Activating Prior Knowledge

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"Cultural of Universal Symbols and allegories often allude to other works from our cultural heritage, such as the Bible, ancient history and literature, and works of the British and American traditions. Sometimes understanding a story may require knowledge of history and current politics." (153, Roberts).


In the education field, a crucial element of teaching a daily lesson plan is activating the prior knowledge of the students in order to get them more fully involved in the lesson. I suppose that this holds true with many literary works. For instance, in the poem "Cargoes 1902," (377)John Masefield uses a variety Biblical references in his poem in comparison to the state of shipments in England during the early 1900's. Without the footnotes (which Roberts graciously provided), many, including myself, would have no idea what "Ophir" (line 1) was. Also, this poem requires some knowledge of ancient and relatively modern history. Upon reading this poem the first time, I immediately researched the historical context in which this poem was written. I discovered that there was a war between Africa and England that was occurring at the time the poem was written, and this put the "mad March days" (line 12) into perspective for me.

Another work of Literature that we studied that required the activation of prior knowledge was Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B" (373). Initially, it may not have been realized that one needed prior knowledge when reading Hughes' poem, but there is plenty of prior knowledge necessary to fully understand the context in which the poem was written. "Theme for English B" is a poem that was written during a time of unstated segregation in America. If we did not know this prior bit of information, we would not fully comprehend why the speaker in the poem is "the only colored student in my class" (line 10). Also, we wouldn't understand the significance of the speaker stating "Bessie, bop or Bach" (line 24) as his musical preferences and having Bach stick out.

Clearly, activating prior knowledge about historical events or past stories is crucial for reader comprehension. How can we enforce the importance of placing a story or work into historical context? In chapter 16, Roberts states that "Some works, however, may seem to offer a special challenge because of their apparent lack of currency; that is, they seem to be so closely connected with our own contemporary ideas and assumptions that you may not readily see them in historical and cultural perspective" (235). The reason that historical events are retold for future generations is because the lessons that can be learned from these events are relevant. However, if we solely focus on the contemporary aspects of literary works, we will sometimes miss the deeper meanings that are accompanied by historical contexts.   


Aja Hannah said:

For "Cargoes" it is also important to recognize that the bible is not widely known or studied anymore, especially in places like America where relgions are so diverse. As a Catholic university, we have some advantage here.

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