Curriculum Corner

Instructional Strategy Focus: Integrating Prior Knowledge

High-Yield Instructional Strategy of the Month: Integrating Prior Knowledge (0.93 Effect Size)

Integrating prior knowledge includes a collection of strategies that build on what students already understand about a topic so that they will be able to access the new content. Some strategies include anticipatory guides, mind mapping, and using multimedia and realia. This strategy is also know as "Previewing New Content" within the Marzano framework.
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Social Emotional Cognitive Learning

5 Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision-Making

Students, teachers and parents may be experiencing stress and feelings of anxiety as the school year begins. Some people are more prone to stress and anxiety than others. A major part of managing stress is to make sure you have proper relaxation skills. Relaxation techniques can be active, mindful, and reflective. The goal is to find the relaxation technique that is right for each individual.

Example using prior-knowledge:

Teacher asks students, “Remember a time when you felt upset or stressed. Think about how you felt and what helped you calm down.” Have a few students share what helped calm them down. Likely, each person shared something different. Knowing what has worked for you in the past and exploring news techniques to help in different situations is beneficial to your mental health.

5 Calming Mind-Body Exercises to Try With Your Students

English Language Arts

Elementary (PK-5)

Teachers can effectively build children's background knowledge early on (Neuman & Wright, 2013). However, at the same time, we must recognize that knowledge is not just accumulating facts; rather, children need to develop knowledge networks, comprised of clusters of concepts that are coherent, generative, and supportive of future learning in a domain. Here's how we do it:

  • Begin by teaching words in categories. For example, you can try something as simple as this: “I'm going to say the following words: strawberries, bananas, papayas, pineapples. They all are a type of… (fruit).” Categories of objects begin to develop concepts, and the use of generic nouns (fruit) has been shown to be highly related to language and vocabulary development.
  • Use contrasts and comparisons. For example, you can give children puzzlers like, “Is an artichoke a type of fruit? Why is it or is it not a kind of fruit?” Puzzlers help children think outside the immediate context and consider the reasoning behind these contrasts and comparisons, which can further their understanding of categories and concepts.
  • Use analogies. An analogy is another type of comparison, but this time the comparison is made between two things that are usually thought to be different from each other. Analogies help children build knowledge because they compare something new to something we already know. For example, try something like, “bird is to feather as dog is to… (fur).” Children can use similes (comparisons using the words like or as) or metaphors (comparisons without using like or as) to build new knowledge.
  • Encourage topic-focused wide reading. Reading builds knowledge, but wide reading has typically been interpreted as reading about a lot of different topics, demonstrating breadth rather than depth in reading. Try this variation: Encourage children to identify an interest and read as many books as they can on one topic. What you find is that children will develop a deeper knowledge and expertise on a topic. These interests will drive children to read more.

Jr. High (6-8)

Big Idea Concept Exploration - When integrating prior knowledge in the 6-8 ELA classroom, one approach to consider is the big idea concept exploration. Prepare students to think beyond the narrative arc of a novel or text and instead focus in on the larger concepts expressed through the text. For example, prepare students to think about big ideas such as truth, power, identity, and purpose. Because these present themselves in a wide variety of text types, students will be able to more effectively integrate their prior knowledge into their current reading and subsequent writing. As Allison Posey writes of this integrating prior knowledge, when students encounter a new task, their, “brain[s] predict the energy demands [they] may require for this task in this context, and this prediction influences what you pay attention to, how you execute the tasks, and ultimately how you engage and learn in that moment.” Use these concepts to not only introduce students to a new text, but to support their further learning for the duration of reading the text.

High School (9-12)

Emotional Engagement - When introducing a new concept in ELA, particularly in writing, it is important to consider students' emotional engagement as you integrate prior knowledge. The higher the emotional engagement, the greater the likelihood new concepts are retained by students. As Allison Posey explains, teachers should do the following when introducing a new concept, “Describe the context (environment). What are your students doing? What previous experiences have students had in this context that may influence how their brains are making predictions about the energy they need to expend to achieve the intended learning goal?” Even with non-fiction texts, tapping into students’ emotional engagement allows them to get deeper and derive more meaning from them.



Elementary (PK-5) - Two Minute Talks

During Two Minute Talks, students will share with a partner by brainstorming everything they already know (prior knowledge) about a skill, topic, or concept. In doing so, they are establishing a foundation of knowledge in preparation for learning new information about the skill, topic, or concept.

  1. Group students into pairs.

  2. Inform students they will each be talking about topic X for two minutes. Use a predetermined system to select which student will begin first.

  3. Using a stopwatch, tell students to begin talking.

  4. At two minutes, instruct students to switch. At this point the other partner begins talking. Partner two can repeat some of the same information, however they are encouraged to try and think of new information to share.

