How Prior Knowledge affects Comprehension

Prior knowledge, background knowledge, background experience all affect reading comprehension. Full stop.

Do you know what “full stop” means?

“Full stop” is a period. But, the term is more common in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, and it is a little old-fashioned.

If you didn’t understand what I meant then you could infer that I was indicating a complete idea. But you might also be unsure. Your uncertainty could cloud your understanding of the rest of the passage.

However, if you had encountered the term “full stop” before, you would sail on confident in your understanding and prepared to take in the rest of the passage.

This is how prior understanding affects comprehension. If you have already encountered a concept or a word, you will already have a base on which to build the new information you may be presented. This makes reading both easier and more fruitful.

So, what does this mean for the SAT and other standardized tests? It means that there is an element of luck involved. If you are presented with a physics passage about String Theory, and you have already read about it, you are going to find that passage easier to understand compared to someone with no prior knowledge of the topic.

The studies indicate that this is even true for weak readers. A weak reader who is given background information prior to a reading test has a comprehension level equivalent to that of a strong reader with no background knowledge. Huh. That’s important. Even if you are not the strongest reader, if you have been prepped with some basic knowledge, you can understand a passage as well as a skilled reader.

This has been my private obsession for a number of years because so much of “test prep” focuses on understanding the mechanics of the test, and students who want to improve their reading skills are merely told to keep grinding away at practice passages. However, I think there is the missing piece of background information. Your reading score will be sticky if you lack a body of knowledge that allows you to contextualize the passage.

In an education system that has become testing focused we have 2 negative outcomes. First,  students become preoccupied with the end result, cramming and dumping information to satisfy a test without considering retention. Secondly, teachers are encouraged to teach to the test, losing opportunities to wander off track and explore something interesting, something that may become useful, years later, on an SAT.

The tendency to value expediency over knowledge also leads students to skip the italicized introduction to passages on the SAT Reading test, losing an opportunity to gain some background knowledge before tackling the passage.

This is why my classroom walls are covered in posters with information about people, events, and ideas that crop up on tests like the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL. It is why when the word Watergate crops up, we pause for a 7 minute explanation of The Watergate Scandal and its effect on American views of politics and politicians. It is all important information that is built on over time as you become an educated person.

If you want to take a look at some of the research, read some of the papers linked below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will give you a sense of how meaningful prior knowledge in to reading comprehension.

Effect of Prior Knowledge on Good and Poor readers memory

How Prior Knowledge affects Word Identification

Effects of Culturally specific Prior Knowledge

Background Knowledge and its effects on Standardized Reading Comprehension Test performance


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