Hi Teacher Friends,
Lori and Melissa from the Melissa & Lori Love Literacy podcast are taking over this month’s blog. We’ve hosted over 150 podcast discussions on the science of reading, knowledge building, and high-quality materials. We love hearing from educators and experts in the field and exploring new ways of thinking about teaching reading and writing.
One topic we talk about a lot is knowledge building. We receive so many questions from listeners asking us about how activating knowledge is connected to building knowledge. We wrote this blog post in response to this frequently asked question.
What is prior knowledge?
And how is activating prior knowledge connected to building knowledge?
It’s important to understand the distinction between these two terms and how they work within instruction. You might have heard that teachers should activate students’ prior knowledge before reading. What does this mean, and how is it part of building knowledge? Cognitive scientists tell us that relevant knowledge is an important part of reading comprehension.
Activating prior knowledge means “both eliciting from students what they already know and building initial knowledge that they need in order to access upcoming content” (Ferlazzo and Sypnieski 2018). Prior knowledge might be considered our funds of knowledge, which refer to the skills and knowledge gained by cultural and historical interactions.
Why activate prior knowledge?
"The more knowledge a child starts with, the more likely she is to acquire yet more knowledge. She’ll read more and understand and retain information better, because knowledge, like Velcro, sticks best to other related knowledge."
Research in cognitive science shows that activating prior knowledge is one of the key elements in building knowledge.
Knowledge is sticky, like Velcro. Velcro sticks together because of hundreds of tiny loops and hooks. When two strips of hooks and loops are pressed together, the hooks cling to the loops to stick. The more hooks and loops that stick, the stronger the connection. In The Knowledge Gap, educational reporter Natalie Wexler underscores the necessity of background knowledge for comprehension. “The more knowledge a child starts with, the more likely she is to acquire yet more knowledge. She’ll read more and understand and retain information better, because knowledge, like Velcro, sticks best to other related knowledge” (Wexler 2019).
Kids love to learn about “stuff.” In one of our favorite podcast episodes, we spoke with Kyair Butts and Katie Scotti, two incredible educators in Baltimore. Kyair shared that his students can talk endlessly about the topics they study in ELA, from The Great Depression to the settlement at Jamestown to expeditions to the North Pole. Katie echoed those sentiments, mentioning that she plans a quarterly field trip for students connected to topics they are learning about in ELA. Katie shared, “My favorite part of the field trips is listening to the students making the connections. Oftentimes parents are impressed with how much kids know. One particular moment that stands out is a fourth-grade student telling his mom that The Boston Massacre Engraving (posted in a museum in Mount Vernon, Baltimore) was propaganda and that it didn’t highlight all the various perspectives. He then went into details in the engraving. His mom was mind-blown!”
Overcoming a lack of prior knowledge
But what if students don’t have prior knowledge of a topic, or have inaccurate knowledge of a topic? How can we make the connections needed to form new knowledge or correct incorrect knowledge? If we know that knowledge begets knowledge, then we should continue to (sequentially and accurately) build students’ knowledge. Doing so is essential for building students’ reading comprehension because “Readers who have a strong knowledge of a particular topic, both in terms of quantity and quality of knowledge, are more able to comprehend a text than a similarly cohesive text for which they lack background knowledge.” (Smith, Snow, Serry, Hammond 2021).
In high-quality instructional materials, students gain knowledge from grade-level, complex texts—books, articles, poems, videos, and more. They then continue to gradually build knowledge on topics within a grade level and across grade bands (Think: Horizontally across a grade throughout one school year and vertically across grade levels throughout many school years).
Best knowledge-building topics
“For years we thought comprehension skills transferred, and now [we] understand that isn't really true. But what I see is a transfer of understanding and curiosity. When something is complex, a good step is to try to build your own knowledge of the topic to be able to better tackle it.”
At this point, you’re probably wondering: What knowledge? How much? These are important questions. The Knowledge Matters Campaign shares high-quality curricula and the topics covered in each one. Topics and depth and breadth may vary, but we know that knowledge helps all readers—those reading below, at, or above grade level. As teachers, understanding the role knowledge plays in comprehension helps us to better support all students.
This quote from a teacher friend helps us reflect on where we’ve been and how to move forward with knowledge building in the foreground:
“For years we thought comprehension skills transferred, and now [we] understand that isn't really true. But what I see is a transfer of understanding and curiosity. When something is complex, a good step is to try to build your own knowledge of the topic to be able to better tackle it.”—Kristen McQuillan
Continue building your knowledge
If you’re looking to build your knowledge on knowledge, join us for a (free) Summer Book Club with Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap. We’ll kick off the book club, read and chat in a private Facebook group, and culminate with a Q&A where Natalie Wexler will answer your questions. Sign up for our emails to learn more.
In the meantime, check out episode 139 of the Melissa & Lori Love Literacy podcast to hear about how knowledge helps from cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham and Barbara Davidson of the Knowledge Matters Campaign.
Alber, Rebecca. “Teach Using the Lived Experiences of Your Students.” Edutopia, 2015, https://www.edutopia.org/blog/teach-using-lived-experiences-your-students-rebecca-alber.
Ferlazzo, Larry and Katie Hull Sypnieski. “Activating Prior Knowledge With English Language Learners.” Edutopia, 2018, https://www.edutopia.org/article/activating-prior-knowledge-english-language-learners/.
Reid Smith, Pamela Snow, Tanya Serry & Lorraine Hammond. The Role of Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension: A Critical Review, Reading Psychology, 2021, 42:3, 214-240, DOI: 10.1080/02702711.2021.1888348.
Wexler, Natalie. The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System—and How to Fix It. Avery, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
Willingham, Daniel. “How Knowledge Helps.” American Federation of Teachers, 2006, https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2006/how-knowledge-helps.
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Melissa and Lori
Topics: knowledge building