Connect Prior Knowledge

When it comes to learning new vocabulary, simply having your students repeat new words is not enough. Your students may learn to pronounce the vocabulary words correctly through this process, but they’re likely to forget the words as soon as you move on. Instead, connect the new vocabulary words to words that your students may already know. For example, Lakeisha may link the unfamiliar word “traverse” to the travel company, where she and her mother get airline tickets. She may differentiate it from “travois,” the term for the pole and hide carrier used by Native Americans to transport belongings behind a horse. Mary Beth may not immediately connect “traverse” to anything and may, therefore, need a nudge to make a connection to a word she already knows, such as “travel.” When students link new information to existing schema, the learning “sticks” because it has personal meaning. Use these two ideas to help your students "anchor" new vocabulary. 


Vocabulary Anchors (PDF)

Developed by R. Winters in The Reading Teacher, Vocabulary Anchors is a graphic strategy that helps students make connections between concepts that are new to them and concepts they already know. It is especially helpful to struggling readers and ESL students who may have problems with technical vocabulary in science and social studies. To introduce Vocabulary Anchors, show students a photo or drawing of a boat at rest in calm water and talk about how a boat can drift away if it doesn’t have an anchor. The Vocabulary Anchors worksheet should help you visualize the exercise. Then, explain how we come to understand something new by “anchoring” it to something we already know. Now, show students what you mean:

  • Draw a simple boat and write a term on it your students probably know, like mountain.
  • Choose a related word, such as hill, that students probably also know and write it inside a rectangular anchor under the boat.
  • Connect the boat and anchor with a line to represent the rope.
  • Talk about similarities between the words and write them below to the left of the anchor, keying them with a plus sign (+).
  • Talk about the characteristics that set the words apart and list them below the box to the right, keying them with a tilde sign (~).
  • Discuss a memorable experience you associate with the main word.
  • Add a sail to the top of the boat and list a few key words or draw pictures to represent your memory.
  • Summarize by reviewing the drawing and talking about what the words mean and why they cannot be used interchangeably.

Now lead students, as a class, through the construction of a few Vocabulary Anchors for difficult words you have pre-selected that they will encounter in their next science or social studies unit. Creating these anchors together allows students to share their experiences and prior knowledge as they build schemas for new words. Students might complete Vocabulary Anchors you have partially constructed for them as they read, then share their work in small groups or with the class.

Picture Walk Words

This exercise will connect students’ prior knowledge to a new story, and, in the process, help them learn new words. Choose a picture book to read aloud. Before reading, introduce it by talking about the cover illustration and asking children to predict what the story may be about. Continue to encourage the children to predict as you take a “picture walk” through the book by looking at each page together without reading the text. As students talk about what may be happening in the story, they share their prior knowledge with one another. Through this discussion they begin to learn and use new vocabulary naturally.