Building and Activating Background/Prior Knowledge



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Building and Activating Background/Prior Knowledge

  • By Edmund C. Garrison
  • North Bergen ELA K-12
  • District Supervisor

Two Types of Background/Prior Knowledge

  • Direct Knowledge:
  • -Direct Experiences (i.e. Field trips, science labs, simulations, and guest speakers)
  • -Indirect Experiences (i.e. Reading literature, learning in school)
  • Student Interaction with one another (i.e. during productive group work, students discuss their knowledge and share their understanding of the world and get a glimpse into the understanding of others—a discussion between a group of students studying the stock market crash of 1929 in their U.S. History class.)
  • (Frey and Fisher 2009)

Start with what you know…

  • Quite often you have the necessary background/prior knowledge to write about an essay. However, when it comes time for the test, you do not know how to “activate” this background/prior knowledge.
  • Whenever you brainstorm/prewrite on a topic, you should always begin with known information (what you know) in order to attempt to understand/write about the new content that the topic will require.
  • In its writing assessments, the ETS (Educational Testing Service) intentionally tries to pick topics that are general enough that everyone has some relevant knowledge
  • This means that the topics on NJASK and most writing assessments will be able to be supported by a wide range of examples, many of which you are likely to have read or talked about in your classes at school.
  • By doing a little bit of “homework” prior to the writing assessment, or better yet, by building your background/prior knowledge from the beginning of the year, you can build the background/prior knowledge necessary in advance to write about any topic.

Areas to “Tap Into” for Background/Prior Knowledge

  • Throughout your years in school, you have been gaining background/prior knowledge:
  • Literature: Think of all the short stories, novels, and plays you have read. To go one step further, think of all the plots, characters, settings, and themes you have read about in your ELA classes.
  • Social Studies/History: Think of the historical time periods and historical events that you have studied.
  • Science: Think of the areas in science that you have studied.
  • Current Events: Think of recent events in the news.
  • Personal Experiences: Think of experiences that have had a profound effect on you or someone you know.
  • Film/Movies: Think of films/movies that have had a profound effect on you.

Directions For a “Background/Prior Knowledge Chart”:

  • Fill-in the following information for each chart:
  • -Event (Name the Event)
  • -Date (When did the event take place—be as specific as possible?)
  • -Description (Describe what happened?)
  • -Major Players (Who were the men or women or characters in the event?)
  • -Big Ideas (What were the “big ideas” that you want people to remember about the event?)

ILLUSTRATIVE EXAMPLE PRACTICE (HISTORY/SOCIAL STUDIES)

  • HISTORY (FILL- IN THE APPROPRIATE INFORMATION FOR AN EXAMPLE FROM HISTORY.)
  • EVENT:________________________________
  • DATE: ________________________________
  • DESCRIPTION: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • MAJOR PLAYERS:
  • ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • BIG IDEAS: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

ILLUSTRATIVE EXAMPLE PRACTICE (LITERATURE)

  • LITERATURE (FILL-IN A NOVEL/SHORT STORY/DRAMA YOU HAVE READ. STICK TO THE CLASSICS IF POSSIBLE.)
  • EVENT:________________________________
  • DATE: ________________________________
  • DESCRIPTION: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • MAJOR PLAYERS:
  • ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • BIG IDEAS: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

ILLUSTRATIVE EXAMPLE PRACTICE (PERSONAL EXPERIENCE)

  • PERSONAL EXPERIENCE (CHOOSE EXPERIENCES THAT HAVE HAD A PROFOUND EFFECT ON YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW.)
  • EVENT:________________________________
  • DATE: ________________________________
  • DESCRIPTION: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • MAJOR PLAYERS:
  • ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • BIG IDEAS: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

ILLUSTRATIVE EXAMPLE PRACTICE (SCIENCE)

  • SCIENCE (FILL-IN THE APPROPRIATE INFORMATION FOR AN IMPORTANT EVENT/OCCURRENCE IN SCIENCE.)
  • EVENT:________________________________
  • DATE: ________________________________
  • DESCRIPTION: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • MAJOR PLAYERS:
  • ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • BIG IDEAS: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

ILLUSTRATIVE EXAMPLE PRACTICE (CURRENT EVENTS)

  • CURRENT EVENT (FILL-IN THE APPROPRIATE INFORMATION FOR AN IMPORTANT CURRENT EVENT.) EVENT:________________________________
  • DATE: ________________________________
  • DESCRIPTION: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • MAJOR PLAYERS:
  • ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • BIG IDEAS: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Finding the “Theme”/Topic of a Writing Prompt

  • If you can find the “theme”/topic of a writing prompt, you will be sure to specifically address only the topic you have been asked to write about.
  • First, read the prompt carefully.
  • Then, read the prompt again to clarify your writing task.
  • Finally, identify key words and ideas in the prompt as you read it a third time. Underline the key words and paraphrase them into a “theme word”/topic for the essay.
  • By understanding the “theme word”/topic, you will be better able to focus on the writing task.

