Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog!

Building World Knowledge with Informational Texts: Susan Bennett-Armistead

Posted by Susan Bennett-Armistead on Aug 14, 2013 8:00:00 AM

susan bennett armisteadThis guest post by Susan Bennett-Armistead, author of our My World informational texts, is the first in an ongoing series in which she discusses informational text and its benefits and uses. Check back regularly to catch her next post!

Building World Knowledge in Early Childhood Settings

A couple of years ago, I was invited to a preschool classroom to do a read aloud. I planned to read To Market, To Market, so I asked the children to think about a time they went to the grocery store. To my surprise, of the twelve children in the class, four of them told me they had never been in a grocery store. You can imagine that my read-aloud choice didn’t work so well with people that had no idea what was supposed to go on in a grocery store. They didn’t get the visual jokes included by the illustrator, and they had no way of knowing how to answer any of my carefully prepared comprehension questions.

FUN OUTSIDE coverThat experience helped me reflect on a chat that I’d had with an exasperated colleague years ago when she announced, “I’ve got a kid with no prior knowledge! How am I supposed to activate that?!” It was true. He had very little prior knowledge about picnics and playing in the park. He knew an awful lot about staying safe in a dangerous city, though. When we talk about activating children’s prior knowledge, we usually mean about school-related topics. Some children have the advantage of lots of experiences that they can draw upon while others may have narrower or less school-relevant experiences. Building world knowledge can help level that playing field.

So what is world knowledge, and why should we care? For our purposes, world knowledge is awareness of the world around us, both the natural world and the social world. When we talk about building world knowledge, we’re addressing the fact that the more we know, the more we can comprehend. For example, if you have a child in your group that has spent the last four years of her life watching cartoons, she many know an awful lot about Spongebob and his friends, but very little about actual sea life. As we are increasingly encouraging children to interact with and produce informational text, per the Common Core State Standards, we know that having a broader understanding of the world will help children be good consumers and producers of that kind of text.  Here are some strategies that you can try right away as you work to build children’s world knowledge:

Butterfly Cover1) Plan to include an informational text read aloud in your day. My colleague Nell Duke found that very little time is spent in classrooms actually reading informational text with and to children (Duke, 1999). If we’re not exposing children to fact-based texts, their knowledge of the world will be constructed through stories and other input that may not be factually accurate (For example, in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the caterpillar comes out of a cocoon and is a butterfly. This is factually incorrect; moths come out of cocoons and butterflies come out of a chrysalis.) There are some excellent wordless, low-level, and advanced informational texts available in both book and children’s magazine format.

2) When reading informational text, take the time to talk about the vocabulary in the text. This will not only help your children understand this particular text, but it will give them information they can draw on in other readings and situations.

3) Include opportunities for children to freely interact with informational text in each activity center in your classroom (block area = books on construction, transportation, or homes; dress up area = theme related books such as cookbooks, books about the fire station, or taking care of pets; science corner = books on the materials present, such as books about birds if you have Our New House Coverfeathers on display, plant books with seeds to sort, etc.)

4) Consider linking your informational text reading to a theme or project topic. Theme-based teaching encourages children to make connections to topics within the theme (e.g., transportation includes cars, trucks and boats) but also across themes (people live in homes, and animals do too!). Think about how you are actively assisting children to make connections to content through your exposure to texts that discuss your topic.

5) Design primary experiences for children to make sense of the learning themselves. (A primary experience is something that happens to you personally.) Children (and adults!) learn best when information is repeated, relevant to them, and real. Our brains move information from short-term memory to long-term memory (learning) when they get the message through multiple inputs (smell, touch, taste, excitement) that a thing is worth remembering. When we want children to learn about apples, we can read to them about how  apples grow, read a story about making a pie, or we can talk about apples while children explore actual apples. By combining all three (informational text, story, and apple exploration), we increase the likelihood that children will retain what we’re talking about. If we link apples to something personal to them, like the time they made pie with Grandma, we can make the learning even more powerful.

STORES coverEach of these strategies is a way to build world knowledge and lay a foundation for activating prior knowledge later. One more important strategy is to honor what your children already know. Every child knows about something. Make connections to their own interests and knowledge. My colleague with the student who had little knowledge of picnics got him to share a great deal about life in the city when they were talking about communities. Always start with the known and build to the new.

So what happened with my failed read aloud? After muddling through, I encouraged the teacher to set up a dramatic-play grocery store so the children could act out grocery store play and talk about how stores work. The children that had been to actual grocery stores guided the children that hadn’t. The teacher put out a number of books about grocery stores, both fact-books and stories, and let the children make the content their own. My failure turned into a rich learning experience for that class and for me!


