Structural prior knowledge and the power of prediction
From reviews of effective teaching instruction to insights from neuroscience and cognitive science, there is consensus on the importance of assessing, adding to and linking prior knowledge. This could be summarised as:
New learning needs to be connected to and build upon what you already know.
It can be helpful to “assess” or check students understanding and knowledge while supporting students to fill in any gaps identified.
It is helpful to find out what students know about a topic from their everyday experience and link to that.
In this post I’ll explore the importance of both topical and structural prior knowledge in relation to reading.
Prior knowledge and reading
In reading, prior knowledge refers to the knowledge readers have before studying a text. A key study exploring prior knowledge and reading was: Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text by Recht & Leslie, 1988[i]. The researchers asked 7th and 8th graders to read a text about a baseball game. They divided the students into four groups: good readers who were high or low in baseball knowledge, and poor readers who were high or low in baseball knowledge. They found that reading ability contributed less to comprehension success than the students’ levels of knowledge about baseball. Good readers with high prior knowledge did no better than poor readers with high prior knowledge when it came to reading comprehension. As Recht explained:
“Prior knowledge creates a scaffolding for information…. For poor readers, the scaffolding allows them to compensate for their generally inefficient recognition of important ideas.”
Yet Recht and Leslie’s recommendations were more wide ranging than often implied, as the concluding comment of their paper reveals:
“In light of the importance of adequate prior knowledge, strategy instruction and the knowledge base should be equally considered in the design of instruction. “
The importance of knowledge is further supported by the work of Cunningham and Stanovich[ii] who administered a reading test and three measures of general cultural knowledge. They found a high correlation between reading comprehension and the measures of cultural knowledge.
Topical Prior Knowledge.
When prior knowledge is referenced, it is usually topical prior knowledge that is alluded to. Topical prior knowledge relates to the subject or topic being read. This, as we’ve seen, is important. In Let’s Think in English (LTE) there are some lessons where we provide topical prior knowledge before students read the text as the knowledge is vital for understanding and engagement. For example, when students are studying the KS3 LTE lesson exploring Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Flying Machine” we provide further information regarding the Great Wall of China and some images as this is the topical prior knowledge Bradbury would assume his readers to have. However, Bradbury would not expect a reader to know the themes of the text or have an overview of the plot before they have read the story as has become the vogue in some classrooms.
An intriguing and surprising example of the need for topical prior knowledge arose when we designed an LTE KS1 lesson based on the short film: Boy and his Kite from Unreal Engine. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zjPiGVSnfI
We were interested in exploring the symbolism of the kite and decided to support pupils’ understanding through a series of questions such as:
Will the boy get his kite back?
Is the boy following the kite or is the kite leading the boy?
Young pupils start to recognise symbolism when they understand an object is behaving or being used in an unusual way or as they frequently say it is acting “weird”. However, to our surprise, a small group of pupils did not find the movements of the kite “weird” or unusual in the film as they had no topical prior knowledge of kites. We addressed this by providing an opportunity for pupils to clarify the function of kites and share their experiences using them. Once more, we could safely assume the director would expect a viewer to have this topical prior knowledge and without it the symbolism of the kite would be missed.
Could it be a helpful when reading narrative texts to ask what essential topical prior knowledge would the writer expect us to have? Admittedly when exploring narrative texts from another era there may be some specific topical prior knowledge students require but the question remains when in a lesson’s sequence is it best to provide this? Yet narrative texts offer a further support to our understanding in the guise of structural prior knowledge.
Structural Prior Knowledge
Structural prior knowledge refers to knowledge of the structures we use to convey information. Many subjects chiefly use expository texts and therefore it is helpful to activate pupils’ structural prior knowledge of the medium; what do we expect of this, how does it convey information to us. However, in English we frequently use narrative texts, and our knowledge of story architecture is the most used of all structural banks.
Gopink et al [iii](1999) summarised nearly thirty years of research:
“Our brains were designed by evolution to develop story representations from sensory input that accurately approximate real things and experience in the world.… let us predict what the world will be like and so act on it effectively. They are nature’s way of solving the problem of knowledge.”