Universal Themes in Literature

  • Definition of Theme
  • The theme of a piece of fiction is its controlling idea or its central insight. In order to figure out theme, a reader must ask what view of life a work supports or what insight into life in the real world it reveals.
  • Definition of Universal Theme
  • Frequently, a work of fiction implies a few ideas about the nature of all men and women or about the relationship of human beings to each other or to the universe. These are called universal themes.
  • (Schoch 2009)

Examples of Universal Themes

  • As expressed by authors, themes involve positions on these familiar issues:
  • A human being’s confrontation with nature
  • A human being’s lack of humanity
  • A rebellious human being’s confrontation with a hostile
  • society
  • An individual’s struggle toward understanding,
  • awareness, and/or spiritual enlightenment
  • An individual’s conflict between passion and responsibility
  • The human glorification of the past/ rejection of the past
  • The tension between the ideal and the real
  • Conflict between human beings and machines
  • The impact of the past on the present

Universal Themes in Literature (Continued)

  • The inevitability of fate
  • The evil of unchecked ambition
  • The struggle for equality
  • The loss of innocence/disillusionment of adulthood
  • The conflict between parents and children
  • The making of an artist in a materialistic society
  • The clash between civilization and the wilderness
  • The clash between appearance and realities
  • The pain of love (or what passes for it)
  • The perils or rewards of carpe diem
  • (Schoch 2009)

Here are some “Theme Words”

  • Consequences
  • Courage
  • Denial
  • Determination
  • Differences
  • Dignity
  • Discovery
  • Enthusiasm
  • Fairness
  • Family
  • Fear
  • Forgiveness
  • Freedom
  • Heroism
  • Abandonment
  • Acceptance
  • Accomplishment
  • Appreciation
  • Belonging
  • Brotherhood
  • Challenge
  • change
  • Choices
  • Commitment
  • Compassion
  • Compromise
  • Concern
  • Conformity

More “Theme Words”

  • Honesty
  • Hope
  • Identity
  • Imagination
  • Individuality
  • Innocence
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Kindness
  • Loneliness
  • Loss
  • Love
  • Memory
  • Opportunity
  • Patience
  • Patriotism
  • Perseverance
  • Possibilities
  • Reflection
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Self Esteem
  • Sensitivity
  • Success
  • Survival
  • Sympathy
  • Tolerance
  • Uncertainty

SAMPLE EXPOSITORY WRITING TASK

  • “A person does not simply “receive” his or her identity. Identity is much more than the name or features one is born with. True identity is something people must create for themselves by making choices that are significant and that require a courageous commitment in the face of challenges. Identity means having ideas and values that one lives by.”—Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action.
  • Using examples from literature, history, science, film, or your own experiences, write an essay in which you develop your point of view as to whether identity is something people are born with or given, or is identity something people create for themselves.

STEP 1: READING CAREFULLY

  • Before you write a single word, you must make sure that you will specifically address only the topic you have been asked to address. Here’s how:
  • First, read the prompt carefully.
  • Then, read the prompt again to clarify your writing task.
  • Finally, identify key words and ideas in the prompt as you read it a third time.
  • My Writing task: Decide whether one’s identity is something people are born with or whether people create their own identifies throughout their lives.
  • Key words: Identity: People born with or given; something people create for themselves.

STEP 2: NARROW YOUR FOCUS (PREWRITING)

  • You need to narrow your focus by thinking of two or more examples/supporting details from literature, history, science, film, current events, or your own experiences to support your point of view on the topic.
  • Your Point of View: Identity is something people create for themselves.
  • Examples:
  • Literature: Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island
  • Literature: Kevin Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

STEP 3: CHOOSE A THESIS STATEMENT

  • A thesis statement not only lets a reader know your viewpoint; it also helps you to focus on that viewpoint as you write.
  • Your thesis statement, which should emerge from your prewriting, should present your position as if it were a fact.
  • So, write it clearly and firmly.
  • Make every effort to make plain for readers what your essay will deliver.
  • Thesis Statement: Identity is an earned characteristic of a human being, whether the identity, and the actions which merit that identity, are good or bad.

STEP 4: THE INTRODUCTION: OPENING STRONG

  • A strong opening to an essay will capture a reader’s attention.
  • In contrast, a dull or confusing opening can put off a reader by creating a negative first impression.
  • A strong introduction should…
  • 1. Begin with a grabbing lead which “hooks the reader”.
  • 2. State/integrate the quote, adage, or topic.
  • 3. Include background information to introduce the question.
  • 4. End with a thesis statement expressing the main idea of the essay.
  • Introduction: The identity of a person is defined by what he or she creates for himself or herself. “Creating a name” for oneself comes from the actions and decisions that one person makes. It is entirely up to that one person to work towards creating a positive identity. Even with a distinguished background, a powerful ancestor, or a number of other factors, one must use these factors to one’s own advantage solely in creating an identity of one’s own. Identity is an earned characteristic of a human being, whether the identity and the actions which merit that identity are good or bad.

STEP 5: ELABORATE IN THE BODY

  • Consider using the following elaborating strategies:
  • Example(s) from literature, history, science, current events or film:
  • You can actually study for this part, because themes are UNIVERSAL.
  • Think about some major novels that you have read thus far and/or some historical figures. Figure out what they stand for, what themes they exemplify, and be ready to work that into whatever prompt presents itself.
  • Example(s) from your own experience or observation:
  • You will write this as an explanation, not a narration
  • Do not be tempted to relive the story; speak with an academic voice.
  • Each paragraph in the body of your essay should:
  • Begin with a topic sentence.
  • Focus on only one idea (one idea/paragraph)
  • Include an example from literature, history, science, film, or your own experience or observation to explain the quote.
  • Relate to the thesis statement.
  • Be written as an explanation, not narration, and speak with an academic voice.

Example of a Body Paragraph:

  • Finding one’s true identity within themselves is a huge responsibility, and a challenging task. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the young protagonist, Jim Hawkins, desires an escape from the fruitless and banal existence he leads working in a tavern. When he sets sail on a quest for lost treasure with a newly acquired map, he must undergo a series of challenges including skirmishes with pirates and the making of decisions which will change the fate of the crew. Jim thwarts the evil pirates’ attempts and saves his shipmates, proving his worth and creating his own identity as a hero. He works against adversity to gain his true identity.

STEP 6: THE CONCLUSION—FINISH MEMORABLY

  • Some ways to end your essay memorably:
  • Generate final remarks without introducing brand new examples.
  • Unify and summarize your ideas.
  • Remind the audience of your main point/thesis.
  • Use a satisfactory closing sentence/clincher (could tie back into introduction)
  • Example of a Concluding Paragraph: All human beings have the power to create names for themselves. To delve into the identity of a person is to witness the character of a person, as well as the actions that person has performed. As seen in literature as well as in history, a person has the power to gain his own identity by working against adversity or by challenging society’s bonds and labels to gain a knowledge of oneself. In the end, we can see the identities of people in the good or bad they do.

STEP 7: PROOFREADING AND REVISION

  • Be sure that all sentences are complete. Avoid sentence fragments (lack subjects, verbs, or both).
  • Fix run-on sentences (two or more sentences that are masquerading as a single sentence because of incorrect punctuation).
  • Vary sentence types (i.e. declarative, imperative, exclamatory, and interrogative)
  • Vary sentence structures and lengths (i.e. simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, and compound-complex sentence).
  • Vary sentence beginnings (i.e. start with an adverb, prepositional phrase, participial phrase, subordinate clause, or predicate).
  • Avoid clichés and slang (i.e. clichés are expressions or idioms that have become trite from overuse; slang, which is composed of newly made-up terms, or new meanings attached to existing terms).

STEP 7: PROOFREADING AND REVISION (CONTINUED)

  • Avoid wordy and empty sentences (i.e. when you write, aim for brevity. Avoid wordy sentences. Choose your words carefully and economically).
  • Avoid choppy sentences (i.e. eliminate a series of short, choppy sentences by combining sentences using coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions, and relative pronouns).
  • Use the active voice (i.e. the subject performs the action named by the verb).
  • Use commas, semicolons, and colons (i.e. commas signal pauses; semicolons signal a longer pause than a comma, but a shorter pause than a period; colons serve as a signal to pay close attention to what follows. Use one before an extended quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series).

“IDENTITY” (MODEL ESSAY)

  • The identity of a person is defined by what he or she creates for himself or herself. “Creating a name” for oneself comes from the actions and decisions that one person makes. It is entirely up to that one person to work towards creating a positive identity. Even with a distinguished background, a powerful ancestor, or a number of other factors, one must use these factors to one’s own advantage solely in creating an identity of one’s own. Identity is an earned characteristic of a human being, whether the identity and the actions which merit that identity are good or bad.

Finding one’s true identity within themselves is a huge responsibility, and a challenging task. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the young protagonist, Jim Hawkins, desires an escape from the fruitless and banal existence he leads working in a tavern. When he sets sail on a quest for lost treasure with a newly acquired map, he must undergo a series of challenges including skirmishes with pirates and the making of decisions which will change the fate of the crew. Jim thwarts the evil pirates’ attempts and saves his shipmates, proving his worth and creating his own identity as a hero. He works against adversity to gain his true identity.

  • Finding one’s true identity within themselves is a huge responsibility, and a challenging task. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the young protagonist, Jim Hawkins, desires an escape from the fruitless and banal existence he leads working in a tavern. When he sets sail on a quest for lost treasure with a newly acquired map, he must undergo a series of challenges including skirmishes with pirates and the making of decisions which will change the fate of the crew. Jim thwarts the evil pirates’ attempts and saves his shipmates, proving his worth and creating his own identity as a hero. He works against adversity to gain his true identity.

Society also attempts to shape our identity. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, many of the patients on the mental ward are victims of society’s labels. They could leave at any time, but society’s impression into their identities keeps them from the knowledge of their true selves. It requires the courage of Randle McMurphy to reveal to the patients their true identities uninhibited by society’s constraints. With his help and sacrifice, the patients strip the bonds of society to pursue their knowledge of themselves.

  • Society also attempts to shape our identity. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, many of the patients on the mental ward are victims of society’s labels. They could leave at any time, but society’s impression into their identities keeps them from the knowledge of their true selves. It requires the courage of Randle McMurphy to reveal to the patients their true identities uninhibited by society’s constraints. With his help and sacrifice, the patients strip the bonds of society to pursue their knowledge of themselves.
  • Throughout history, people have made names for themselves, for discoveries in science or technology to events that changed the world. Good events, such as the discovery of the New World or the invention of the light bulb, have been recorded in history along with the people who made them famous. Bad things, as well, such as the Holocaust, have brought infamy to people such as Adolph Hitler and his followers.

All human beings have the power to create names for themselves. To delve into the identity of a person is to witness the character of a person, as well as the actions that person has performed. As seen in literature as well as in history, a person has the power to gain his own identity by working against adversity or by challenging society’s bonds and labels to gain knowledge of oneself. In the end, we can see the identities of people in the good or bad they do.

  • All human beings have the power to create names for themselves. To delve into the identity of a person is to witness the character of a person, as well as the actions that person has performed. As seen in literature as well as in history, a person has the power to gain his own identity by working against adversity or by challenging society’s bonds and labels to gain knowledge of oneself. In the end, we can see the identities of people in the good or bad they do.

ANALYSIS OF THE ESSAY

  • Demonstrating outstanding critical thinking, this essay effectively and insightfully develops a point of view (Identity is an earned characteristic of a human being, whether the identity, and the actions which merit that identity, are good or bad) and uses clearly appropriate reasons and examples from literature and history as support. Well organized and clearly focused on the idea that humans “have the power to create names for themselves,” the response displays clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas (When he sets sail on a quest for lost treasure with a newly acquired map, he must undergo a series of challenges....Jim thwarts the evil pirates’ attempts....He works against adversity to gain his true identity.) The essay exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary (It requires the courage of Randle McMurphy to reveal to the patients their true identities uninhibited by society’s constraints), and displays meaningful variety in sentence structure. This essay demonstrates clear and consistent mastery and merits a score of 6.

Some of the most common ways you can activate background/prior knowledge include:

  • Quickwrites, in which students write for a few minutes about an assigned topic. Writing on topic requires that they think about the topic.
  • KWL charts, in which students share with one another what they know about a topic, what they want to know about that topic, and then what the learned about the topic at the end of the lesson.
  • Checklists, in which students are reminded of the knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary to complete a task. Teacher-created checklists, especially ones on which students can add items, help students keep relevant information in mind as they work.
  • Sentence and paragraph frames, in which students use a linguistic scaffold so that their attention is focused on the content rather than the language required to communicate their understanding. For example, as a scaffold for a compare and contrast essay, an English teacher gave students the following frame: “_____ and _____ share several characteristics, including _____.” This frame unlocked a student’s thinking and he shared the following with his group: “A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on A Hot Tin Roof share several characteristics, including the fact that they were both written by Tennessee Williams, both deal with alcoholism, and both have issues with sexuality.”
  • (“Building and Activating Background Knowledge,” Frey and Fisher 2009)


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