The Premises of Strategy Use
The keys to comprehension are the activation of prior or background knowledge; active engagement in the content; and metacognition. In essence, these three categories cover the BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER of content reading.
Background Knowledge/Prior Knowledge
What students will understand about new content and concepts is heavily dependent on the knowledge they possess prior to encountering the new information. Prior (or background) knowledge refers to what is already known by the student which ought to be activated to get him ready for encountering the new ideas. We know from research that the greater a student's BACKGROUND with a topic, the easier and more successfully she will learn the new content. Unfortunately, if we stop there, then we'll perpetuate a practice whereby we let the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Let's do better. You see, research also tells us that whatever is in your mind at the moment you encounter something new will be a prime determiner of whether you get the new idea or not. We would dramatically transform American education if we could get teachers to quit fretting over students who "don't have background knowledge." Let's be clear about this: You do NOT have students who do not have prior knowledge.
Prior knowledge is, simply, knowledge PRIOR. It's not what we wish students knew; it's what they DO know. Our job as teachers is to know our content well enough that we can actually tell what the core idea within it is, and how it is like something that would be familiar to ALL our students. It's taking the time to decide whether "Civil" or "War" is actually the more important word...which goes a long way to cluing us in to the prior knowledge we could activate before teaching that topic.
All too often students are passive receptors of content. They listen to a lecture, they watch a video, they read a chapter or section. Active engagement focuses on what students are doing while encountering the content: are they actively seeking to construct meaning? Are they taking notes? Completing a chart? Supporting a pre-determined argument? Active versus passive learning is concerned with what students are doing while they read.
Sticking with our earlier set of descriptors, metacognition focuses on what happens after reading. Metacognition ("thinking about thinking") relates to an awareness of one's own learning. It is the reflective thinking that follows reading that asks, Did I get it? How do I know? What do I do if I didn't get it? Richard Paul compares the notion of metacognition to the dancer at the bar, holding on and watching her movements in the mirror. She sees where she's got it right and where she needs adjustment, and corrects accordingly. Metacognitive students know what to do when they don't know what to do. This is the key component of independence as a learner.
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