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Activating Prior Knowledge to Help Struggling Readers

written by: Margo Dill • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 1/17/2012

Instructional strategies can really help teachers with struggling readers. An instructional strategy, like activating prior knowledge, can help them improve their reading skills. This is an easy strategy to use and one that happens almost naturally before each new skill is introduced.

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    How it Works

    When teachers tap into what a struggling reader already knows before presenting new material, they are paving the way for connections to be made in their students' brains. The stronger the connections, the easier it should be for children to learn the new concepts. Activating prior knowledge reviews old concepts and connects them to new ones. Think of it as the new information finding a home with the children's prior knowledge where the new material can be nurtured and cared for. Without those connections, the new material is just floating around in the brain and is easily lost.

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    Ways to Activate Prior Knowledge

    With struggling readers, it is especially important to activate prior knowledge when reading a new book, teaching a reading skill, learning vocabulary, and working on comprehension skills. Here are several ways to use this instructional strategy:

    • by jimmieshomeschoolmom KWL chart -- KWL, or Know Wonder Learn charts are extremely helpful for activating prior knowledge because the students write down or tell the teacher what they already know about a subject. The prior knowledge is actually being written down and viewed, which will help auditory and visual learners. The wonder column also helps make connections because students have to have some knowledge of the concept to ask sensible questions.

    • Word Webs -- Word webs also help struggling readers get ready for new information. For example, if you are starting a book such as The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary, you may want to make two word webs with students -- one about mice and one about hotels. These word webs would get students thinking about the setting and main character of the book and aid in comprehension and understanding new vocabulary. Word webs work well for social studies and science concepts, as well as non-fiction books.

    • Book walks -- For activating prior knowledge during reading class, teachers can take a book walk before students read a new book. This reading strategy works especially well with picture books and is often done during a guided reading lesson on the first day of a new book. Students should have their own copy of the book (or be in pairs), so they can easily see the illustrations and vocabulary the teacher points out during the book walk. The teacher should make sure to ask questions that activate the struggling readers' prior knowledge and introduce new concepts and vocabulary. When a teacher does a book walk, she and the students are looking at each page of the book and having a discussion about what to expect when reading starts.

    Instructional strategies will help your students learn and improve their reading skills, including reading comprehension. Activating prior knowledge is one of the easiest and most natural strategies a teacher can use to help struggling readers read on grade level.

Instructional Strategies for Students Reading Below Grade Level

Many teachers use instructional strategies, such as reciprocal teaching or think-pair-share, with their students. But sometimes with students reading below grade level, it is hard for them to read the text AND use a strategy to help them comprehend. Instructional strategies can benefit all.
  1. Using Reciprocal Teaching with Your Struggling Readers
  2. Using Think-Pair-Share with Struggling Readers
  3. Helping Struggling Readers Using the 3-2-1 Reading Strategy
  4. Activating Prior Knowledge to Help Struggling Readers
  5. Instructional Strategies: Before, During, After to Help Struggling Readers