Nudging toward Inquiry. Awakening and Building Upon Prior Knowledge

Welcome to Year Two of “Nudging toward Inquiry.” Last year, librarians and educators volunteered their small tweaks to shift existing research projects closer to inquiry. As Jean Donham points out in her article in this issue of SLM (pages 8-11), these projects were topic-focused: country, animal, and science reports, to name a few. This year, we move further toward inquiry-based learning. Instead of adapting existing practices, we’ll build inquiry understanding from the ground up.

Authentic inquiry focuses on student questions and curiosity and the engaging quest for authentically resonant synthesis or solutions. Inquiry is not an adult-free, laissez-faire free-for-all. Adult scaffolding and modeling of the inquiry’s recursive process helps guide students in effective paths to understanding (Kuhlthau, Collier, and Maniotes 2007).

In each issue, we’ll pool readers’ knowledge of new and familiar strategies that will support inquiry-based pedagogy. In this issue, we’ll look at prior knowledge strategies; in upcoming issues, we’ll examine questioning; information search, extraction, and notetaking; synthesis; formative and summative assessment; and reflection. Inquiry is rarely as linear as this list implies; rather, inquirers may revisit any stage at any point. For example, new questions may arise during notetaking, or struggles to synthesize might reveal a need to find more information.

About Prior Knowledge

“Prior knowledge” (sometimes called schema or background knowledge) is information we already know that helps us make sense of new information. Imagine that your doctor recommends a magnetic resonance imaging exam (MRI). You may not know what an MRI is or does, but you already know about magnets. Your understanding of how MRIs work will build on that existing knowledge of magnets.

New learning builds on existing prior knowledge. In traditional reporting-style research projects, students bypass this crucial step and plow right into answer-finding. It’s no wonder that many adults—including many librarians— harbor memories of “boring research.” Research is boring when it is disconnected from students’ lives, yet utterly fascinating when it connects to what they know.

In some schools, it will be effective to awaken existing prior knowledge by reminding students of what they already know. KWL charts, created by Ogle (1986), are the best-known method of awakening existing knowledge (see ). Often, it cannot be assumed that prior knowledge exists. Building prior knowledge—creating intentional learning activities that can give that strong foundation and level the playing field for all learners—then becomes imperative. Building prior knowledge can also help identify flawed assumptions or misconceptions. A text or multimedia excerpt, picture book, artifact or physical object, or inventory walk of materials (Klentschy 2007) all provide basic information that can help learners create mental roots.

We asked librarians, educators, and readers on the SLM blog for their strategies for developing and assessing prior knowledge in their students.

Wikipedia as a Foundation for Learning

Students choose a broad topic to research. Without consulting any resources, they jot down or map their current knowledge about the topic or subtopics. After a fairly robust brainstorm, they move to the second step, where I see value in using Wikipedia. They locate and print a Wikipedia article about the broad topic area. They use one color to highlight what they already know on the topic and another to mark new information. This can lead to questioning. I reemphasize the value of Wikipedia and most general encyclopedias as useful early-stage research tools—not final sources.

I often ask students to write a reflective paragraph in their research journal. I read these and offer feedback. We also have discussions (one-on-one, small group, or whole class) about what they know, which can help students realize that they know more than they thought they did. — Sandra Jenkins, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, MO

Video-Based Learning

Showing a short video clip helps students to gain visuals and topical information. After the video, I play a PowerPoint game that asks students to name the key objects/concepts that they may already know or at least have seen from the video.

I don’t feel that it is fair to assess my students’ prior knowledge if we haven’t done any learning together, because everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. However, students might write a reflective journal or short writing piece about what they already know. This can help me guide and support the kind of inquiry each student could pursue to learn something new. — Sheryl S Lee, Chongqing Maple Leaf International School, British Columbian offshore school in China

Mysterious Artifacts

I love a mystery and so do my students. Creating a buzz around a mysterious artifact can not only provide student engagement but also much-needed prior knowledge. During our planning session, the classroom teacher and I decide what item would elicit the best results to demonstrate what our students already know. After unveiling the “object,” students share what they “know” about it. This can be done as whole-group brainstorming or as individual writing, depending on the students’ age and the time available. It is a fun, engaging way to quickly assess how much background knowledge you need to provide to ensure authentic student learning. This year, we will have a response system of clickers. I am anxious to use these as another quick pre-assessment tool. — Liz Deskins, J. W. Reason Elementary, Hilliard, OH

Time for Exploration

Wandering and wondering. Allowing students the time to browse through books, primary documents, magazines, and more gives them the opportunity to ponder and create questions about our topic that will go on our KWHL chart. Once students have been given ample time to browse (more difficult than it sounds, as we are all in such a hurry), we gather to find out what we know, or think that we do. This can come in the means of a KWHL chart (see ), an “I wonder” list of questions, or a questioning web.

Using carefully crafted questioning during your group time, you can easily assess your entry level into the new unit, what amount of foundational information you must give to the entire class, or just a small group, such as ELL, to bring everyone to that equal foundation. My teachers and students love using the Smart Board for “I wonder questions,” and I can easily save the questions for us to refer to as we mount our research. One more benefit from student sharing of prior knowledge is that it leads us to know what further resources are necessary to ensure student success.— Liz Deskins, J. W. Reason Elementary, Hilliard, OH

Customizing Options to Fit the Need

For K-3 students, I’ll use interactive Web sites, images, maps and video on the Smart Board, audio recordings, or physical artifacts to trigger connections to past curriculum. If the knowledge is social-emotional, we may have pair and group discussions about our experiences. Historical fiction read-alouds are an excellent support to building background knowledge in social studies. Using graphic organizers will help students organize their knowledge and can help highlight student misconceptions. One adjustment to KWL I like (forget where I first saw it!) is changing the “K” to “T”, (“what I think I know”).

For assessment, I ask lots of questions and listen to group discussions. I am interested in trying some new strategies I learned this summer: a group mind map or “graffiti brainstorm” (poster paper passed around the room as students write what they know about a topic).— Amalia Connolly, Yorktown Central School District, Yorktown, NY



Klentschy, Michael P. Using Science Notebooks in Elementary Classrooms. NSTA Press, 2008.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier, Ann K. Caspari, and Leslie K. Maniotes. Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. Libraries Unlimited, 2007.

Ogle, Donna M. “K-W-L: A Teaching Model that Develops Active Reading of Expository Text.” Heading Teacher 39, no. 6 (1986): 564-70.


Sample KWL Chart

K What I KNOWW What I WANT to KnowL What I LEARNED

About the Author

Kristin Fontichiaro, MLIS, is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, where she coordinates the school library media specialization. She earned her master's in library and information science from Wayne State University. Formerly, she was an elementary school librarian and staff development facilitator for the Birmingham Public Schools in Michigan and a classroom teacher. She is the author of numerous award-winning books for youth, educators, and librarians. She can be reached at

Select Citation Style:
Fontichiaro, Kristin. "Nudging toward Inquiry. Awakening and Building Upon Prior Knowledge." School Library Monthly, 27, no. 1, September 2010. School Library Connection,
Fontichiaro, Kristin. "Nudging toward Inquiry. Awakening and Building Upon Prior Knowledge." School Library Monthly, September 2010.
Fontichiaro, K. (2010, September). Nudging toward inquiry. awakening and building upon prior knowledge. School Library Monthly, 27(1). Retrieved from

Entry ID: 2010391

back to top