Strategies for Activating Prior Knowledge

There is a difference between “activating prior knowledge” and building background. All students have prior knowledge gained from schooling and life experiences and teachers could informally assess what students know and can do. However, if some learners have little or no prior knowledge about a content topic, brainstorming about it might not be helpful because the brainstormed terms, names, and places maybe unfamiliar to some children.

We want to make sure that links are explicitly made between past learning and new concepts. This could be done through discussion like “ Who remembers what we learned about? How does that relate to our lesson/chapter? or by reviewing graphic organizers, previously used class notes, slides, charts, maps, pictures, illustrations, etc. As a way to activate background knowledge, we should emphasize key vocabulary. ( e.g. introduce, write, repeat, and highlight for students to see)

We should select words that are critical for understanding the text or material and provide a variety of ways for students to learn, remember and use those words. Academic vocabulary is very important and it should be taught explicitly. Click here to learn more about teaching vocabulary.

Ideas for Building/Activating Prior Knowledge:

1) Think. The teacher begins by provoking students' thinking with a question. The students take a few moments to think about the question.

2) Pair. Students pair up with pre-arranged partners to talk about the answer that they each came up with. Students can compare their mental or written answers and identify the answers they think are the best.

3) Share. After students talk in pairs for a few moments, the teacher calls for pairs to share their thinking with the rest of the class.

*May need to be modeled by the teacher a few times.

When should it be used?

This activity can be used for discussing questions, reviewing concepts and brainstorming. It can be used with small groups of students or in a whole class setting.

Why use think-pair-share?

This activity increases classroom participation. It prevents the eager students from shouting out the answers and it provides the wait time that some ELL students may need to think about their answer. During “pair,” students are allowed to discuss their answers with a partner without the fear of being ridiculed in front of their classmates. While discussing in pairs students elaborate on their answer or think of new ideas. Everyone is engaged and held accountable. When students are brought back to a whole group they are prepared to engage in a discussion.


A teacher wanted to promote multicultural sensitivity in her first grade class. She decided to read Sumi’s First Day of School Ever by Sotung Pak, a book about a Korean girl’s first day of school in America. Before reading the book, she took her students on a book walk. Afterwards, she engaged her students in a think-pair-share activity. Based on the pictures they saw during the book walk, students had to predict what they think the story will be about. Students were given a moment to think about their predictions, they then turned to their partner to discuss their ideas and each pair shared their prediction to the rest of the class.

Sample Think-Pair-Share Lesson:

Think-Pair-Share Lessob

Purpose: To activate students' prior knowledge of a topic or topics through movement and conversation.

Description: While Carousel Brainstorming, students will rotate around the classroom in small groups, stopping at various stations for a designated amount of time. While at each station, students will activate their prior knowledge of different topics or different aspects of a single topic through conversation with peers. Ideas shared will be posted at each station for all groups to read. Through movement and conversation, prior knowledge will be activated, providing scaffolding for new information to be learned in the proceeding lesson activity.


  1. Generate X number of questions for your topic of study and write each question on a separate piece of poster board or chart paper. (Note: The number of questions should reflect the number of groups you intend to use during this activity.) Post questions sheets around your classroom.
  2. Divide your students into groups of 5 or less. For example, in a classroom of 30 students, you would divide your class into 6 groups of five that will rotate around the room during this activity.
  3. Direct each group to stand in front of a homebase question station. Give each group a colored marker for writing their ideas at the question stations. It is advisable to use a different color for tracking each group.
  4. Inform groups that they will have X number of minutes to brainstorm and write ideas at each question station. Usually 2-3 minutes is sufficient. When time is called, groups will rotate to the next station in clockwise order. Numbering the stations will make this easy for students to track. Group 1 would rotate to question station 2; Group 2 would rotate to question station 3 and so on.
  5. Using a stopwatch or other timer, begin the group rotation. Continue until each group reaches their last question station.
  6. Before leaving the final question station, have each group select the top 3 ideas from their station to share with the entire class.


The teacher picks as many vocabulary words as he/she would like. They should be listed in large print so that all students can see them. The teacher or a student should read all the words aloud. Students will choose two words they think belong together and explain why. “I would connect ________ and ________ because _______________.” Students will have strips of paper where they fill in the blanks and will share with the class. Words can have several pairings.