  5. Have a few groups share some of their responses with the either class, or have students synthesize what they talked about in a graphic organizer that they can add on to after they have learned new information.

Sample two minute topics:

  • What are ways we can show the number 25?

  • What do you know about place value?

  • What is a fraction?

  • What is the difference between a decimal, percent, and a fraction?

  • What is a ratio?

Junior High (6-8) - L.I.N.K Strategy

The L.I.N.K Strategy is an adapted strategy from the KWL that identifies students’ prior knowledge about specific content.

  1. Students complete the (L) column individually & turn to share their responses with a partner. *Important to share student responses: Allow students an opportunity to write either their own responses (I) before sharing with a group or partner.
  2. The teacher leads a short class discussion, charting out what everyone in the class knows about the concept and students taking notes (N).
  3. Throughout the lesson. Students finish by writing what they know (K) and turn that section in to the teacher as they leave class.

High School (9-12) - Think, Solve, Reflect

Teachers design intentionally inviting prompts that engage student thinking that requires them to justify their thinking verbally or in written form. Using a meaningful prompt that invites rational discourse is important in engaging students and activating their prior knowledge. Once prior knowledge is activated, students can start making connections between what they already know and the learning intentions for that lesson.

Prompt: Skye, a tennis player, has won 48 out of 63 matches in her career. How many matches does she need to win, in a row, to raise her win percentage to 80%?

  • Step 1: Think - I wonder what her winning percentage is? How does her win percentage change with each win? What do I need to know in order to raise her win percentage to 80%? Can I model this situation with an equation?
  • Step 2: Solve - If Skye won the next game, what would the percentage change to?
  • Step 3: Reflect - Does the answer seem reasonable in the context of the situation? Is there a way we could represent this situation algebraically using “x”?
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A great way to activate prior knowledge in science classes

Why misconceptions?

Misconceptions are found in elementary, middle, and high school students and are one cause of students’ inability to learn. Various factors influence misconception, and they occur without students realizing it. It is necessary to identify misconceptions to correct them.

Teachers using a single method to facilitate instructional strategies can encourage students to experience misconceptions. Bored students are likely to disengage from content and allow misconceptions (from outside the classroom) to fill in the gaps in learning.

Below are multiple methods to Integrate Prior Knowledge and help students identify misconceptions.

Misconceptions in action (quick videos)

Research on addressing misconceptions

  • Misconceptions as Barriers to Understanding Science - Misconceptions can occur in students' understanding of scientific methods as well as in their organization of scientific knowledge. For example, students in a science class will often express disappointment that an experiment did not work.

  • Improving Student Learning by Addressing Misconception - Students—and often those who teach them—come to class with preconceptions and misconceptions that hinder their learning. For instance, many K–12 students and teachers believe groundwater exists in the ground in actual rivers or lakes, but in fact, groundwater is found in permeable rock lay-ers called aquifers.

Social Science

Elementary (PK-6)

Launching the learning in your classroom from the prior knowledge of your students is a tenet of good teaching. Allowing students to share their own experiences, hunches, and ideas about the content or concept of study and relating it to their own lives should be done at the start of a lesson -- and throughout a unit of study.

One way to activate prior knowledge is to analyze an artifact from the past with the Image Brainstorm Technique. The teacher will project an image on the LCD projector or smartboard and ask students to tell them everything they can about the picture. Choose images that make sense to them and also allow you to connect to the new content and/or concepts students will be learning. CUSD's Integrated Units use the 5E model of instruction. The Engage portion of each Integrated Unit lesson plan is designed to pique student interest. Students make connections with prior experiences and understanding is connected.

Secondary (7-12)

Do Bell Ringers Engage Students?

Teachers can use a variety of practices to activate and integrate prior knowledge at the beginning of a lesson. Previewing New Content can be done with a KWL, an anticipation guide, or graphic organizers. Bell Ringers (or lesson hooks) can also be very effective in integrating prior knowledge, allowing students to use a variety of means to represent their learning, and help students think about the content in their lives. Try to develop a Bell Ringer that (1) teases out the main objective of the lesson and (2) has students grapple with critical issues within their lives.

Fine Arts

Integrating prior knowledge helps students make sense of new concepts. You can help students do this through drawing! Drawing definitely isn't just for artists. Engaging students in drawing activates the visual, kinesthetic and visual areas of the brain. This Edutopia video shares 4 simple ways to integrate drawing into teaching.

Talking Drawings can help students assess their own prior knowledge throughout learning experiences.