Gopink’s research confirmed stories are a primary way , humans use to interpret the world around them. As children start to verbalise, an awareness of story structure emerges linked to the sequential actions, expectations, goals and motives they experience in daily interactions. As Gopink explains:
“The baby’s computers start out with a specific program for translating the inputs they get into accurate representations of the world and then into story-based predictions and actions”
This emerging awareness of story structure is fortified by exposure to stories throughout childhood, reinforcing the structural knowledge that emerges in early childhood. Young children use stories to explain as they mimic the communication used by their parents. As Johnson[iv] (1987) explained:
“For children, to explain is to tell the right story that is appropriate to the situation, one that has a chance of successfully answering the questions put to them.”
Are you activating structural prior knowledge?
So how to support students to activate structural prior knowledge of narratives? Well, perhaps the most effective way is simply to read widely. By reading more you develop understanding and knowledge of narrative structures and you start to identify patterns between texts.
However, explicitly focusing on and activating pupils’ prior knowledge of textual structures may help too. One of our Let’s Think in English Year 2 lessons explores Jon Agee’s brilliant picture book “The Wall in the Middle of the Book”. We start the lesson by showing pupils the front cover of the book and asking them to discuss in their groups:
What type of story might this be?
What might we expect the 2 characters to be like?
The questions trigger pupils’ topical prior knowledge through an exploration of the characters on the front cover and where we might have met such character types before. However, pupils frequently respond to the questions posed by outlining a plot involving the ogre and the knight as they base their predictions on familiar story structures. They quickly classify the characters in terms of good and bad (hero and villain) and predict different goals for the characters (the ogre wishes to get over the wall while the knight is keeping him out). Activating their structural prior knowledge enables students to predict a possible narrative structure they can review as the story develops. This enables greater engagement with the text as pupils consider how their predictions chime or differ from the choices of the writer and why.
As the lesson progresses pupils are provided with an opportunity to review their structural prior knowledge in the light of the story development so far when we pause on the following page and ask:
How do you think the story will end?
Why do you think this?
By this point pupils are reassessing their earlier impression. They’ve noticed the protagonist of the story has a different problem to contend with than the one they predicted earlier, as the water rises and dangerous creatures appear. Pupils’ predictions of how the story will unfold varies: some pupils maintain their earlier prediction that the ogre will eat the knight. However the majority of the class revise their prediction and feel the ogre will prove to be friendly and help the knight. Pupils draw upon their structural prior knowledge when predicting how the ogre might deny our initial expectations, aware of hints of a twist in the tale (see link to Sonnet 130 at KS3 below).They are also plugging into their structural knowledge when acknowledging a problem is usually followed by a resolution and how alterations in a character’s arcs challenges our expectations as readers. Many stories and films are structured to challenge our initial expectations of character or stereotypes. See the short animated film Lucky Dip as an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxsBz7cb8Gg By supporting pupils to be more aware of narrative structure and how it influences their expectation of characters in “The Wall in the Middle of the Book” we are raising their awareness of redemption arcs that links such diverse characters as: The Grinch, Mr Darcy, Scrooge and Severus Snape.
Of course, it is not sufficient to merely make predictions; we must encourage pupils to link their structural knowledge to the text they are studying. The explanation and supporting evidence for a prediction is vital. In this lesson, as well as drawing upon their prior knowledge of character and narrative arcs, pupils must refer to the text to evidence their point of view and provide reasonable readings. When arguing the ogre might turn out to be good and help the knight, pupils draw upon evidence from the story such as: there are hints the knight might be misled in his assumption that the wall is a “good thing” as animals appeared to be trapped and alarmed in the preceding pages, the knight’s safety is threatened by the rising water and the ogre’s reaction to the mouse doesn’t appear menacing. Pupils activate their structural knowledge when making predictions but check and revise their mental representation with each new narrative text studied. This is further developed through metacognition towards the end of the lesson when pupils are invited to reconsider their first thoughts on the story and how they have changed throughout the lesson providing an opportunity to adapt and consolidate their mental representation of narrative structure.