When to use: This strategy is used to either expose students to new vocabulary or review it at the end of the unit. If you are using this at the beginning of a unit then students are using prior background knowledge to predict which words are connected and why. If this is used at the end of the unit then students are reviewing key vocabulary they’ve learned and are explaining how they are connected.


Weather Unit: Have a list of weather words. Students make predictions as to how some of the words are connected. Storm and rain are connected because when there is a storm it is usually raining.

I would connect____________________________________and__________________________because__________________________

Purpose: To activate prior knowledge and focus student learning on the topic about to be addressed.

Description: During Two Minute Talks, students will share with a partner by brainstorming everything they already know (prior knowledge) about a skill, topic, or concept. In doing so, they are establishing a foundation of knowledge in preparation for learning new information about the skill, topic, or concept.


Purpose: To activate and evaluate student knowledge of a topic.

Description: In this activity, students will activate prior knowledge by creating a graphic representation of a topic before the lesson. After engaging in learning about that topic, students will re-evaluate their prior knowledge by drawing a second depiction of their topic. They will then summarize what the different drawing say to them about what they learned.

1. Ask students to close their eyes and think about topic X. Using the Talking Drawings worksheet, have students draw a picture what they saw while they were thinking about topic X.
2. Teach cognitive portion of your lesson.
3. At the end of the lesson, ask students to elaborate upon their initial drawing by creating a new drawing that incorporates what they learned about topic X during the lesson.
4. Have students share their before and after drawings with a partner. Students should discuss the differences between the two depictions of topic X.
5. Finally, have students respond in writing at the bottom of their Talking Drawings worksheet. What do the two drawings tell them about what they learned during the lesson?

SampleTalking Drawings

1. Close your eyes and think about ______________________________ . Now, open your eyes and draw what you saw.
2. Now that you have learned more about ________________________ , draw a second picture to show what you learned.
3. In the space below, tell what you have changed about your before and after pictures. Explain why you made those changes.




Purpose: To activate students' prior knowledge through conversation and movement
Description: Walk Around Survey can be used as an activating or summarizing strategy. In this activity, students are given a topic of study and asked to move around the room for the purpose of conversing with other students. During these conversations, students will share what they know of the topic and discover what others have learned.

1. Assign a topic for the Walk Around Survey.
2. Pass out a survey form to each student in the class.
3. Allow students an allotted amount of time to survey three classmates (informers) on the given topic.
4. When students are completing the survey form, the soliciting student should write the name of the informer on his/her worksheet in the left-hand column. He/she will then record three facts from the student informer on the worksheet in the three empty blocks. He/she will then move on to find a second and third informing student to complete the survey worksheet.
5. Have students return to their seats and complete the Survey Summary.

Walk Around Survey Summary

Briefly summarize what you have learned from your student informers:


Upon which topics do you still need more information?


What questions do you have?


Purpose: To activate students' prior knowledge through conversation and writing.

Description: Begin the lesson with a three-column organizer: What I Know, What I Want to know, what I Learned. Have students fill in the first two columns in advance of the lesson. Return to the last column as a summarizing strategy for the lesson.


  1. Initiate a discussion with students regarding the content text to determine background knowledge.
  2. Record student responses under the “K” column.
  3. Ask students to develop a list of questions regarding what they would like to learn from the article. Record student responses under the “W” column.
  4. Read the text together.
  5. Have students discuss what they learned from the text. Record this under the “L” column.

Ideas for making this strategy more collaborative for ELL students:

  1. Introduce the strategy by showing an interesting picture to students that pertains to the article. Have students discuss what they see in the picture.
  2. Have students talk with a partner (in native language if needed) to respond to steps 1, 2, 3 and 5 above.
  3. Have students write their responses (steps 1, 2, 3 and 5) on a post-it, (students of lower English proficiency levels or in earlier grades can draw their responses) and put up on the KWL chart

Use this strategy to activate prior knowledge, introduce vocabulary and create a purpose for reading.


  1. Show students pictures in the sequence in which they occur in a story.
  2. Ask students to identify what they see happening.
  3. Encourage students to ask questions when it is unclear what is happening or if certain words are difficult to express.
  4. Have students make connections to what they see happening in the story.
  5. Read the story together.

Ideas for making this strategy more collaborative for ELL learners:

Have students list 3 (or any number) of questions they would like to pursue in relation to the focus of the lesson.

