Sunday, February 6, 2011

Building Prior Knowledge of Concepts (Lord)

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Kathleen Lord is an assistant professor of Literacy Education at the State University of New York - New Paltz. Her research interests include comprehension, particularly pertaining to conceptual development and knowledge acquisition. Dr. Lord can be reached at 

Individually, I interviewed 102 fourth graders, asking them about social studies concepts. Responses varied widely, depending on the concept itself. Three examples are shown below (interviewer’s prompts are in parentheses):

1: "What does paying taxes mean?”
Results: Only 22% provided an example of paying taxes or defined the word. Some students explained that money is collected at the store and that you pay more money than the price of the item; however, students had no idea what the money is used for.
Responses included: When you buy something and it is one dollar and you pay seven cents. (What do they do with it?) They put it in the drawer. (Then what do they do with it?) They collect it and give it back as change.”

Question 2: "What does inventing something mean?”
Results: This time, 52% provided a definition or an example of “inventing something,” referring to Thomas Edison and different inventions. Among those not receiving credit for their answers, students explained inventing something as “making something” like arts and crafts or bacon and eggs, whereas four students said, “when you lie” or “making a story up.”

Question 3: "What does making a trade mean?”
Results: A whopping 80% of the students provided correct explanations for “making a trade.” Responses included trading Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon cards, and trading school items such as pencils and stickers (Lord, 2007).

Students answered questions pertaining to trade, but had difficulty answering questions about taxation and invention. Why? The difference appears to be experience. Some concepts are known to young students, whereas other concepts are either emerging or are not yet known. If students have never invented something, discovered the unknown, or been involved in a rebellion, it is unlikely that they would recognize these situations when encountered in text. Often, young readers are being introduced to concepts that they have had little or no previous exposure to, and these unknown or emerging concepts may interfere with their comprehension.

Conceptual knowledge is not only important for reading in the content areas but is crucial for reading and learning, period. It is nearly impossible to reason, interpret, analyze, infer, or answer questions that require higher-order thinking if the reader does not understand the big ideas presented in the text. Inevitably, these gaps in understanding impede learning and comprehension.

Prior knowledge: It is often thought that students gain knowledge from text. Students actually modify knowledge that they already have (Catts, 2009; Kintsch, 1998). When new information connects to an existing knowledge structure, this prior knowledge (or schema) serves as a foundation for new ideas encountered in text and leads to the construction of a situation model (van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983). This is critical to comprehension and results in a deeper understanding of the information in the text. Research has repeatedly shown that children and adults with prior knowledge about a topic have better comprehension of the text than those with no prior knowledge (Chiesi, Spilich, & Voss, 1979; Pearson, Hansen, & Gordon, 1979; Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, & Voss, 1979; Taylor, 1979). In fact, less skilled readers can actually outperform skilled readers when they have more prior knowledge (Kintsch, 1998; Recht & Leslie, 1988; Schneider, Korkel, & Weinert, 1989; Taylor, 1979).

But where does this prior knowledge come from? One avenue is via life experiences. When a student visits various zoos on many occasions, he/she constructs a “zoo” schema. When reading about the zoo, the zoo schema (existing knowledge structure) is activated and this schema serves as an anchor for new information about the zoo. The concept of “zoo” is fairly concrete, tangible. The Bronx Zoo and the San Diego Zoo are specific examples of the concept of zoo. We generalize the concept of zoo from specific examples.

Not all concepts are concrete. Concepts can also include ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving, e.g., democracy, conflict, exploration, justice, migration, or adaptation (Walker, 2009). Specific examples of the concept of exploration include Sally Ride and space exploration, Columbus and his discoveries, Robert Ballard and his exploration of the Titanic, and famous archeologists and their specific investigations. Again, students need specific examples in order to generalize the abstract concept of exploration.

Consider the historical period prior to the American Revolution, information introduced in fourth and fifth grades. In Table 1 below, some specific topics and events are given in the left column and the recurring concepts are listed in the right column. The abstract concepts in the right column are generic ideas generalized from the specific examples in the left column.

