Reading | Teaching | Teaching English

How to teach Activating Prior Knowledge

There are plenty of strategies for reading comprehension, but there are seven that are highly recommended by educators and researchers everywhere. These strategies can be easily taught in classrooms, both traditional and homeschool. When you are working with your child, make sure that they start at the beginning and work their way through. Reading comprehension skills are vital to understanding things throughout life, as most instructions and communication requires some degree of reading. We will focus on Using and activating background knowledge in this posts but we have covered all 7 in other posts on the site.

What is Activating Background Knowledge

Activating Prior Knowledge, also referred to as making connections, as a reading comprehension strategy encompasses two main ideas, it is the the enabling of students to access the relevant information they have already learnt, and to be able to identify if that information is absent and use strategies to learn it.

As straightforward as it sounds children, especially younger children will need guidance on how to relate their prior experiences to texts they read and more broadly experiences that happen to them. It is not the logical step it seems to relate two on the surface unrelated events and look for similarities between them, That is where this comprehension skill comes to the fore, it develops the ability to make connections, Indeed it is also commonly, and easier to say, referred to as making connections.

Fortunately there are dozens of ways to encourage and practice activating background knowledge or making connections skills for children and students. We will offer some of those ideas and resources below.

Activities for Activating Background Knowledge

The following activities are simply suggestions to use to help students activate background knowledge and make connections. They may not want to use some of the strategies all of the time, but each of these strategies can and likely will be beneficial to students. There are many more strategies available, but the following will help students build their skills effectively.

How to use K-W-L Charts for reading comprehension.

Graphic organizers can be one of the most effective ways to help children develop reading comprehension skills. K-W-L charts are fantastic tools to help your student activate their prior knowledge. This acronym means know- want to know- and learned. Using this chart can activate their knowledge while simultaneously keeping track of their learning and allow them to develop evaluation strategies.

KWL charts can help students think about what they already know related to the book or reading material. They can view the pictures, read the title or subtitle, and look for any clues to the subject while thinking about the things they already know about these things. As they think about these things, they will also consider what they want to learn and what they want to research. Finally, once the student finishes reading, they can think about the things they learned and how it changes their knowledge now. This is best used when reading nonfiction, but for historical fiction, realistic fiction, or specific books, it can be an excellent tool to use as well. They are able to be used across multiple reading comprehension strategies and you will see us mention them more than a few times in these posts. We also have them in our resources pack you can check out here.

Create an Anticipation Guide

This activity is relatively simple. Students will write things that they think they know about the book or passage. They might write responses to prompts or other keywords. The anticipation guide is similar to a KWL chart in that students are writing the things they already know or feel about a topic, but they do not focus on what they want to know.

You can give your child/ student a chance to think about the topic and any preconceived notions they may have. You can do this through brainstorming, structured prompts, or keywords to write about. You may ask for a set number of sentences or paragraphs or a length of time to write.

  • Brain Dumps are an alternative. Rather than giving a prompt, just let the students dump everything they know on the paper. Talk about misconceptions, stereotypes, or misinformation if it comes up.
  • For young students, you might have them draw pictures or use symbols to create their brain dump/ anticipation guide.

Word or Item Association

This task can work for many age groups. Students will be presented with at least three objects, words, or concepts. They have to decide how these things are linked. Some of these things might be linked in more than one way. For example, orange juice, milk, and water might all be drinks. They might also be things you have at breakfast. For older children, they might be classified as liquids. This can help you assess how much the students already know about things and learn to associate things with several classifications.

Word and item associations can also help students retain knowledge. By associating things from their own lives, they will be more likely to remember that concept. You can also have students tell you all the items they can think of that are related to a concept. For instance, “Name all the liquids you can.” This can also help your students to think about the characteristics that they already know about something. With books it could be can you tell me any other books or movies with the monsters in it while reading the Gruffalo, or any other books with talking animals. Followed by asking can animals talk, if not what kind of book is this etc etc.

Book or Passage Walk

Students can skim through the book or passage and see what words they may recognize and which ones they do not. When they come to a concept they already know about, you can combine the activity with the above if you would like. You can also have students make predictions and create concept maps or graphic organizers of their own.

Have students begin with the cover of the book or the title of the passage. Let them look at the pictures, words, and author listed. Any of these things might trigger prior knowledge. Then, open the book or passage and begin to explore. Are there chapters, sections, or specific groupings? Even in a picture book, you can look for types of pictures, colors, and objects in the scenes to discuss what they already know.

We have also included activities in our resources Workbook that ask students to identify more than just hard knowledge, we ask them to think of a character and compare it to either someone they know in real life or one from another book, or a setting and ask if they have been anywhere like it, or if they can think of somewhere like it, and of course a feeling when reading and when they felt like that before. This again encourages other skills like evaluating(meta-cognition) and inferencing . We will be putting our Reading Comprehension Workbook up in the next few days.

Combine These Activities

Any or all of these activities might be useful to help students activate prior knowledge. Do not be afraid to take a book walk while creating a KWL chart. Write down keywords and everything you know about them as well. Have the students talk about preconceptions, misconceptions, and expectations. Doing these things together can further strengthen the connections students will make while reading. Feeling less confused and more empowered helps children feel ready to learn.

About the Author

Hi I’m Marc. A teacher of over 15 years, mostly English but dabbled in outdoor pursuits and media. Thought is was about time to sharing both what I have learnt during that time and the resources I have put together. On this site we aim to teach the theory and share our thoughts, but also go that one step further and give you access to the hard resources you need for your class or for you children. Feel free to take a look at our resources, email us on, or jump on the Facebook group to ask questions. Happy learning, teaching or playing!

I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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