences. Help her to understand the text by:
  • pointing out a title or illustration, 
  • encouraging her to flip through a book or magazine article, or skim through a website,
  • asking what she already knows about the topic, and 
  • asking her to predict what the passage is about.
This process might go slowly at first. You will have to model the procedure and describe what you are doing.   Follow this procedure consistently, so that the habit becomes ingrained in your student.

In this way you will help her to set a purpose for reading. She will also begin to understand that she already knows a lot about the topic before she begins to read.

Helping your student with active reading

A good reader is someone who thinks before, during, and after their reading experience.

This activity (click on the live link above) will help your student activate her prior knowledge before reading, sustain continued involvement while reading, and reflect back on the reading after she is done. If your student is unable to write, do the writing in the chart for her.

At first you might want to use this activity systematically. KWL helps you to understand how much your student already knows, and provides her with the chance to use her life's experiences to understand the text. The activity also helps both you and your student check up on her comprehension as she goes through the text and reflect on what she has learned after the lesson.

K stands for What I Know
W stands for What I Want to Know
L stands for What I Learned

Using KWL

  • Ask your student to read the title of a passage and look at the pictures and predict what the text will be about. (Magazine articles provide plenty of images!) Ask her fill out the first column, What I Know (K)
  • After some discussion, ask her to fill in the second column, What I Want to Know (W). You can fill it in for her if she is unable to write. In a small group, ask the most experienced writer to fill in the KWL chart. (It is important to choose a text that is of high interest to your student, or you might hear her saying "I don't want to know anything else about this topic." If she collects stamps, you might want to choose an article about stamps from an exotic country, or if he loves to watch basketball, you might choose an article about the Boston Celtics.)
  • Then ask her to read the text. 
  • Your discussion afterward will help her to identify What I Learned (L).

Tip: Practice this activity with someone in your family or a friend before trying it with your student.


Queen Of My Castle said...

I was very impressed with this excercise and hope to be able to use it not only with my students but also in my own life!


tutorgirl said...

We heard a lot about activating prior knowledge at the conference. I can see that it would be helpful. Testing out on a family member is a good hint. In my years of working with children, I had many failures of activities and recipes if I did not test them first.

BOC said...

I need to do this more often myself.

lillian said...

Great exercise.

Pat said...


jack said...

I can see that it essential to know the learners background before making assignments.

Ms. Ovette said...

Might be a useful tool.

Unknown said...

I could not access the link to the activity but I concur that writing down the KWL elements of a passage would be useful for the learner.

Marian said...

Great start.

Merrybird said...

The suggestion to practice this technique obn a family member is useful.

Unknown said...

Note to self:
"You will need to slow your student down. By discussing the topic ahead of time, she can draw on a variety of life experiences in order to understand a text. By pointing out a title or illustration, asking your student what she already knows about a subject, and asking her to predict what the passage is about, you will help her to set a purpose for reading. She will also begin to understand that she already knows a lot about the subject!"

neg said...

Purpose, don't we all need one?

Danielle said...

I love working with KWLs! I have worked with them only with children, but find that adults are more honest and take them more seriously. I think they are more effective with adults.

Meghan said...

Very useful! I've used these before, and it's really relevant for adult learners who are often reading to gain specific bits of information.

SNelson said...

I believe this exercise will prove valuable.

Martha said...

Very interesting, I look forward to testing out and then utilizing the KWL's with students. I like the way it organizes the thinking process and gives reading a purpose. Also good to note the importance of slowing adult learners down and help them realize they're quite knowledgeable about many topics.

Megan N said...

We used to use worksheets like this in school! They do help, especially when you read over and realize how much you already know.

Anonymous said...

Great exercise

lizbeth rakaczky said...

I have copied this information for my personal teaching journal.

LG said...

I've used KWL sheets in previous trainings....good technique and one I plan to use more often.

Unknown said...

interesting stuff!! one thing I do with my students is during the ice-breaking tip I ask them to tell me about their hobbies and interests!! like that, I can choose materials and texts that meet their needs

Anonymous said...

I believe this is an excellent exercise for anyone to keep them engaged in what they are studying or reading.

Anonymous said...

KWL's are effective, but what other instruments are used to measure learning?

Unknown said...

This is a good way to start a lesson - prevents unnecessary work on what the student knows on the topic and narrows down what needs work. Shows the student's progress as well.

MSTATEN said...

Great way to practice good reading skills and proper comprehension skills

Mme Brown said...

This is used in foreign language learning as well.

Unknown said...

These are all very helpful strategies!

Unknown said...

This is a very good tool for everyone to use. This should be taught in the school systems.

Unknown said...

I find this to be something I do naturally when delving into a new book/article/posting so modeling this behavior will be a breeze. As I currently do this, I understand how it enriches my experience of what I’m reading. This is a simply wonderful way to help insure a rewarding experience for the student.

Ro said...

Graphic organizers are very helpful in learning, processing, and applying content. The KWL chart is a staple! I am very familiar with this strategy.

Paul Cianfaglione said...

Reading Makes Your Child Smarter

Reading is known to have numerous benefits. It increases your world knowledge, enhances your vocabulary, and works to improve your reading comprehension abilities.

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1) Did you know that your child's vocabulary at 3 years old predicts his or her grade one reading success? [1]

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1. Vocabulary Development and Instruction: A Prerequisite for School Learning
Andrew Biemiller, University of Toronto

2. Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later.
Cunningham AE, Stanovich KE.

3. Double Jeopardy How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation
Donald J. Hernandez, Hunter College and the Graduate Center,