Table 1: Topics and events with associated concepts
Specific Topics and/or Events Concepts
French and Indian War Conflict; treaties; compromise
Stamp Act, Sugar Act, tea tax Taxation
Yelling "No Taxation without representation!" Protest
Sons of Liberty; burning down tax collectors' homes; tossing tea into harbor Rebellion
Refusing to purchase things from Britain Boycott
Throughout the period Independence; democracy; freedom; liberty; colonization; representative government

These concepts recur, but not only during history instruction, throughout life. If learned deeply, students will be able to access these concepts to use as prior knowledge when learning new content. Notably, if students remain either unaware of the concept/s or have had no experience with the concept/s, their comprehension of the text will be hindered.

An instructional model: We have a dilemma. How do we teach content that will eventually become the prior knowledge needed for new learning? Below, I provide a model to guide the planning process.

1. Identify concept/s: Identify concepts within the topics or events. Determine students’ understanding, as well as their misconceptions, of the key concepts that will be encountered during instruction.

2. Plan for depth and breadth: Depth is needed for schema development. Breadth is needed for transfer. Depth involves teaching so that students understand the concept well and can utilize it in new contexts. Breadth involves providing varied experiences within the concept in order to promote transfer to new contexts.

For instance, when teaching exploration, provide in-depth instruction and experiences with exploring, and then orchestrate instruction that exposes students to varied instances of explorers and exploration. Begin instruction with a known or familiar event (Columbus). Then extend to other types of exploration, providing specific instruction concerning similarities and differences among different explorers. By linking historical explorers to present-day explorers, students’ knowledge of exploration will extend beyond their limited understanding that explorers were people from centuries ago.

3. Locate material to teach the concept: Once the concept is identified, locate material to teach the concept. Select books and other resources that expose students to various situations of the same concept in order to teach for transfer. Learning can be enriched and deepened when taught with children’s literature and biographies. Additionally, literature serves as a common classroom experience to refer to throughout the unit. For instance, reading aloud a trade book about a child immigrating or sharing a book about a child escaping slavery through the Underground Railroad provide foundations to build upon.

4. Determine essential question/s: Let the students help you form these questions. Essential questions keep the unit focused. These questions are pertinent to the “big ideas” that will be encountered throughout a unit of study. Encourage students’ questions about the concept and use these to generate essential questions concerning the big ideas. During instruction, return to the questions so that students recognize how each lesson pertains to the big ideas.

For an immigration unit, consider questions such as, “Why do people move?” “How do they get there?” “How do they assimilate?” “Where do they come from and where do they go?” provide an anchor for each lesson.

5. Vocabulary: Teach vocabulary associated with the concept and revisit this vocabulary often and throughout the unit. Beyond the obvious words taught throughout an exploration unit (e.g., explore, discover, journey, investigate), include other words pertaining to character feelings and traits (e.g., tenacious, risk-taking, adventurous, courageous, intrepid, resolute) and modes of transportation (e.g., submarine, rocket, ship, Conestoga wagon).

6. Plan authentic activities and establish a purpose: Build background knowledge by allowing students opportunities to experience the concepts, while making direct connections to the to-be-learned content. One thing we can count on is that students’ authentic experiences can serve as conceptual prior knowledge. These experiences involve exploration, invention, compromise, conflict, community building, representative government, democratic leadership, and economic decisions. They include observing cycles and adaptation, creating habitats, and experiencing motion and velocity.

In the classroom, utilize familiar experiences or create common experiences to anchor subsequent learning (e.g., designing an exploration scenario; posing a dilemma in need of an inventive solution; introducing classroom elections and government; taxing students). Additionally, establish a genuine purpose for the unit such as preparing students to interview a present-day inventor, explorer, elected official, or tax collector.

These activities, in addition to reading children’s literature, provide common classroom experiences for instruction, as well as the prior knowledge needed for new learning to take hold.

Basal reading programs: If utilizing a basal reading program, the thematic unit can be enriched in similar manner. Each unit is based on a conceptual theme. Identify or modify questions provided by the publisher, and/or develop essential questions based on students’ questions. Introduce key concept vocabulary beyond the story vocabulary. Locate relevant children’s books including chapter books beyond the weekly story selections, and begin, intentionally, to teach concepts for transfer.