An anticipation guide is a comprehension strategy that is used beforereading to activate students' prior knowledge and build curiosity about a new topic. Before reading, students listen to or read several statements about key concepts presented in the text; they're often structured as a series of statements with which the students can choose to agree or disagree. Anticipation guides stimulate students' interest in a topic and set a purpose for reading.

When to use: Before reading During reading After reading
How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

Why use anticipation guides?

How to use an anticipation guide

  1. Construct the anticipation guide. Construction of the anticipation guide should be as simple as possible for younger students. Write four to six statements about key ideas in the text; some true and some false. Include columns following each statement, which can be left blank or can be labeled Yes, or No (Maybe both can be used).
    NOTE: Teachers may wish to create an additional column for revisiting the guide after the material has been read.
  2. Model the process. Introduce the text or reading material and share the guide with the students. Model the process of responding to the statements and marking the columns.
  3. Read each of the statements and ask the students if they agree or disagree with it. Provide the opportunity for discussion. The emphasis is not on right answers but to share what they know and to make predictions.
  4. Read the text aloud or have students read the selection individually. If reading aloud, teachers should read slowly and stop at places in the text that correspond to each of the statements.
  5. Bring closure to the reading by revisiting each of the statements.

Download blank templates


Language Arts

Learn how anticipation guides can be used for children's books such asĀ Miss Rumphius.

See example

Using anticipation guides with fiction and nonfiction children's books, including several books in Spanish.

See example


Use anticipation guides to help students understand about fungi.

See example

Use anticipation guides to help students understand about dinosaurs.

See example

Social Studies

Use anticipation guides to help students organize their reading about topics such as the Panama Canal.

See example

Teachers preteach a small group of students the concepts, vocabulary and processes prior to beginning a lesson for the whole class.The purpose is to build background and vocabulary knowledge for students who need extra time and support.

As you teach, it is particularly powerful to connect new learning to what students already know. One way to do this is to reference topics that relate to students' experiences when you model. When students know the topic you are using in the demonstration well, they can participate more actively and almost help co-construct your demonstration.

Another way you can connect to what students already know is by bringing in texts that reflect their background knowledge and experiences. This not only gives students a point of reference that aids learning, it also conveys that their life stories and experiences matter.

Oftentimes your teaching stands on the shoulders of earlier teaching. For example, if you are teaching students yet another way to check on their comprehension as they read, you might first
want them to call to mind earlier instruction. You might say, "Will you and your partner list three strategies you have already learned for checking your comprehension as you read?" Then you might say, "I heard you say..." and list what you hope they said. This provides the foundation for you to extend the earlier instruction.

This technique is frequently used in the connection of a minilesson when you ask students to turn and tell their partner what they've learned in a past lesson or in a past unit pertaining to the topic of the day. For instance, when launching a realistic fiction writing unit, you could say, "Will you remind your partner of three things you already learned are especially important when writing a story?"

As you teach, it is helpful to always think, "Will my students have the background knowledge they need to access these examples?" For instance, if a session refers to ranking items as the "Best in Show," will your students have the knowledge they need to access that example? If not, you might substitute a more relevant example that will give your students access to the skill you are trying to communicate.

During instruction (minilessons, read alouds, conferring, or small groups), it is often helpful to refer to common experiences in the classroom. For example, in order to help students know that a writer focuses on the most important part of an episode, you might refer to a class field trip and point out that if you were writing about it, you wouldn't be apt to focus on lining up to get on the bus, but rather on an interesting thing that happened during the field trip.

In the same way, if you want to explain that readers ask, "What is the most important thing the character learned in the story?" it helps to use a familiar text to make the point. Because students will know that text well, it is more efficient to reference it rather than a new, unknown text. Referencing a familiar text allows the teacher to highlight a new skill or strategy rather than the content of the text.

If you know that a text will be especially key to your teaching, you might decide to orient your English language learners to that text in advance. You could do this on the spot by providing a quick summary of the text to the class before you read it aloud. Or, you might do this in a small group, perhaps by showing kids a video or reading aloud some or all of the text before the group
will encounter that same text within the whole class situation. As you preview the text, be sure to highlight key words and phrases.

Reading across several books on a topic or within a book series introduces students to repeated vocabulary and language structures. Multiple opportunities for exposure to the same language help students learn the new vocabulary words of that topic or book series. Students benefit from not having to learn new schema and vocabulary every time they pick up a book. To prepare text sets on topics, you might look at similarities among texts in a bin. For instance, you might group five texts that all have to do with food and five texts that all have to do with oceans.