Before reading, the background knowledge that a student brings to the text (their schema) must be activated and connected to the text. This is especially important for English language learners. Echevarria, Vogt and Short (2008) emphasize that reading comprehension can be a partuclar challenge for students from different cultural backgrounds, not because of difficulties with words or sentence structure, but because their schemata do not match those of the culture for which the text was written. It is the teacher’s responsibility to determine the best way to activate students' varied background knowledge on a topic and provide appropriate activites.
In my opinion, it is important to make a distinction between activating background knowledge and building background knowledge, as they are two important parts of pre-reading. Activating background knowledge happens when the teacher provides activities which awaken and connect the knowledge the student already posesses to the text. Building background happens when the teacher provides activites to fill in knowledge that the students are missing or do not posess. I will discuss building background in a later post, since that step comes after the activation of knowledge.
I have provided some useful strategies that can be used to assess and activate students’ background knowledge:
1. Snowballs. Have each student take out a scratch sheet of paper and write their name on it. Introduce the topic of the reading or lesson and ask students to write down one or two sentences about something they already know about the topic. Have them crumple the paper into a ball. Divide students into two “sides”. On the teacher’s signal, side 1 should throw their snowballs across the room. Students on side two should pick up a snowball and read it. They should find the person who threw the snowball and discuss the idea for 30 seconds. Repeat with side 2 throwing.
2. KWL Charts. Give students a KWL chart to complete or have them create a three-flap-foldable by folding a piece of printer paper lengthwise and then into thirds. Unfold it until it is a tent. On the top layer of the tent, cut along the third folds to the top of the tent fold. On the outside of the first flap, they should write “Things I know”, on the second flap “Things I want to know” and on the last flap “Things I learned”. On the inside, have students fill in the first two flaps prior to reading. Have students share their ideas and create a classroom KWL chart. Keep both around to fill in post-reading.
3. Student journals and quick-writes. After introducing the topic of the reading to students, have them respond in their journals to a writing prompt that asks them to relate the topic to their personal experience or prior learning.
4. Concept check. Before a reading or lesson take the opportunity to have students self-assess their knowledge of a topic by listing key vocabulary, concepts, or ideas on a sheet of paper. Give each student a copy and have them mark it according to their knowledge. Have students reassess their knowledge after the reading or lesson. If students rate themselves as an expert, have them explain to a partner or the class. Below is the scale and a sample concept check:
+ I know a lot about this topic and can explain it to others.
√ I have heard of this word or concept before and know a little
0 I have never heard of this word or concept before
5. Anticipation Guide. Give students a list of statements that are related to the concepts in the reading or lesson. Ask them to put a check mark next to the statements that they agree with or think are true. After reading, you should have students revisit the statements. If they have changed their mind they should remark the statements accordingly. They should note paragraphs or lines from the reading that caused them to change their mind. Below is a sample anticipation guide about animals who lay eggs:
Put a ü next to each statement you think is true.
1. ____ Animals that lay eggs always build a nest.
2. ____ The baby animal growing inside the shell is
called an embryo.
3. ____ All eggs have hard shells to protect them.
6. Picture Quick Write. On the overhead or document camera, display a picture from the book or related to the topic of the story. Give students 30 seconds to a minute to write down anything and everything that comes to their mind while they look at the picture. Then give students an opportunity to share with the class and write everything around the picture for everyone to see. Introduce the topic of the reading and discuss which things were called out that might relate to that.
7. Pre-test with a partner. Before the reading, have students take a pre-test with a partner about the words, skills, or concepts that will be assessed at the end of the reading, lesson, or unit. This gives students an opportunity to discuss, share and assess what they already know, as well as preview what they will be expected to demonstrate understanding of. Distribute one pencil and pre-test to each pair. Have students pass the pre-test and the pencil back and forth. They should read the questions aloud to one another and discuss possible answers, then come to an agreement and write the answer on the pre-test. The teacher can circulate to assess what students already know and make notes about gaps and misinformation.
Four Corners. Before a reading, create a list of questions related to the reading or the reading’s topic and in each corner of the room post possible answers. Questions may be multiple choice (A, B, C, D) or statements with which students can agree or disagree (Agree totally, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat, disagree totally). Questions may be about students own experiences (I’ve experienced this, someone in my family has experienced this, etc). After each question, give students a chance to discuss and share their ideas, knowledge and reasons for their answers. Students may move corners if they change their mind, but they must be prepared to explain why they chose to do so.
I hope you find some of these strategies useful for your own classroom! Have a terrific Tuesday!