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Physical & Health Education

Vote With Your Feet

Get every student thinking with this strategy. Start with 3-5 ”vote with your feet” statements. If the statement is “true” stand on the north sideline, if “false” stand on the south sideline. If they are not sure, stand at “center court”. You do not need to tell them the right answer, that’s what they will learn during the lesson. Examples:

  • Your heart is a muscle.
  • It is best to stretch before your warm-up activities.
  • Agility is one of the components of Health-Related Fitness.
  • Interval training is used to increase anaerobic performance for activities that require short bursts of vigorous physical activity.

English Language Learners

Principle One of Arizona’s Language Development Approach focuses on asset-based behaviors and expectations. All teachers are language instructors and should “consistently acknowledge and build on the background knowledge and prior experiences of EL students.” Below is a quick, efficient, and effective approach to assess, build upon, and integrate prior knowledge that you can infuse into your instruction straightaway. Much like the Integrated Units for K-6 Science and Social Science, the 5 E's model of inquiry provides a carefully planned sequence of instruction that places students at the center of learning.

  • Engage: Determine what content students need to know and provide students with a prompt to sketch a term or phenomena
    • Ask students to write or draw a quick response, give adequate time, but not too much
  • Explore: Take a moment to review responses as a whole group
    • Have some or all students share their sketches with the class
      • Teacher charts interpretations
      • Use the information to create student groups and inform class instruction
    • Watch a video or show images of examples and non-examples
  • Explain: As you teach the lesson, infuse the chart of interpretations along with the examples and non-examples
  • Elaborate: Have students join peer groups based on current knowledge using the sentence frame: I thought _____. Now, I know _____.
  • Evaluate: Have students write or sketch term/phenomena

“If a teacher has not activated prior knowledge or built background information about content material, teaching the vocabulary that is associated with the new content will not solve the problem. Just because ELs may be able to read words doesn’t mean they will understand their meaning in the context of the content being taught” (Haynes & Zacarian, 2010).

Early Childhood Programs

Like adults, children learn better when content is meaningful to them. Content is meaningful when it relates to something familiar- an interest, an experience, or something they already know. Teachers can build upon student’s natural curiosity by drawing upon their everyday experiences and helping them connect new concepts to previous knowledge. It is important for teachers to be the guide to bridge the gap between student’s life experiences and all the new things they are trying to learn in school. This “bridging” makes it easier for them to take in, understand, remember, and use the new ideas, knowledge and skills.

In the book Powerful Interactions, authors Amy Laura Dombro, Judy Jablon, and Charlotte Stetson, list several tips for integrating previous knowledge:

Build links between read-aloud stories and children’s own life experiences.

Ex.: “When you go for a ride in the car with your family, you wear a seatbelt, right? The little girl in this story doesn’t want to war her seatbelt. Let’s see how she solves that problem.”

Build links between new classroom materials and familiar materials.

Ex.: “Here are some new blocks for the block center. How are they the same as the other blocks? How are they different?”

Build links between new and familiar words.

Ex.: “The little bear in this story just said he was exhausted. Have you heard that word before? When you go home after a long say at school, you might feel REALLY tires. You could say, ‘I’m exhausted!’ Try saying, ‘I’m exhausted!’”

Build links by asking “connection questions” that help children relate to familiar experiences and new knowledge and understanding.

Ex.: “What does this remind you of? Where else have you seen/ heard this?”

The video below showcases an example of integrating prior knowledge. Notice how the teacher connects ideas about plants with the book they read the day before. This supports the development of children’s logic and reasoning skills, particularly their ability to understand the world around them and acquire new knowledge.

Making Learning Meaningful

IRC Contributors

IRC Instructional Coaches & Leadership

  • Dr. Jessica Edgar - Director of PK-12 Core Curriculum & Instruction
  • Renee Sweeden - Director of Electives & Enrichment
  • Jamie McBride - Assistant Director of Curriculum & Instruction
  • Cassie Bohlig - Academic Coach: K-8 Math Specialty
  • Karen Brooks - Academic Coach: K-8 Math Specialty
  • Leslie Hicks Cordova - Academic Coach: K-12 Physical Education/SECL
  • Robyn Demmelmaier - Intervention Coach
  • Heath Druck - Academic Coach: K-6 Social Science
  • Beth Haas - Academic Coach: Early Childhood
  • Kathy Lynch - Academic Coach: Primary Content
  • Jena Phillips - Academic Coach: K-6 Science
  • Brian Pomerantz - Academic Coach: 7-12 Science
  • Philip Robertson - Academic Coach: 7-12 Social Science
  • Sarah Sacco - Academic Coach: 7-12 English Language Arts
  • Eric Rygiel - Academic Coach: 7-12 Math
  • Emily Squire - Academic Coach: K-6 English Language Arts
  • Angela Storey - Academic Coach: K-12 Fine Arts