Archived Information

State of the Art: Reading - November 1993

image omitted 1. Children, when reading, construct their own meaning.


The meaning constucted from the same text can vary greatly among people because of differences in the knowledge they posses. Sometimes peole do not have enough knowledge to understand a text, or they may have knowledge that they do not use fully. Variations in interpretation often arise because people have different conceptions about the topic than the author supposed.
                                      (Anderson et al. 1985, p.10)

Reading is comprehending, that is, the construction of meaning. Readers construct meaning by interacting with the text (Pearson et al. 1990) on the basis of their existing or prior knowledge about the world (Rumelhart 1980). The importance of prior knowledge in reading has been demonstrated through research based on schema theory (Anderson and Pearson 1984). According to schema theory, readers understand what they read only as it relates to what they already know. That is, their existing knowledge about a particular topic influences the extent to which they understand what they read about that topic. Because text is not fully explicit, readers must draw from their existing knowledge in order to understand it.

Prior knowledge should be looked at in two ways by the teacher when developing lessons: first, as overall prior knowledge, and second, as specific prior knowledge. Overall prior knowledge is the sum total of learning that students have acquired as a result of their cumulative experiences both in and out of school. Specific prior knowledge is the particular information a student needs in order to understand text that deals with a certain topic. Specific prior knowledge is of two types: text-specific knowledge calls for understanding about the type of text--for example, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end; topic-specific knowledge entails understanding something about the topic--for example, knowing about dinosaurs before reading a book on prehistoric animals.

Overall prior knowledge is expanded continually by a variety of means which include extensive reading and writing. The more students read and write, the more their prior knowledge grows which, in turn, strengthens their ability to construct meaning as they read. Teachers must not only recognize that independent reading and writing activities are crucial for expanding students' prior knowledge. They must also systematically include such activities in their literacy program. In addition, both text-specific and topic-specific prior knowledge play an important role in helping students construct meaning (Paris et al. 1991). Activating only students' topical prior knowledge without helping them to consider the actual structure of the text does not improve their meaning-making abilities (Beck et al. 1982). Conversely, teachers can effectively improve these abilities when they activate all levels of students' prior knowledge appropriately.
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[Foreword] [Table of Contents] [Effective reading instruction can develop engaged readers who are knowledgeable, strategic, motivated, and socially interactive.]