Prior Knowledge Plays a Large Role in Reading Comprehension
The most important factor in determining how much readers will comprehend and how well writers will be able to communicate about a given topic is their level of knowledge about that topic (interest in the topic is also important but often is related to prior knowledge). The importance of prior knowledge to comprehension and communication is included in virtually all modern theories of reading (Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Pressley, Wood, & Woloshyn, 1992; Spivey, 1996). According to schema theory, prior knowledge provides a schema—a framework or structure—that helps thinking. Readers familiar with sports, for example, know that a baseball game has nine players on each side, that the players field different positions, and what players in each position are supposed to do. The writer considers these baseball basics to be "general knowledge" and, thus, does not explicitly explain them in a book or article about baseball. Readers who "know" baseball can listen to or read about a game and have little difficulty comprehending descriptions of games, plays, and so on. These readers literally carry in their heads a schema for baseball. They can envision the field, the baselines, the batter's box, and the dugout. They understand this technical vocabulary and much more. When they hear or read about a "double play," a "slider," a "blooping single to right," a "pick-off attempt," or a player "safe at first," these readers create mental images from the frameworks they possess. In contrast, readers whose prior knowledge of baseball is limited or nonexistent can read the same words and descriptions but not have the foggiest idea of what is going on.
Because comprehension and communication are so dependent on prior knowledge, children whose knowledge of a topic is limited have difficulty comprehending much of what they read and difficulty communicating in writing about that topic. And children who read little have the least opportunity to acquire new knowledge through reading.
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