Erin LynchWeAreTeachers is pleased to welcome guest teacher blogger Erin Lynch from the Sadlier School Core Literacy blog. Find Erin’s blog, as well as free language arts lesson plans, classroom activities and games, at Sadlier’s PubHub.

I’ll never forget reading Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman in college. While studying the benefits of strategy-based comprehension instruction, I was astonished to learn activating prior knowledge or schema was something that needed to be taught. As a college student, I couldn’t believe that wasn’t something that was just common sense. Now as an educator, I know that activating prior knowledge is not common sense but rather an important skill that needs to be taught to students.

Like many teachers, I describe schema to my students as a filing cabinet in their heads. As we get new information about a topic, we either add it to a folder of preexisting information in our brain or we create a new folder that we will continue to add information to as we get it. It is important before we begin to read about a topic to go into our filing cabinet in our brain to activate our prior knowledge of the subject. That background knowledge can help us better process new information and build upon what we already know.

Before reading, I teach my kids to activate prior knowledge by making a list about what they already know about a topic, creating a KWL chart (download a KWL chart here), doing a turn and talk, brainstorming, or simply taking a moment to think silently. During reading, I teach my students to make meaningful connections with the text to themselves, other texts and the world. I also model how to make meaningful connections with think-alouds whenever I am reading to my students. After reading, we discuss how our prior knowledge helped increase our understanding of the text. Activating prior knowledge is not only an important reading strategy for empowering students to be able to independently comprehend a text, it also serves as a confidence booster for those students that typically give up before even trying. By linking instruction to familiar topics, prior experiences or students’ interests, students will learn more effectively. I also find the process of activating prior knowledge with my students useful for guiding my instruction. It helps me determine how much or how little they know about a topic, which will guide the amount of support I need to provide.


Here are two lesson plans you can use with your third- and fourth-grade students to learn or review the reading strategy of activating prior knowledge. I use the first lesson plan with my third-grade students. It’s a four-day strategy lesson that uses multiple texts featuring bats. In this lesson, I use two picture books: Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies and Stellaluna by Janell Cannon. I also incorporate two nonfiction articles about bats from the San Diego Zoo. I use the second lesson plan with my fourth graders. I use a similar format but different texts. The nonfiction article is about hyenas from National Geographic and the fiction texts are Pinduli by Janell Cannon and Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull.

Erin Lynch is a literacy specialist and learning facilitator at an elementary school in Greenwich, Connecticut. Follow her blog Core Literacy, a K-5 resource for teachers of reading & language arts.