Activating Prior Knowledge for Reading Engagement


My love of reading comes from being able to relate to the characters. When my teacher read A Chair for my Mother, Rosa’s situation reminded me of the coin jug we kept in our kitchen where my parents saved their loose change. Tommy dePaola’s The Art Lesson resonated with me because I, too, loved to draw with my colorful 64-count Crayola box. Later on in middle school, while reading The Giver, I felt a strong connection to Jonas and his desire to know more about the world around him; to make sense of the many emotions we feel during adolescence and just wanting to be understood. When you can make some type of connection to literature, it makes it more enjoyable and can result in deeper comprehension.

So how do we help our students develop this connection? By activating prior knowledge and giving our students choice! I am a big proponent of giving students choice whenever possible. This year’s Global Read Aloud Project has some outstanding book choices. One book in particular is Alan Gratz’s Refugee. My love for this novel goes beyond words. It is an excellent depiction of love for your family, the need to be accepted and understood by society, and evokes deep sense of empathy towards others. That being said, it can be a difficult book to understand if you don’t have at least some prior knowledge of World War II, communist Cuba, or the Syrian Civil War. This is where activating prior knowledge to get student buy-in becomes crucial.

How to Activate Prior Knowledge

Preparatory Texts: Providing readers with preparatory texts can spark a greater curiosity. Even greater is when we can connect them to current events and popular culture. Why else do you see educators creating classroom rules with memes or using Cardi B on their hall passes? It grabs the readers’ attention. Start with a political cartoon, a meme, or even a short article that introduces the idea that will be explored. It gets students talking about the subject and introduces it to those who may not know much about it. When my students read Refugee, I created a text set with relevant articles within Newsela. They had free choice to read any article(s) in this text set that grabbed their attention. It was enough of a sample to get them to understand the characters and the setting when they started to read the novel. Later on many of my students returned to this text set to gain a deeper meaning of the wars occurring in the book. (Sidenote: Although KISD no longer subscribes to Newsela PRO, there is still a free version available where students and teachers can access articles.) Other resources to find excellent current events articles include Time for Kids, Dogo News, or you can even create your own memes using a meme generator.

K-W-L Chart: KWL charts aren’t new, but creating a collaborative and digital one can be a fresh spin to get more participation. You can create a digital KWL chart in Google Slides, Sheets, or even Draw, but my personal favorite is Padlet. You create three posts and students can comment under each letter. You can play with the settings and make these posts anonymous so students feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and questions. You can find an example below.

Interest Sparks/Pre-Quiz: I went to a training where Patricia Cunningham, author of Motivation Matters, had us teachers take a quiz to demonstrate how we can build anticipation with students when it comes to reading. She calls them Yes or No Anticipation Guides. I took her initial idea, tweaked it, made it digital, and refer to them as Interest Sparks. This works really well with non-fiction texts and in the social studies classroom. Before the students read the material, you can have students play a game that will spark an interest in the topic. Students may or may not know the answers (therein lies the beauty), but they have to make an educated guess anyway. Not knowing the answers builds anticipation and desire to read the text to find out if their educated guess was right or wrong. They now have purpose and interest in reading the material. You can post the questions via your Google tool of choice (Slides or Docs) and have them respond on a sticky note or pre-made handout that they can refer back to. You could also use Quizlet or Kahoot and have students play in teams to collaborate and discuss their educated guesses - just don’t forget to “hide answers” if you decide to go this route.


Google Earth/Google Maps: How about a digital tour using Google Earth or Google Maps? Before we read Refugee, we used Google Maps to locate Syria, Cuba, and Germany. We then turned on Street View and explored the city. In our novel, one of the characters talked about going to El Malecon with her family. We located El Malecon and students were able to explore that part of Cuba using Street View: the architecture, the people, the landscapes, and the modes of transportation. Later on when the character referred to El Malecon, my students had an idea of what the character was describing in the story because they had seen it before.


In what other ways do you activate prior knowledge or spark interest for reading in your classrooms? It’s no secret that strong reading comprehension skills can translate to success across subjects. Let’s continue to personalize learning for every student to ensure they enter with a promise and exit with a purpose.