Building and Activating Prior or Background Knowledge

Building upon and activating prior knowledge helps make learning accessible and engaging for students
7 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

Background knowledge, what students have learned both inside and outside of the classroom, is the foundation for learning new information. All learners have diverse cultural and educational backgrounds that are directly related to topics taught in math, language arts, reading, social studies, science, art, music, and physical/health education. It is important for teachers to activate students' prior knowledge in the classroom in order for students to build upon the background knowledge that they already have.

Implementation Steps

  1. Before beginning to teach a new concept, consider what and how students have learned about this concept in previous grade levels.  Also consider how this concept connects to students' everyday lives outside of school.  Use the Prior Knowledge Planning Page, linked in the resources section below, as you incorporate activating prior knowledge into your lesson plans. 

  2. Consider quickly pre-assessing students' knowledge in either of the following ways: 

    • Surveys: Surveys are effective in determining what knowledge a student has about a concept or topic, and what cultural or background knowledge they may have experiences with that are directly related to the concept or topic.

    • Pre-Assessments: Pre-assessments allow the teacher to determine where students are at in regards to concept knowledge. The teacher should plan frontloading and/or previewing activities based on pre-assessment data. 

  3. Use a brainstorming activity, such as a KWL chart, to question students about their knowledge on a topic or concept as a frontloading or previewing activity.  See the Use Case: KWL Charts, linked below, for more information about how to set up a KWL chart activity.  Other brainstorming activities include: 

    • Anticipation Guides: Anticipation Guides are typically used before reading, but can be used before teaching any subject area concept to activate prior knowledge. Students listen to or read, statements about key details or concepts that they will be comprehending or learning. The students mark whether they agree or disagree with the statement. Students can also include comments or explanations as to why they disagree or agree with the statement. The Anticipation Guide can include another column for students to reflect on their answers after the lesson activity is over. See the Reading Rockets link below as well as the BetterLesson Anticipation Guides Using Newsela strategy, linked below, for more information on Anticipation Guides.  

    • Concept Web: Write a phrase, word, or picture that relates to the concept/topic being taught.  Create a concept web/map as students call out other phrases or words that relate to the main concept or topic. Keep this posted as a visual representation of the concept being taught.  To learn more about Concept Maps, consult the Concept Mapping strategy in the BetterLesson lab. 

    • ABC Brainstorming: Write the letters of the alphabet on a piece of chart paper or the white board.  At the top, write the word or phrase that the students will be learning about during the lesson activity.  Students brainstorm words, or phrases, that begin with each letter of the alphabet that are related to the main concept/topic listed at the top of the page. See an example ABC Brainstorm template in the resources section below (ABC Brainstorm).  

    • Multimedia: Before starting a new unit or text, show students relevant and recent multimedia (image, picture, video, song, etc.) that relates to the concept/topic. Lead students in whole group, partner, or small group discussions about the multimedia to build background knowledge and spark interest.  Students can discuss what they noticed, wondered, and/or found interesting. The BrainPop and Brainpop Jr. Websites (linked in the resources section below) both have free student-friendly videos that are excellent for activating prior knowledge. The language is simple, the videos are short, and they contain excellent visuals.  

    • Preparatory Texts: Providing students with simple texts to expose them to the concept or topic that is being introduced is a great way to activate prior knowledge and spark interest.  Picture books are effective preparatory texts even for middle and high school students.  Nonfiction texts are also good to read as preparatory texts.  Newsela (linked in the resources section below) is a great resource for leveled nonfiction articles.  CommonLit (linked in the resources section below) is a collection of both fiction and nonfiction reading passages.  Both CommonLit and and Newsela allow teachers to search for passages by topic.  They also allow the teacher to modify the text by lexile level to help support all learners.

    • Phenomena: Scientific phenomena are events that occur that can be explained using what we know about science.  Students experiencing and observing scientific phenomena is a great way to spark interest and activate prior knowledge.  The Next Generation Science Standards document, Using Phenomena in NGSS-Designed Lessons and Units, linked in the resources section below, describes various ways to incorporate scientific phenomena into science lessons.  

    • Quick Write/Quick Draw: Allow students to write or draw for a set amount of time on everything they know about the topic or concept.  

    • Graffiti Walk: The teacher can write concept or topic words on different pieces of chart paper posted around the room.  Students walk around and write thoughts, words, or ideas related to each word on the poster.  The Grafitti Walk strategy from the BetterLesson lab is linked below for a more in depth description of how to implement a Grafitti Walk.  

  4. Model this thinking for your students, describing ways that you think about prior knowledge when reading a text or learning about a new concept or topic. Use the following sentence stems when modeling your thinking: 

    • I know _____ about this topic/concept.

    • I saw this topic on a TV show/movie/magazine, and I learned that _____.

    • This topic reminds me of _____. 

    • I read about this topic before.  I learned that _____.  

    • The pictures remind me me of _____.

    • I heard about this topic/concept at _____. 

    • This relates to _____. 

    • This is similar to _____. 

  5. Formatively assess students to check for understanding as to whether they are using prior knowledge to help with reading comprehension and/or conceptual understanding.  Use the following question stems to formatively assess students: 

    • What did you already know about this topic/concept before you started reading?

    • What does this topic/concept remind you of? 

    • Have you ever read about this topic?  Have you ever seen this topic on a TV show or movie? 

  6. Reflect on how background knowledge impacted and/or connected to what students learned and/or read about in the lesson activity.  If using a KWL chart, use the "L" portion of the KWL chart to reflect on student learning. 

