Reading is a highly complex activity and, yet, in the foreign language classroom, it is often approached as if texts are just collections of words and grammatical patterns which students, if only they could analyse and decipher them, would be able to arrive at the overall meaning of the text.

But, is this what happens when we read in the world outside the classroom? Wouldn’t it take forever to read anything if that is what we did?

When we read (think about you, reading these lines) we engage in a series of decisions,  interpretations and reinterpretations of the stream of text we are involved in processing but, do we do this merely at word and phrase or sentence level?

In this post, I would like to highlight the role of previous knowledge in interpreting textual meaning and have my readers think how they could translate this into best classroom practices in teaching their learners to be effective readers.

The diagram below shows two things:

1) the types of knowledge readers make use of in order to understand a text, beginning with what they already know about the subject, of similar texts, of type of publication and specific reason for which something was written as well as linguistic knowledge they possess.

2) the order in which this prior knowledge is put into use, with linguistic knowledge put to use last rather than first, in other words, processing is effected from the top-down rather than from the bottom-up, with bottom-up exploration coming into play when the reader encounters difficulties interpreting/understanding part of a text.

This is what we do as readers in the real world – in which we are not only accomplished in the language in which the text is written but, moreover, we have both reason and desire to read.

Language learners who are not accomplished readers, will, unless trained by their teachers, usually begin processing at word and sentence level, in effect trying to arrive at the overall meaning by first understanding all the small and local nuts and bolts of each text. This makes for slow, laborious and unmotivated reading.

Here is a diagram which represents the levels and types of knowledge we use to achieve understanding of a text.


Adaptation of a chart created by Anderson, A. & Lynch, T. 1988, Listening, OUP (p.13)

The diagram I have adapted from the original by A.Anderson & T.Lynch (1988) is an attempt to make a case for engaging our learners in activities prior to reading which will activate schematic/background knowledge, and will bring contextual knowledge into play as further ammunition for help in interpreting – thus, it is hoped that our learners will learn to make use of top-down processing;  bottom-up processing will be put into effect when they encounter meaning difficulties, when there is a need for reading between the lines, for text interpretation at a deeper level or for identification and recognition of language features which we wish to have them notice and be aware of.

Activating Prior Knowledge – Advance Organisers

“If I had to  reduce all educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly”

Ausubel, D. P. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 267-272.

This is something I read only very recently, but it rang a variety of bells which first started ringing when I studied psycholonguistics at university and first heard this term in relation to the processing of discourse (whether spoken or written). I am going to try and make a connection between the concept of advance organisers which D.P. Ausubel introduced to the idea of facilitating learning by activating previous knowledge and top-down processing which is perhaps more familiar to foreign language teachers.

Graphic Organisers

A typical example of an advance organiser or sometimes called graphic organisers, would probably be some type of diagram which the learners would be involved in actively completing prior to reading a text  You can view more examples here and here

In ELT terminology, graphic organisers go by the name of “information transfer‘, a term first coined by H.G.Widdowson (1979) who identified them as excellent bridges between what he called ‘comprehension’ and ‘composition’, in other words, receptive understanding and productive skills work, speaking or writing.

Widdowson doesn’t describe exactly the same use of information transfer as I am suggesting here; but I see no reason why his ideas should not be combined with the concept of advance organising, tuning in the learners’ mind into a topic by drawing on available knowledge, not only of facts and information but of language as well – something which is of great interest to the language teacher.

Understanding the relationship between information transfer and different genres is a really useful idea, as different types of diagrams suit different text types, for example, a flowchart diagram will usually be appropriate if a text has sequential information – narrative, instructions, a process description.

Here is an example I have used with a newspaper article with the following title:

Husband tried to kill his wife 7 times

Attempt No:

How did he do it?

What did he use?

Why do you think he failed?








© Marisa Constantinides 2002

After a brief lead in in which the students look at the headline and see that the husband’s attempts were unsuccessful, the table above gets them to think and predict what different methods he may have tried to use and possible reasons why he may have failed; this aims to activate prior knowledge of such events, as well as related linguistic knowledge; it aims to stimulate curiosity by personally investing in this type of guesswork. By the time the students are allowed to read the text, they are really just checking to see if their guesses were the right ones.  The same diagram is used for checking up with the text ( diagram as bridge). Later, if you like and are so inclined (:-) ) you can get them to use the same diagram to invent a fictitious failed criminal who failed to rob a bank 7 times or something similar.