Prediction and structural prior knowledge KS3
The interplay between topical and structural knowledge is crucial as illustrated again in a KS3 LTE lesson exploring Shakespeare’s sonnet 130: “My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun”. This LTE lessons start by providing topical prior knowledge on the concept of “mistress” and its meaning in the poet’s time. Shakespeare would presume his readers would understand the term but our students are likely to understand the usual modern meaning of a married man’s female lover rather than the associations of courtly love implied in the sonnet.
We don’t provide further topical prior knowledge until they have finished exploring the sonnet, with the concluding couplet omitted and reached a class consensus on how the speaker feels about his mistress. Typically, students first thoughts are that the speaker dislikes or hates his mistress as he says her breath “reeks”, describes her hair “as wires” and says she is “nothing like the sun”. These are the immediate phrases that dominate their attention. However, once provided with time to consider the poem more closely, share opinions and supported through questioning “Are there any positive comments from the speaker?”, classes start to develop a more nuanced reading. Pupils are drawn to the line: “I love to hear her speak…” which causes a rereading of the poem and a realisation that the speaker’s use of “if” and “some” ensures the portrayal of his mistress is not as explicitly negative as it first seems. By the end of the discussion they suggest the opening line: “My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun” could be positive as it is not wise to stare at sun and it can strain eyes. Pupils begin to wonder whether or not conventional expressions of love are effective or sincere which we return to later in the lessons.
Students’ structural prior knowledge is activated by asking them to consider how Shakespeare may have concluded the sonnet. Students are set the task of creating their own volta before comparing their version to Shakespeare’s. Most students predict the ending will be positive once they’ve considered the ambiguity within the apparent insults but also because they have an expectation that there will be a “twist”. They typically start their own attempts at creating a couplet with a conjunction such as “But”, “However”, “Yet” as their structural prior knowledge comes into play. Activating this structural prior knowledge supports students to understand the final couplet which they can find tricky to comprehend.
Schemas and narrative sequencing
In Let’s Think in English lessons we focus on the schemas or structures of texts: classification, frames of reference, intentions and consequences, symbolism and narrative sequencing. Each lesson seeks to support students’ knowledge of texts making them aware of the underlying structures that underpin them. All the schemas are important when understanding how texts are created but I’d suggest one is particularly helpful to call upon with any age group when seeking to activate structural prior knowledge: narrative sequencing.
In Let’s Think in English we define narrative sequencing: as an awareness of how sequencing and re-sequencing events creates narratives with different purposes and effects. It involves understanding how manipulating component parts of a narrative creates additional, perhaps multiple, meanings and layers of complexity. Some simple questions to trigger and activate greater awareness of narrative sequencing might include:
What do you expect to happen in this text?
What might the title, illustration or front cover suggest will happen in the text?
What might happen next?
Did the story meet your expectations?
How is your understanding of the story different now you’ve finished it?
What other texts do you know like this?
How is this similar or different to the last text you studied?
Such simple questions awaken structural prior knowledge and over time expand into an exploration of specific narrative devices such as: narrative perspective, flashbacks, foreshadowing, frame stories, cyclical narratives etc. By the time GCSE classes are exploring narrative sequencing in LTE they not only consider the structure of Hemingway’s stories from his collection In Our Time, the similarities and differences between them but they are also challenged to consider the possible sequence of the stories in the collection and whether or not the order of the stories matters.
In order to undertake such a task, pupils must, over time, develop an awareness of structural knowledge across many stories. The sequencing activities we explore in lessons like the Year 2 “The Wall in the Middle of the Book” provides a foundation for more nuanced awareness of complex texts as children progress through their study of English. Structural prior knowledge is a something we can draw upon from a young age by asking pupils to consider their expectations of a text and then review why it conforms or denies them. Prediction provides pupils with a mental palimpsest and engages them in consideration of how a text are created. Asking pupils to consider what a writer might do next and then review their actual choices activates and strengthens their structural prior knowledge which can be reviewed with each new text they meet.
[i] Recht, D. R., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(1), 16–20.
[ii] Cunningham, A. E. & Stanovich, K. E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.
[iii] Gopnik, A., et al. The Scientist in the Crib. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.
[iv] Johnson, M. The Body in the Mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.