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  • Destiny Yarbro

Six Evidence-based Instructional Approaches to Activate Prior Knowledge in Students

Strangman, Hall and Meyer (2004) explore six evidence-based instructional approaches to activate prior knowledge in students: (1) Reflection and recording, (2) Interactive discussion, (3) Answering questions, (4) K-W-L, (5) CONTACT-2, and (6) Interpretation of topic-related pictures. I will explore the K-W-L and interpretation of topical pictures approaches, exploring how they can be used in the language learning classroom.

Approach 1: K-W-L

The K-W-L approach helps students assess what they know, determine what they want to find out, and recall what they have learned. In a traditional classroom, a teacher would have the student fill out a three column chart before reading an assigned book. For example, if a Senior class is reading the book, Wild Swans about the massive changes China underwent during the 20th century, perhaps the chart would look like this:

Although this approach has been limited to reading comprehension strategies, in the case of a language learning classroom, I have incorporated a similar approach in helping students utilize what they already know in a language and identify which phrases and vocabulary they want to know for a specific situation. For example, if a student works in construction and wants to be able to associate with their coworkers and clients in another language, their chart would look like this:

In classrooms that use homogenizing learning curriculum and standardized testing, perhaps one would see this approach as limited as it focuses mainly on the students’ milieus. However, meaningful learning and retention comes when content is viewed through the lens of context as “focusing primarily on content produces student learning that may be unconnected to life events and largely meaningless” (Schunk, 2012, p. 40). Students may be able to cram for a language exam by studying generalized vocabulary lists, but are they actually learning the language? Are these massive lists in any way applicable or relatable to their daily use of a new language? A form of the K-W-L approach would allow language teachers and students to (1) note what tools they already have to communicate in their new language and (2) take note of gaps in their knowledge so they can focus their efforts on the essential: filling those gaps in their language toolkit.

Approach 2: Interpretation of Topical Pictures

In a traditional classroom, a photo can provide a contextual lens by which to view the content and thus the new or struggling reader will be less likely to get lost in the words. In addition, a photo engages the brain of the more visually-attuned student (a “picture smart” student as Thomas Armstrong calls them (2018)), breaking up pages of innumerable black words on white paper. For example, Yu (2015) researched the positive impact of tested, text-supporting, topical pictures on the extremely high-stakes Chinese Proficiency Exam (HSK). In the course of her research, she congregated a variety of research showing that “pictures play a positive role in helping readers to comprehend a text” (p. 5).

In the case of the language learning classroom, pictures are helpful (as proved in Yu’s research above on the HSK taken by non-native speakers of Chinese). But in the case of learning signed languages, photos are extremely effective as signs are nearly always quite visual in nature. For example, one of the signs for “walking” is a V-shaped hand pointed downwards with the fingers wiggling back and forth as if they are legs. An effective topical photo of this concept could be a woman walking along a road:

A limitation of this method is that teachers may find it challenging to identify effective pictures that do not give too much information away. Assessing the effectiveness of the photo will differ according to age group, content, and purpose of a course. Yu (2015) writes extensively on what constitutes an effective photo for the HSK exam by comparing “pictures delivering ‘not too much’ information” with “pictures delivering ‘too much’ information“ for the examination (p. 8). But in the case of learning languages, specifically signed languages, photos are an associative tool that activate the left and right hemispheres of the brain. And since the most memorable photos are “strange or funny,” the photo above is easy for students to retain because it shows a woman walking on a street in a dress with balloons (Bond, 2011). This catchy image can mean many things (thus distilling any fears of giving away “too much” information) but can be an easy-to-remember visual for the target concept of walking.


The K-W-L and interpretation of topical pictures approaches can be extremely effective in the language learning classroom. K-W-L helps identify the language tools a student already possesses while also focusing their effort on filling any knowledge gaps in their learning. Topical pictures are associative tools for language learning, specifically vocabulary building, and support right-brain / left-brain learning in the classroom. While there are perceived limitations to these approaches in a traditional classroom, both evidence-based approaches can be quite effective in a language learning classroom and engage students with a variety of learning preferences.


Armstrong, T. (2018). Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (4th ed.). ASCD.

Bond, A. (2011, November 1). Photos with strange or funny details deemed most memorable. Scientific American.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: an educational perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.

RyanMcGuire. Image. (2014, July 10). Pixabay.

Strangman, N., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. (2004). Background knowledge instruction and the implications for UDL implementation.

Vicars, B. (n-d). Classifier: V. ASL University.

Yu, F. (2015). An analysis of pictures for improving reading comprehension: A case study of the new Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi. The Nebraska Educator: A Student Led Journal, 27.


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