Susan Bennett-Armistead, PhD, is an associate professor of literacy education, the Correll Professor of Early Literacy, and the coordinator of literacy doctoral study at the University of Maine. Prior to doctoral study, Dr. Bennett-Armistead was a preschool teacher and administrator for 14 years in a variety of settings, including a brief but delightful stint in the Alaskan bush.


For more information on the My World series by this author, you can click here to visit the series page on our website or click the image below to download an information sheet. Other informational text books pictured in this article were from Zoozoo Animal World and Story World Real World.

New Call-to-Action

Read More

Topics: K-2 Literacy, Informational Text, Susan Bennett-Armistead, World Knowledge, Background Information, My World

Informational Texts Can Build Background & Augment Prior Knowledge

Posted by Susan Weaver Jones on Jul 31, 2013 8:00:00 AM

Today's guest blogger is Susan Weaver Jones, an elementary educator from Orlando, Florida, who currently works in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has taught students in Kindergarten through Eighth Grade as a Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, Reading Recovery Teacher, and Literacy Coach. She is also the author of three leveled readers in the Kaleidoscope Collection.

As a child growing up in Florida, I had a nodding acquaintance with infrequent freezing temperatures during winterbut none at all with snow. In school, I read stories about children playing in the snow, sledding down hills, and building snowmen, but I had no personal experience with such activities. However, I would see televised weather reports of blizzards in northern states and watch movies set in cold climates. Those media provided information that supplemented my knowledge about seasonal weather. Even though

I lacked prior knowledge about snow from my own life, I learned about snow from others' accounts. Their experiences served to broaden my snow-deprived background!

Horse Cover.newOur students also have gaps in their prior knowledge that can interfere with their learning if not addressed. That's why we need to provide students with background information, relevant artifacts, and related experiences, so they have enough knowledge to make sense of what they're studying. Of course, because our students come to school with a variety of life experiences, they will have different strengths and needs. Despite those differences, we can even the playing field by providing shared experiences that introduce concepts to some students while reinforcing them for others.

Looking through sample copies of early nonfiction readers in Hameray's Zoozoo Animal World series, I reflected on primary-age students I've taught. What prior knowledge would they have already had about the animals in this series? What additional background might they have needed?

My students, as a whole, would have had some degree of knowledge about horses, one of the animals included in the Farm Animals Set. The students who lived in rural areas would have had firsthand knowledge about horses on their family farms. However, even most of my city kids would be familiar with horses from county fairs, parades, television, movies, magazines, and/or books. The overwhelming majority of my students would have had enough information about horses to feel comfortable discussing the subject. 

I've learned that allowing students to talk about what they know, perhaps in response to specific questions after introducing the topic (i.e., How are horses the same as other mammals? How are they different?), gives them the opportunity to learn from each other. If I listen to my students discuss their responses, I gain insights into what they know, what they don't know, and what misinformation is confusing them.

Puffin CoverIn contrast, most of the students I taught probably knew very little about puffins, aquatic birds featured in the Arctic Set of the Zoozoo Animal World series. If I mentioned puffins, my students would be more likely to think of the Big, Bad Wolf huffin' and puffin' in The Three Little Pigs than of colorful birds that live in cold regions! 

If I showed students photos or videos of puffins in their habitat, my students could develop frames of reference from which they could begin to note similarities and differences between puffins and other birds, linking the unfamiliar to the familiar. When I add to students' prior knowledge through various means,

I need to permit them the opportunity to discover some connections for themselves. Teachers can act as tour guides to the destination, stepping back as appropriate, so students revel in the joy of discovery as they explore new information.

In the midst of that exploration, students' interests are piqued, and because they're curious, they want to learn more! Building background has a bonus: It motivates and creates a mindset for learning!

Bat Cover.newCroc CoverKillerWhale Cover.newMoose Cover.new

Though our students may have geographical bounds or other constraints that limit their personal experiences, we can intervene by enhancing their prior knowledge with additional information and experiences that expand the background they need!

- Susan Weaver Jones

If you'd like to learn more about our Zoozoo Animal World Series, click the image below to download a series highlight sheet!

New Call-to-Action

Read More

Topics: Informational Text, Animals, Guest Blog, Zoozoo Animal World, Susan Weaver Jones, Background Information, Prior Knowledge

Subscribe to Email Updates

Recent Posts

Posts by Topic

see all

Follow Me