KWL Chart

KWL Charts support students to activate prior knowledge on a concept or topic and document evidence of learning while engaging with a lesson activity.  

Implementation steps:

  1. Select a method to record or document the KWL chart.  There are both digital and non-digital methods to record a KWL chart.  A piece of butcher paper, poster paper, a white board, or a handout can be used to document ideas for the KWL Chart.  The resource linked below, KWL chart, is an example of a KWL Chart handout that students could use.  Padlet is a great website to use for teachers or students to digitally record responses for a KWL Chart. To learn more about KWL charts, consult BetterLesson's "KLEWS and KWL Charts for Documenting Evidence of Learning" strategy in the BetterLesson Lab.

  • Introduce the topic or concept to students.  Engage the students in a discussion about the concept with the KWL Chart prompts:

    • What do you know about the topic?

    • What do you wonder about the topic?

    • To be completed after the lesson activity: What did you learn?

  • As students are engaging in the lesson activity, or lesson activities, encourage them to share and record their learnings (L) and any new wonderings (W).  

  • Reflect on the KWL Chart as a closing activity to discuss the progression of learning, and to determine if there are wonderings that are still unanswered. 

EL Modification

  • For English Language Learners, acquiring new academic content occurs simultaneously with acquiring a new language.  Activating prior knowledge, and attaching new information to the knowledge they already possess, is critical in developing strong conceptual understanding.  

  • The teacher should utilize visuals (graphic organizers, concept maps, etc.) when connecting new content to prior knowledge.  Visuals help English language learners who struggle with written language production to make connections with vocabulary and concepts.  Videos, photographs, and other multimedia are also powerful resources to engage English language learners who struggle with written and oral production.  

  • The resource linked below, "Connect Students' Background Knowledge to Content in the ELL Classroom," discusses additional methods for making academic material more culturally relevant and accessible to students.

Special Education Modification

  • For students with disabilities that impact verbal and written communication, a Frayer model is a useful resource that provides students with more specific details (examples, non-examples, characteristics, and definition) of new vocabulary words. To learn more about Frayer models, consult the resources below and the Frayerl Model Graphic Organizer strategy in the BetterLesson Lab. 

CRTL Consideration: Funds of Knowledge

Funds of Knowledge is defined by Norma Gonzalez, Luis Moll, and Cathy Amanti in their research as the "historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being (2005)".   These funds of knowledge are resources that students and their families bring from their homes, communities, and cultures that can be used in classroom instruction.  For example, a student's family member that is a mechanic may be a valuable resource in the design and planning of a curriculum unit on force, motion, and physical science.  The Funds of Knowledge concept is so beneficial in activating prior knowledge.  Not only does it allow students to make connections between what they are learning and the knowledge of a family member, friend, or community member, but it also allows students to make connections between what they are learning and the real-world. 

Questions to Consider

  • How will you incorporate instructional time into the pacing of this unit for activities that activate prior knowledge? 
  • How will you modify instruction based on the feedback from students about their background knowledge in regards to the specific topic or concept?

Coach Tips

Kathleen Rockefeller
BetterLesson Instructional Coach
  • Prepare questions ahead of time that you want to ask students to activate prior knowledge.  Questions can be general or specific to the content being taught.  

  • Visual representations help students to make connections between and among topics or concepts. 

  • Utilizing a Think-Pair-Share strategy allows students to incorporate collaboration and discussion when engaging in prior knowledge brainstorming sessions or discussions.  

  • When pacing out a unit, it is important to build in time for activities that activate prior knowledge in students.  We often pace out a unit by diving right into the content without considering pre-assessment data, student background knowledge, or activating prior knowledge.

Tech Tools

Padlet

  • Padlet is a digital corkboard type tool that students can use to gather information or reflections. Teachers can easily access each students’ Padlet with a shared link. 

  • Padlet is a tool that can be used for brainstorming activities such as KWL Charts, ABC Brainstorming, etc. 

 

Google Forms

  • Google Forms are an easy way to gather (form) and aggregate (sheet) information. Response to a Google Form document can be aggregated, sorted, and saved in a Google Sheet. 

  • Google Forms are a great tool to use to survey both students and parents to gather information about prior knowledge and/or resources that a student and their family may be able to offer for a particular curriculum unit or topic.  

 

LucidChart

  • Lucidchart is a visual workspace that combines diagramming, data visualization, and collaboration.  Lucidchart has multiple templates to start from, or a user can start creating concept maps and diagrams from scratch. 

  • Lucidchart is a great tool to use for creating concept maps.  Students and teachers can conduct brainstorming sessions to activate prior knowledge by creating a concept map on a specific topic or concept. 

Related Lessons

  • Explore the Recalling Prior Knowledge of Adding and Subtracting Fractions lesson by fifth grade math BetterLesson Master Teacher, James Ewing, included in the resources below to see how to activate prior knowledge in a math lesson on fractions. 

  • Explore the Reading Strategy: Activating Prior Knowledge by fourth grade English Language Arts BetterLesson Master Teacher, Ellen Herman, included in the resources below to see how to activate prior knowledge before reading a text. 

  • Explore the Activating Prior Knowledge lesson by seventh grade English Language Arts BetterLesson Master Teacher, Julia Withers, included in the resources below to see an example of activating prior knowledge in an English Language Arts lesson on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Consulted Resources

In developing this strategy, the following resources were consulted: 

  • González, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (Eds). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.