Building on the Learner’s Prior Knowledge

By Eva Konstantellou

Reading Recovery Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

“…The goal is to help children move from where they are to somewhere else by empowering them to do what they can do and helping them engage in activities through which they can learn more.”  Marie Clay, By Different Paths to Common Outcomes, p. 87

Teacher and studentContrary to the behaviorist conception of the child’s brain as a blank slate, recent research on the structure and function of the brain has put forward the notion that the brain is actually wired for learning and that any input from the outside world interacts with the learner’s prior knowledge to create new pathways for learning.

In his fascinating book, The Art of Changing the Brain:  Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, biologist James Zull writes that the brain consists of complicated cells called neurons that are connected to one another to form networks.  These networks represent knowledge that is stored in the brain and keep changing as new knowledge comes into the brain through concrete experiences and is integrated with existing knowledge through a process of reflection and testing.  All learners, Zull says, even newborn babies have some prior knowledge, which is the starting point for acquiring new knowledge.  The role of teaching in acknowledging existing networks and building upon them is critical.

The connections between Zull’s ideas and Reading Recovery teaching and learning are apparent.   Marie Clay’s theory of literacy processing puts the learner at the center of the learning process and sees instruction as a means of taking the child from where he is at to something new.  Instruction starts from what the child knows and builds upon that foundation to keep expanding learning into new, uncharted territory.

Assessment:  Surveying the Known

The assessments that Reading Recovery teachers use are designed to capture the child’s prior learning and are not seen as ends in themselves but as tools that will inform teaching.  The Observation Survey tasks administered by the teacher assess the child’s current level of performing on literacy tasks and based on the results teachers design instruction that relies on what the child can already do in order to take him toward that which is not yet under his control.  Starting from the known is what differentiates Reading Recovery from other interventions that work from a diagnosis of what is wrong with the child.

As a matter of fact, the teacher’s investigation into what the child already knows and controls does not end with initial assessment but continues throughout the child’s series of lessons in Reading Recovery.  The first couple of weeks of working with the child, referred to as Roaming Around the Known sessions, is a critical time in the intervention: the teacher refrains from teaching the child anything new but instead continues to observe and record what it is that the child already knows about literacy.  The idea is to bring to the surface all that is known or partially known about print, the letters, words, and the ways the child puts them together to make sense of the texts he reads and writes.

Instruction:  Building on the Known 

In all reading and writing activities of the Reading Recovery lesson, teachers teach in a way that takes into consideration the child’s prior knowledge.  For example, when the teacher is introducing a new text to the student, she chooses text that contains some familiar ideas, language, and visual signposts the child has already encountered (letters, words, punctuation marks) and tries as she introduces the text to the child to activate any prior knowledge the child has in these areas.  During the introduction and the first reading of the book, the child connects the new information that the teacher provided to what he or she already knows about how texts work and is able with the gentle support of the teacher to expand his current level of working on texts toward greater sophistication and complexity.  (See recent blog by Irene Fountas on the text gradient of difficulty).   Similarly, prior to writing a story in the daily lesson, the teacher talks with the child about a topic of interest to the child in order to compose a message, which the child then proceeds to record.  During the writing the child writes what he knows and the teacher introduces new learning.

The teacher thus works within the known, or in Vygotskian terms, within the child’s “zone of proximal development,” around a body of knowledge that is known or almost known, enabling the child to extend the boundaries of his knowledge through the guidance and support of a more knowledgeable other.


Zull, James E. (2002).  The Art of Changing the Brain:  Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Clay, Marie (2005).  Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals, Part One and Part Two.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Clay, Marie (1998).  By Different Paths to Common Outcomes.  York, Maine:  Stenhouse Publishers.

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