Prior Knowledge: Helping our Struggling Readers

book depository

Every day we must make decisions, and somehow, whether we realize it or not, we are accessing our prior knowledge to make these decisions.  For example, there is a restaurant that I will never eat at again. 15 years later, I still remember the time I got violently ill after consuming one of their calzones. Now, someone brings up that restaurant–I cringe.

Sometimes my prior knowledge doesn’t come from real life. Sometimes it comes straight out of a book. A few weeks ago I had to make a really tough decision. As I sat weighing the pros and cons of my choices, Beatrice, from the book Divergent, and the struggle she had making a difficult choice came to mind. I found myself relying on her experience because that in fact was exactly how I felt.

Prior knowledge can come from a multitude of places, but it is the experiences I have had–along with the books I have read– that fill my storehouse of prior knowledge.  So what about prior knowledge and our struggling readers? Their storehouse of prior knowledge is barren. In talking specifically about early literacy, Nancy Lee Cecil explains that, “What readers bring to the activity in terms of prior knowledge … determines how well they will be able to derive a rich meaning from the text,” (Cecil, 2003). So, what about our students who do not have a rich background of prior knowledge? Whether it be a lack of experiences or a lack of reading–my question is:

What are we doing as educators to support students creating a bountiful array of prior knowledge experiences?


The most important thing teachers can do to help equip their students with a wealth of prior knowledge is provide opportunities for them to read–and read a lot. It isn’t about assigning book after book as a whole-class novel. It is about Independent reading. “Independent reading is all about capacity building,” (Kittle, 2012). By allowing students the time to vicariously live through the lives of characters in books, we in turn are allowing them to store up experiences. As teachers it is our responsibility to, “pay attention to the quantity as well as the quality in their reading lives (Kittle, 2012).” If students are to truly live culturally rich lives, then we must be more intentional about how we are making this happen in our classrooms.

Cecil, N. L. (2003). Striking a balance: best practices for early literacy (2nd ed.). Scottsdale, Ariz.: Holcomb Hathaway, Publishers.

Kittle, P. (2013). Book love: developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Photo credit: TunnelBug / / CC BY-NC


Tagged: , , ,

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: