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Activating Prior Knowledge: Combating Crickets

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Fourth grade students work together to analyze a map

Crickets…I’ll admit, there were times in my teaching that I dove into a new concept and all I heard from my students were crickets. One of the first lessons I learned as a new teacher is to never make assumptions about what your students know or don’t know.

So how can you combat the crickets?

The most effective way I’ve found is to begin each lesson by activating students’ prior knowledge. By discussing what students already know, a foundation is laid on which students can construct new concepts.

When working with the primary source analysis tool–which promotes analysis through observation, reflection, and questioning–it is important to consider students’ prior knowledge.

Based on previous experiences working with K-4 students and teachers, the following are suggestions for how to activate prior knowledge when using the primary source analysis tool in the classroom:

  • Model how to use the primary source analysis tool and move through the analysis process before expecting students to complete the process on their own.
  • Elementary teachers (K-5) can explicitly teach what it means to observe, reflect and question through subjects like science and language arts. For example, students might observe an illustration in a book they are reading and connect the details they see in the picture to the text in the book.
  • When working with K-3 students, begin by building observation and questioning skills, and then move on to the more difficult skill of reflecting (making inferences).
  • Use sentence stems to help students understand the action they should be taking when they observe (I see… I hear…), reflect (I think…), and question (I wonder…).

Visit the Library of Congress Teachers page to find the primary source analysis tool and teacher’s guides to assist in analyzing a variety of primary sources.

When working with primary sources, what strategies do you use to activate students’ prior knowledge?

Comments (4)

  1. Sara –
    Very timely suggestions! As we prepare for our summer programs, we have substantially fleshed out the preparation and follow-up parts of work with the Primary Source Analysis Tools.
    Two additional steps in preparation are
    1) give students sufficient contextual knowledge to make sense of the primary source, and
    2) explicitly teach students the essential vocabulary they will need. Be aware that for many students, this may include general academic vocabulary (words such as “analyze” or even “explain”) as well as the essential content-specific terms.
    – Rich Cairn @

  2. I also find it helpful to have students anchor the reflections and questions with an observation(s). For example, I see… Therefore, I think… and wonder about … Or, I think…because I see…and wonder about.

    By doing so helps students refer to the primary source analysis tool to transition into writing or creating a product to share what they know. Thank you for the ideas!

    • Amy,
      Thanks for sharing! We’ve made a concerted effort to incorporate visible thinking strategies into our Summer Teacher Institute activities. Having participants take the time to write down, “I think … because …” is a powerful way to capture their thinking and make it visible to others. After small group discussions or receiving new pieces of information we’ve had participants revisit and revise their original statements, “I used to think… but now I think… because…” It’s a great way to track how and why their thinking has changed!

  3. What I found interesting is that these strategies are equally as beneficial for 9-12 students. Sometimes we assume students know things that they actually don’t know. I find this particularly interesting at the high school level, when I expect certain foundational knowledge to be in place. Often, I have to determine whether or not my students actually have any prior knowledge about a particular topic before I can even activate it. For example, I have a large percentage of students each year who think that water is a good conductor of electricity. Though I wish they understood that this is not true and why, it does make for an excellent teachable moment…especially when dealing with ionic and covalent compounds.
    In sum, this particular site simply opens the discussion about activating prior knowledge. It is something that all teachers of every level, including college and beyond, must consider when preparing lessons of any kind in any subject. There is an abundance of research and writing that provides strategies for us to do this…but the easiest is simply to engage students in conversation and listen carefully to what they have to say. Brain research supports that learning occurs when the brain is in a state of disequilibrium…if we understand students’ prior knowledge, we can engage them in such a way to create that state and allow them to build new connections that will make that acquisition a permanent part of the academic repertoire.

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