Prior Knowledge and Inquiry in Reading

Reading and Knowledge

Often students will ask me to read an essay or paper and give them feedback on the content. About five years ago a student came in with an assignment where the teacher had given each student a slogan from a business or non-profit to use as inspiration for an essay. The student’s phrase from the Red Cross was, “The greatest tragedy is indifference.” Based on the assumption that the word indifference meant “not different” the student wrote a lovely essay about diversity. Sadly, I had to tell the student that the word indifference meant the lack of care or concern, not the lack of diversity (also a great tragedy). This student had just five words to read and comprehend; however, her missing vocabulary for only one word changes the entire premise.

knowledge vocab

Author Daniel T. Willingham writes that [reading] “comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge.” The lack of knowledge Willingham refers to in this op-ed can be poor vocabulary, or it could be the reader lacks the background knowledge to enjoy a story. For instance, my background knowledge of baseball would make some books exhausting. However, I can certainly reach some of my readers with a baseball book due to both interest and prior knowledge.

Adding to Students’ Vocabulary

How can we help struggling students not to give up when a book is too hard? What happens when a student encounters a new word? Is the student excited to define the word, or is there great frustration? I learned new words just this week while reading fiction. One of the more unusual words was “petard.” The phrase is actually “hoist with his own petard.” My friends who are Shakespeare scholars would say, “Of course, from Hamlet.”

For me, it is exciting to dig for the information and learn new words and phrases. I hope to find ways for my students to be as excited as I am in enlarging their vocabulary. Electronic reading enables me to find definitions expediently. Before e-readers I had to have a dictionary handy while reading; now one can simply highlight a word for the meaning. In addition to on-demand vocabulary, found in digital readers, here are some strategies for Using Technology to Build Vocabulary.

Is There a Place for “Bad Words?”

One of my favorite YA novels is Feed by MT Anderson. This book is excellent in making the point for the need to dig deeper to get at the facts. We might, however, have parent objections to Feed primarily due to the expletives in the first section. Even though Feed begins with what seems to be excessive swearing, the language is in place for a reason. It seems the language indicates ignorance and lack of vocabulary and knowledge on the part of the characters blindly following “the Feed.” In addition, to the swear words Feed has a host of made-up futuristic slang that is specific to the book. This slang may be a challenge for some, and you could suggest an online glossary to help initially with comprehension.

Ever-Changing Vocabulary

In September, Merriam-Webster announced that they added more than 840 new words to the dictionary including “hangry” and “bingeable.” With so many new words it is hard to keep up with our ever-changing vocabulary. Often students use slang or text shorthand so much so, that I am now consulting the Urban Dictionary at least once a week.

For more information about reading comprehension and the importance of background knowledge see these articles.


Author: Hannah Byrd Little

I’m a dedicated Library Director at The Webb School of Bell Buckle, leveraging my background in higher education libraries to guide students through the crucial transition from school to college and beyond.

I am honored to have served as the AASL Chair for the Independent School Section in 2023 and am excited to begin my upcoming role as Director-At-Large for the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) later this year, following my previous experience as a Member Guide in the AASL Emerging Leaders program. These appointments reflect my commitment to advancing library education and professional development on a national scale.

With experience in state-level leadership through the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL), including serving as TASL President in 2012, I bring a wealth of knowledge to my role. My educational background includes certifications as a Library Information Specialist for PreK-12th grade, a Bachelor of Science in Communications (Advertising & Public Relations), a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies (Education & Information Systems), and a Master’s in Library and Information Science.

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Thank you for this post, Hannah. Your comments about the importance of background knowledge and comprehension (and links to research/writing in this area) align with school librarians teaching/coteaching comprehension in the context of inquiry learning.

    Coincidentally, in the month of December I am blogging about “Traditional Literacy Learning,” Chapter 4 in my latest book. This morning I posted “Becoming Literate: A Lifelong Process;” my post is completely in sync with yours:

    Yesterday, I published a podcast about traditional literacy learning with a focus on reading to support the Maximizing School Librarian Leadership book study. My podcast includes research related to effective practices in teaching reading comprehension:

  2. Hi Judi,
    “Great Minds Think Alike” haha :)
    Too bad we didn’t talk before AASL conference proposals we could have co-presented.

    Thanks so much for adding these links, I will make sure to listen and read.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.