Primed Background Knowledge

Successful acquisition of new information depends largely on (a) the knowledge the learner brings to a task, (b) the accuracy of that information, and (c) the degree to which the learner accesses and uses that information.

For students with disabilities and diverse learning needs, priming background knowledge is critical to success because it addresses the memory and strategy deficits they bring to certain tasks. In effect, priming is a brief reminder or prompt that alerts the learner to task dimensions or to retrieve known information.

Instructional materials can acknowledge the importance of background knowledge in two ways. First, students can be pretested for important background knowledge. Such tests can be used to determine placement within an instructional program or to alert teachers to the need for allocating time to background topics. It is often useful to assess the background knowledge of students with learning difficulties using formats other than reading and writing because these students frequently understand more than they can express through reading or writing.

Second, instructional programs can include important background knowledge in the scope of topics taught. Ideally, such background topics would be taught or reviewed a few days before the introduction of new strategies that depend upon those topics. If background topics are introduced earlier than that, students may forget some relevant aspects by the time the new strategy is introduced. If background topics are introduced in the same lesson as the new strategy, some students are likely to be overwhelmed by the quantity of new knowledge.

Clearly, the concept of strategic integration is closely related to essential background knowledge. The focus on strategic integration, however, emphasized increasing depth of understanding of important concepts. Here, the focus is on the prerequisites for learning important concepts so that they might be integrated meaningfully.

Evaluative Questions

  1. Identify the language background knowledge required of the task.
    • Does the lesson adequately explain or access this knowledge?
  2. Identify the component background knowledge.
    • Does the lesson adequately explain or access this knowledge?
  3. Identify the modifications necessary to accommodate the full range of learners.
    • Identify and access knowledge of language that is prerequisite to the objective.
    • Identify and access knowledge of components that are prerequisites for the objective.

*Excerpted from Toward Successful Inclusion of Students with Disabilities: The Architecture of Instruction by Edward J. Kameenui, and Deborah Simmons(1999).

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