(Click "Read more" for the references)
  • Catts, H.W. (2009). The narrow view of reading promotes a broad view of comprehension. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 40, 178-183.
  • Chiesi, H.L., Spilich, G.J. & Voss, J.F. (1979). Acquisition of domain-related information in relation to high and low domain knowledge. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 257 – 273.
  • Kintsch, W. (1998). Comprehension: A paradigm for cognition. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lord, K.M. (2007). Fourth graders’ comprehension of history themes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York, New York.
  • Pearson, P.D., Hansen, J. & Gordon, C. (1979). The effect of background knowledge on young children’s comprehension of explicit and implicit information. Journal of Reading Behavior, 11, 201 – 209.
  • Recht, D.R. & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 16 – 20.
  • Schneider, W., Korkel, J., & Weinert, F.E. (1989). Domain-specific knowledge and memory performance: A comparison of high- and low-aptitude children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 306 –312.
  • Spilich, G.J., Vesonder, G.T., Chiesi, H.L., & Voss, J.F. (1979). Text processing of domain- related information for individuals with high and low domain knowledge. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 275 – 290.
  • Taylor, B.M. (1979). Good and poor readers’ recall of familiar and unfamiliar text. Journal of Reading Behavior, 11, (4), 373 – 380.
  • van Dijk, T. A. & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of discourse comprehension. Academic Press: New York.
  • Walker, W.C. (2009). Social studies in elementary education (13th ed.). Allyn & Bacon: Boston.


  1. Kathleen, you have taken something abstract and complex and made it almost seem simple. I wish I had been given this lesson-planning model as a middle school teacher. I struggled to help students understand big ideas in which the entire history unit was anchored. Concepts like taxation were particularly tough!

    Thank you,

  2. Anonymous2/10/2011

    Dr. Lord, this topic applies directly to our students. As Susan said, you have made this almost seem easy.

    What is more important for struggling readers? Breadth of Knowledge or Depth of Knowledge? Which comes first, from a teaching and learning angle? Should teachers focus on both at the same time?
    Is it different for younger children, compared to older?

  3. This is interesting!

  4. Kathleen Lord2/12/2011

    Thanks Susan for maintaining a high-quality website that promotes dialogue for all of us grappling with a common concern!

    JT – I think it is interesting too!

    Anonymous – EXCELLENT questions.
    It seems easy, but implementation across a school or district is complicated. One thing that causes this to be so complicated is that an approach to teach concepts gets confused with theme-based projects, e.g., units on Apples or Frogs. Concepts are big ideas like habitat, adaptation, immigration, discovery, etc. These concepts lend themselves perfectly to cross-curricula integration beyond counting apples and reading Johnny Appleseed.

    Both depth and breadth are needed for schema development and this can happen at the same time. But it is important to initially teach the concept deeply so that students can detect the concept when it is encountered. I recommend teaching the concept embedded in familiar content (Columbus) and then transferring to new content (archeologists).

    Most learners, particularly our struggling students, require depth in order to understand the concept and then breadth in order to recognize how the concept is similar in different settings. For instance, when reading a story about perseverance, students need to understand that the character in the story worked diligently to learn something and ultimately accomplished his goal. Then the same concept must be taught in a different context AND the similarities must be highlighted. The setting changes but the concept remains constant. Perseverance, for example, occurs when learning to play golf or play the piano, when learning to read, ride a bike, or running in a race.

    Young children organize the information about their world around concepts. Therefore, young children should be taught conceptually, and this includes the language (vocabulary) to talk about the concept. There are several key concepts that young children can learn – discovery, exploration, inventions, habitats, perseverance, communities, and so many more. The problem is not that we do not teach these concepts - we lack depth in teaching these concepts. Additionally, we do not assess conceptual knowledge so that we do not know that the students learned it.

    Thank you for reading the blog and posting your questions!

  5. Anonymous2/18/2011

    Thanks. I get that line of reason. An argument for avoiding superficial activities, too. "Never mistake activity for progress"


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