(If you are curious and want to have a look at the text, please go to my Materials & Downloads page and you will find it in the folder called SEETA Reading Course)

The most popular and simple graphic organiser which is used by many educators (not only ELT teachers) looks like this and it is easy to put up on a board, on a google document or even a Wallwisher!



Cues or Prompts

I am using the term here in a different sense to how it is used in audionlingualism, in which the teacher supplies a verbal or non-verbal prompt for a student to reproduce a language pattern.

Cues or prompts in pre-reading activities may also be verbal or non-verbal but their purpose is to generate anticipation and predictions related to a text the learner are about to read. They can be simple or complex; for example, a series of controversial statements which the students must discuss before they read a text is still a prompt, albeit a more complex one.

Here is an example of such a prompt I have used to generate predictions related to a story the learners are about to read.


A list of key words or key phrases may also act as a prompt; the learners can use these to guess the topic or they can be asked to choose which ones might be expected to be included in a text with a specific title or headline. In the case of working with a whole book, the size or amount of text may vary and it may include predictions about plot, character, themes and settings.



The concept of questions to elicit prior knowledge and generate predictions is a familiar one, in which the teacher may lead the learners into thinking about a topic by asking a variety of questions. This type of lead in is just one of the many available but, in reality, most often used because it requires minimal materials preparation.

Again, more often than not, this type of dialogic model tends to place the teacher at the centreand may  generate more teacher talk –  your choice to follow or not.  A teacher can avoid this by writing up the questions on the board and asking learners to discuss in pairs or by assigning one or two questions per pair or group to discuss and present to the rest of the class.

The Q & A format could be seen to exist in advance organisers as well; a heading in a table or graph is, in a fact a question, isn’t it?  The only difference being the format.

I personally tend to prefer questions asked by the learners themselves.

For the learners to ask their own questions about a text they are going to read, they may need one or more prompts. for example the prompt example above can be used by the class/groups to ask the teacher questions about the narrative, but only Yes or No questions – than, based on the teacher’s answers, they can be invited to try and construct the text from the answers and the prompts before they read it.

Or, they can be shown the “husband tried to kill wife 7 times’ headline and be asked to brainstorm as many questions as they think/hope the article will answer to satisfy their curiosity . The questions can be shared by all or not but the learners are then asked to read with their own questions in mind – not the teacher’s or the book’s.


Final Thoughts

I have been trying to argue the case for creating a range of activities which will

  • engage the learners prior to reading a text
  • prime them and motivate them to read
  • promote top-down processing of the written text
  • create a bridge to later stages in the lesson
  • increase flow/task accountability from stage to stage
  • lead to focused and purposeful reading
  • provide a stimulus for follow up productive skills work.

Advance organisers can be great tools for this, but stimulating learner curiosity, excitement and motivation to read can be further enhanced by other cues/prompts and types of questioning. So, combining, mixing and matching for text, diagramatic display, sound and visual stimulation can work even better and stimulate different learners in different ways.

Diagrams (or information transfer or graphic organisers … )  have additional value however.

Their added value to other types of  priming activity is their ability to demonstrate logical links between ideas or hierarchical relationships. Once comprehension of a text has been achieved, the text can be taken away from the learners but the diagram remains available as a prompt which can generate further oral or written work.

Related Reading


Widdowson, H.G., 1979, Explorations in Applied Linguistics, Oxford University Press (pp. 73-74)

Articles & weblinks

  1. Graphic Organizers lists a nice range which is also related to discourse type
  2. Graphic Organizers and Implications for Universal Design for Learning: Curriculum Enhancement Report
  3. Cues, Questions & Advance Organizers some key research findings in summary
  4. you can make a variety of diagrams online for free
  5. (as for 4)
  6. Larry Ferlazzo’s listing of mindmapping and flowchart tools
  7. Shelly Terrell ‘s recording of awebinar on graphic organisers here!



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