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Prior Knowledge...What's There to Know?

Assessing and Building Prior Knowledge…..A Vitally Important Component of Creating Meaningful Learning for Students on the Autism Spectrum

We use prior knowledge every day to navigate the world, and most of us use this valuable learning approach without thinking. In my work with students who have autism, I have found that prior knowledge activation is often not automatic and even when activated, is often not connected to the application of new learning. This creates a massive disconnect when learning, integrating, and generalizing new material and content.

The dictionary definition of prior knowledge is:

“Prior knowledge refers to the information, no matter how limited, a learner has at the start of learning a new topic. This knowledge will likely have been gathered over time in a variety of ways.”

Teachers are taught to activate prior knowledge with students when introducing new content, and good teachers actively assist students in connecting prior knowledge to new learning in the classroom. However, students with autism often require much more exploration of prior knowledge before new learning can be integrated into their schemata and their current understanding increased and expanded.

How Do We Assess Prior Knowledge?

When introducing new content or even reviewing previous content, it is vitally important to assess what the student currently knows about the given topic. The most important first step as the adult guide is not to assume prior knowledge that the student has, even if he/she has been exposed to the content previously.

Introduce the new topic, and discuss it with the student. Ask the student to share what he/she knows about the topic. This can be done in a variety of ways: discussion, brainstorming, list making, picture review, drawing, vocabulary matching, concept mapping….

Determine areas of prior knowledge that are missing and needed for continued instruction prior to moving forward with the lesson and build learning activities into the instruction that will allow the student to gain the needed prior knowledge before delving into the instruction of the new content.

In working with students who have autism spectrum disorders, I discover unexpected deficits in prior knowledge on a daily basis. When discovered, it is essential to build needed background knowledge before moving forward with new instruction so that the student can build new learning upon a sufficiently solid learning foundation.

Here are a few examples…..

  • When making a list of farm animals in preparation for a guessing game, a student did not know what wool. We discovered this when he listed sheep as an animal and discussed its body covering. Before moving forward, we defined wool, looked at pictures of wooly sheep, and determined what wool is used to make.

  • When teaching how to solve for surface area, a student encountered a series of word problems applying surface area to roofing a house. The student had not heard of shingles, and therefore did not understand the question about roofing. We stopped the math instruction and discussed shingles, their appearance, use, and application. We looked at pictures of shingles online and also differentiated shingles from gutters, as the student demonstrated a confusion between shingles and gutters during our discussion. After building this understanding, he returned to solving surface area application problems.

  • While engaged in a reading assessment, a student missed a question that involved a character ‘having supper.’ When discussing the question, the student indicated that he didn’t know the meaning of the word supper. We used context clues to determine the meaning and then connected this word to a familiar word, dinner. We brainstormed meals a person might have for supper/dinner. We reviewed this new vocabulary word after completing the assignment.

In closing, it is vitally important to assess and actively build student background knowledge prior to and when introducing any new learning. Without this assessment and building, students cannot effectively connect current knowledge to new learning and then cannot fluidly apply new learning to their daily life.

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