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Increasing Comprehension by Activating
Prior Knowledge

By William L. Christen and Thomas J. Murphy
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication


Research has been conducted to determine the value of providing activities or strategies to assist in providing students with ways to activate their prior knowledge base. Studies looked at three possibilities: (1) building readers' background knowledge; (2) activating readers' existing background knowledge and attention focusing BEFORE reading; and (3) guiding readers DURING reading and providing review AFTER reading.

It appears that when readers lack the prior knowledge necessary to read, three major instructional interventions need to be considered: (1) teach vocabulary as a prereading step; (2) provide experiences; and (3) introduce a conceptual framework that will enable students to build appropriate background for themselves.

PRETEACHING VOCABULARY (to increase learning from text materials) probably requires that the words to be taught must be key words in the target passages (Beck, et al, 1982; Kameenui, Carnine, et al, 1982), that words be taught in semantically and topically related sets so that word meaning and background knowledge improve concurrently (Beck et al., 1982; Stevens, 1982), and that only a few words be taught per lesson and per week (Beck et al., 1982; Kameenui et al., 1982; Stevens, 1982). To be an effective strategy, an extensive and long-term vocabulary strand accompanying a parallel schematic or background-knowledge-development strand is probably called for.

Research on ENRICHING BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE has demonstrated that activating such knowledge increases comprehension. Graves and his associates (1980; 1983) developed previews for short stories that had, as one component, the building of prior knowledge important to understanding the selection. Data indicated that reading the previews before reading the stories increased students' learning from stories by a significant and impressive amount. Stevens (1982) increased learning from text compared with a control group for 10th-grade students reading a history passage by teaching them relevant background information for that passage. Hayes and Tierney (1982) found that presenting background information related to the topic to be learned helped readers learn from texts regardless of how that background information was presented or how specific or general it was. Alvarez (1990) used case-based instruction to develop students' abilities to assemble and incorporate different knowledge sources in memory. He taught them how to employ thematic organizers and hierarchical concept mapping in their reading.

Additionally, scant attention is paid to the role of the reader's schemata, or background knowledge, when learning from text (Tierney & Pearson, 1985). Yet research clearly emphasizes that for learning to occur, new information must be integrated with what the learner already knows (Rumelhart, 1980).

It appears that providing students with strategies to activate their prior knowledge base or to build a base if one does not exist is supported by the current research. It is our contention that this is one way teachers can have a positive influence on comprehension in their classrooms.

For example, Reutzel and Morgan (1990) advocate two pedagogical alternatives for teachers who wish to improve students' comprehension of causal relations which often are implicit in content area textbooks. Teachers may rewrite the text to make the cohesion relations explicit (a daunting task), or they may assist students in building, modifying, or elaborating their background knowledge prior to reading expository texts. Miholic (1990) outlines the construction of a semantic map for textbooks which he recommends for use at adult, secondary, and college level. For a class of gifted seventh grade students, Davis and Winek (1989) developed a project for building background knowledge so that the students could generate topics for writing articles in history. The teachers devoted one class period a week for eight weeks to various group activities to build background knowledge, culminating in prewriting activities focused on brainstorming for the eighth week. The articles were then written by the students at home.


Engaging students in prior knowledge experiences becomes a form in classrooms where teachers value understanding what knowledge students possess. We know that prior knowledge is an important step in the learning process. It is a major factor in comprehension: that is, making sense of our learning experiences. Brain-based research confirms the fact that the learning environment needs to provide a setting that incorporates stability and familiarity. It should be able to satisfy the mind's enormous curiosity and hunger for discovery, challenge, and novelty. Creating an opportunity to challenge our students to call on their collective experiences (prior knowledge) is essential. Through this process we move students from memorizing information to meaningful learning and begin the journey of connecting learning events rather than remembering bits and pieces. Prior knowledge is an essential element in this quest for making meaning.


Students generally fall into three categories: MUCH, SOME, or LITTLE prior knowledge. In each instance, the teacher will make specific instructional decisions based on what is discovered in the prior knowledge part of the lesson. To check out what prior knowledge exists about a topic, idea, or concept, you may choose to do some of the following activities:

  • BRAINSTORM the topic. Write all the information solicited from the students on the chalkboard, a piece of paper, or transparency

  • ASK specific and/or general questions about the topic. See what responses are given.

  • POST a PROBLEM or a SCENARIO. Based on this description, find out what the students know about the idea presented.

Once the data is collected, a decision about the appropriate forms of instruction can be made. The following diagram can be helpful:


MUCH: superordinate concepts; definitions; analogies; linking.

SOME: examples; attributes; defining characteristics.

LITTLE: associations; morphemes; sound alikes; firsthand experiences.

Teachers should remember to

  1. Present information which builds:
    • Background ideas
    • Concepts
    • Principles

  2. Show, don't tell through
    • Demonstrations
    • Multi-media
    • Graphics

  3. Use outside resources, trips and speakers
  4. Tell about topic from your experience
  5. Use any combination of the above!


Alvarez, Marino C. "Knowledge Activation and Schema Construction." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston, MA, 1990, 25p. ED 317 988

Beck, Isabel L. et al. "Effects of Long-Term Vocabulary Instruction on Lexical Access and Reading Comprehension." Journal of Educational Psychology 74(4) August 1982, 506-21. EJ 267 794

Davis, Susan J. and Janice Winek. "Improving Expository Writing by Increasing Background Knowledge." Journal of Reading 33(3) December 1989, 178-81. EJ 402 129

Graves, Michael F. and C.L. Cook. "Effects of Previewing Difficult Short Stories for High School Students." Research on Reading in Secondary Schools 6, 1980, 38-54.

Graves, Michael F. et al. "Effects of Previewing Difficult Short Stories on Low Ability Junior High School Students' Comprehension Recall, and Attitudes." Reading Research Quarterly 18(3) Spring 1983, 262-76. EJ 279 344

Hayes, David A. and Robert J. Tierney. "Developing Readers Knowledge through Analogy." Reading Research Quarterly 17(2), 1982, 256-80. EJ 257 814

Kameenui, Edward J. et al. "Effects of Text Construction and Instructional Procedure for Teaching Word Meanings on Comprehension and Recall." Reading Research Quarterly 17(3) 1982, 367-88. EJ 261 430

Miholic, Vincent. "Constructing a Semantic Map for Textbooks." Journal of Reading 33(6) March 1990, 464-65. EJ 405 094

Reutzel, D. Ray and Bonnie C. Morgan. "Effects of Prior Knowledge, Explicitness, and Clause Order on Children's Comprehension of Causal Relationships." Reading Psychology 11(2) 1990, 93-109. EJ 408 397

Rumelhart, Donald E. "Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition." In Rand J. Spiro et al., Eds. Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension (33-58). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1980.

Stevens, Kathleen C. "Can We Improve Reading by Teaching Background Information?" Journal of Reading 25(4) January 1982, 326-29. EJ 257 791

Tierney, Robert J. and P. David Pearson. "Learning to Learn from Texts: A Framework for Improving Classroom Practice." In H.S. Singer and R.B. Ruddell, Eds. Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (860-78). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1985. ED 262 389

This publication was prepared (Digest#61, EDO-CS-91-04, May 1991) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number RI88062001, and published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication.

The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.