Prior Knowledge and reading skills

I was fascinated by Doug’s Borderland posting on schema theory and prior knowledge. He very kindly provided a list of links in the comments which, sucker that I am for this kind of stuff, I worked my way through when I should have been doing more important (but less interesting) work. It made me re-think a reading strategy I’d taught one class last Friday (19th May), and I decided to re-visit the topic and expand on it the next class (26th May).

I first told them about the different impressions that class members had had the previous week, and how not everyone had seen the “flames and smoke” in the picture. I wanted to point out that a mis-perception will inevitably lead to even larger errors of prediction, much as an error in a ship’s navigation of 0.5 of a degree will mean the ship will completely miss its destination if that destination is 100 miles (or more) ahead. Unfortunately, I hadn’t prepared that bit and couldn’t come up with the necessary Japanese on the spur of the moment. This nugget of wisdom will have to wait for another day.

Instead, I spoke of how predicting and spending some time thinking about the possible content may help to improve one’s chances of successful comprehension. Now, I’ve recently read Perry’s Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years and Bob Leamson’s Thinking about Teaching and Learning, both of which made me more aware of the possibility that my students may have completely different “takes” on what I’m saying, depending on where they are “at” in their intellectual development. I wonder if they may still be in the “every question has one, correct, answer” stage?  (I’m on the entrance exam committee this year, and at last week’s first orientation, we were given a handout which stated clearly “make sure that every question has just one, correct, answer.”) In which case, they might not appreciate my rather vague “this will increase your chances of success”. They may think, Leamson suggests, that I am being deliberately vague, or that I am simply incompetent.

I pondered these things, but had no way of really checking or confirming.

Perhaps from reading the two aforementioned books, I’ve been thinking recently that the purpose of going to university is to become more intelligent (and get drunk and get laid, not necessarily in that order). And I was interested in Leamson’s suggestion that a key way to become more intelligent (or to develop one’s thinking ability) is to become more sophisticated in one’s use of language, which requires practice. I was also interested in what I read in some of the schema theory pages that Doug referred me to, namely that it is useful and beneficial for students to make connections between what they read and what they know, other things that they have read, and their own life experiences.

As we have used reading and listening materials in this class so far, I would like to introduce video; authentic video in particular. Video has a high interest factor – many students want to watch movies, and some of those are even interested in English! Some even express this peculiar (to my mind) ambition of being able to watch English-language movies without (Japanese) subtitles and understand the movie. I have never for the life of me been able to understand this ambition, but so many people have expressed it to me that I am forced to respect it (or insult a major proportion of the Japanese population).

OK. So, next week, we watch a movie. But because this is an English class, I’m not just going to show a movie – I’m hoping (perhaps vainly in the majority of cases, but let it pass) that they will use this opportunity to learn some English.

Many English-language movies are based in an English-speaking country or in Europe, which immediately puts my Asian students at a cultural disadvantage; one that they could usefully be aware of and work to overcome.

For better or worse, I chose a movie I had recently seen. This is an example. In future, once they’ve learnt the strategies, I would prefer my students to make their own choices of movies. So, I set them an assignment: a KWL chart where they must list what they already know about a topic, what they need to know (I gave them the questions) and third column where they list the results of their research. I’m looking forward to reading what they write.

3 thoughts on “Prior Knowledge and reading skills”

  1. Mosaic of Thought was one of the more important books I’ve read about Reading Workshop. It wasn’t written in an academic style, so it read like a journal rather than education research. Teacher-student dialogs were included. Scenarios that featured thinking aloud and using terminology like the word schema with little kids helped me understand the benefits of transparency with students.

  2. Doug, I assume you learnt the importance of this from the book “Mosaic of Thought”? I liked the idea of “thinking aloud” as described in this article which you provided the link for, and which is based on that book.

  3. This is twisted, but I can say that my schema for schema theory was very limited until I connected the relevance of intertextual connections to the subject of schema theory. I told you it was twisted! And it was fun to write that. 🙂

    What was fascinating to me was how meaningful it was to my primary grade students for me to teach them about schema theory. They “got it” right away, and started saying, “OH! I have a connection…” whenever they made an association with something they already knew about. They can also say, “I don’t understand that. I’m having difficulty with this because I don’t know anything about…”

    Having insight into our own meaning-making processes opens up new possibilities for learning. I think you’re onto a very promising line of thinking with your students.

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