Reading Comprehension and Prior Knowledge

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One of the things I always think about when I introduce a new reading to a class is a reader’s background or “schematic” knowledge about a particular topic.  Although two articles might look similar in terms of vocabulary difficulty, sentence length, and sentence-level grammar structure, the fact is that learners will find an article in which they have more background knowledge much better for reading comprehension than one in which they have little or no knowledge.  For this reason, it’s important to give learners some pre-reading activities that will help activate or provide background knowledge before they jump into reading an article in class.  Here are some ideas for doing this:

1.) Show a video:  If you’re about to read about a new topic, consider showing a short youtube video to the class beforehand.  For example, you might show short video clips about New York City before giving out our lesson about it.  You can even turn off the sound and just have your learners watch the video and think about some words in English that describe what they see.

2.) Talk about different perceptions:  One issue that can hamper reading comprehension are the different cultural perceptions about a topic.  The writer may be trying to be humorous and tongue-in-cheek with a certain subject but a second language learner may not be able to pick this up from the text or have very different interpretations of a particular topic.  I once gave my class full of Japanese students the opening monologue from  “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” by Kurt Vonnegut.  Although I expected a grin or a laugh response from what I thought was obviously satire, the reaction of the students was that of shock and horror.  This led into a deeper discussion of the nature of satire and I needed to pull some examples from Japanese popular media to try and shed some light on what they were reading.  I’m not sure my attempt was successful but I certainly believe that having the discussion before the reading attempt would have been much more productive in the long run.

3) Pre-reading survey:  Another activity that might help activate background knowledge for reading comprehension is a class survey.  Making a few short questions about a topic could be helpful for the students and also help spark discussion in the class that leads to peer learning.  The questions can be extremely simple and you can slip in some vocabulary from the article to get the students ready for the reading.  Again, you can ask questions about how certain topics or ideas are handled differently in other cultures to help avoid confusion arising from culturally-based interpretations of the reading.

In this post, I’ve outlined three activities but there are probably dozens of these kinds of activities that you can do to help students activate background knowledge about a particular topic before doing reading comprehension tasks or quizzes.  More important than this, however, I strongly believe that students really only get a reliable schemata from reading broadly and extensively.  Good luck in your teaching efforts!

Here’s more information on schematic activities if you’re interested: