It makes sense that if there is no prior knowledge, then there is nothing to activate. Students often study topics they know very little about (that is why, after all, that they attend school!) and therefore teachers must think of ways of providing the necessary background knowledge quickly and efficiently.
It is not uncommon for lengthy ‘discussions’ to precede a reading and much of what is spoken about is irrelevant for the purpose of reading. This increases the cognitive load on students because they must decide what is relevant and useful and what isn’t. All many students hear is a fuzzy cloud of words or white noise.
Teacher as Teller is an excellent way to provide background knowledge that will assist students to make sense of what they are reading. It comprises a 2 to 3-minute talk (“I do it”) by the teacher providing essential background information. I like to use a single slide with relevant images that support what I am saying.
Discourage questions and interruptions during this time as these will potentially introduce irrelevant information which is confusing for many students.
In addition to some of the strategies included in Hooking Students into Learning … in all curriculum areas in the Before Reading Strategies Section (pages 2-27), the one that I find particularly useful is teacher as teller.
Here’s an example of Teacher as Teller with a visual text, The Pioneer (1904) by Australian artist Frederick McCubbin.
TEACHER AS TELLER:
Today we will be examining a famous Australian Painting and we will be using it to make inferences about life in the Australian Bush in the early part of the 20th Century.
The Pioneeris a 1904 painting by Australian artist Frederick McCubbin. The painting is a triptych; meaning it has three panels. It is widely considered one of the masterpieces of Australian art.
The painting is part of the National Gallery of Victoria's Australian art collection and exhibited in the Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square in Melbourne.
Because you are going to use the painting to make an inference, you need to know what inferring mean.
To infer means to use what is provided or the information that you are given to make meaning or arrive at an answer to a question. The meaning is not directly stated or the answer obvious; it must be uncovered.
To uncover the meaning or answer, we must combine what we are given or the information that we have with knowledge of the topic. If we do not have much knowledge about the topic then making an inference is difficult.
This is one reason you should read widely because, through reading, you acquire world knowledge.