2 Using existing knowledge to make sense of an English text

Good readers ask questions about what they are reading. They look for clues to answer those questions and help them to make sense of the text. They use the information that they can find in the text and the knowledge that they already have about the world to come to some sort of conclusion about what the text means.

We do this every day, in both oral and written communication. Often this is so automatic that we don't even realise that the information wasn't included in the conversation or text. For example, read the following sentences:

My wife and I tried to pack light, but we made sure that we didn’t forget our sleeping bags and special walking shoes. The last time I travelled, I had motion sickness so I also made sure that I packed some medicine to prevent vomiting.

The reader can gather a great deal of information from these sentences:

  • The author is married.
  • The author is going on a trip.
  • The author and his wife are going to do some walking, perhaps trekking or hiking.
  • They may be camping and will not be sleeping in proper beds.
  • The author is perhaps anxious or nervous.

This information was not clearly stated in the sentences, but a reader can use what was written – along with their knowledge of the world – to understand much more than what was said. When you read a text, you automatically come to conclusions about what you are reading, even when the writer has not said it. You come to conclusions as to why things have happened, why characters have behaved in a certain way, and how they feel.

Of course, people’s knowledge of the world is different, depending on where they live or their experiences. This means that people may come to different conclusions about what they read.

Activity 2: Using existing knowledge to make sense of a text

Good readers use what is in the text and their knowledge of the world to make sense of what they are reading. You can help your students to develop this skill by following these steps:

  1. Before class, select a paragraph from a lesson or other text. It can be any paragraph from any kind of text. Below is an example paragraph taken from the NCERT Class IX textbook Beehive.

In 1900, at the age of 21, Albert Einstein was a university graduate and unemployed. He worked as a teaching assistant, gave private lessons and finally secured a job in 1902 as a technical expert in the patent office in Bern. While he was supposed to be assessing other people’s inventions, Einstein was actually developing his own ideas in secret. He is said to have jokingly called his desk drawer at work the ‘bureau of theoretical physics’.

  1. Ask students to read the paragraph, either in their heads or aloud.
  2. Draw the following table on the blackboard and ask the students to copy it:
Table 2 Existing knowledge template.
What I understand about Einstein from the paragraph (but is not directly stated) How I understand this

  1. Tell students that the paragraph about Einstein gives them lots of information – for example, his age in 1900 and so on. Tell them that readers of the paragraph could also assume things about Einstein that are not explicitly stated in the text. Give them an example, and complete the table:
Table 3 Existing knowledge template with an example.
What I understand from the paragraph (but is not directly stated) How I understand this
Perhaps he wasn’t very rich He had to work – he worked as a teaching assistant and gave private lessons

  1. Ask the students to make some more suggestions to add to the table, and make notes in the table on the blackboard.
  2. Now ask them to read some more paragraphs from the textbook. Ask them next to complete another table with notes about the paragraphs. This can be quite a challenging activity, so encourage the students to work in pairs or groups to share ideas and help each other.

Pause for thought

Here are some questions for you to think about after trying this activity. If possible, discuss these questions with a colleague.

  • Were your students able to understand things about the text that were not directly stated? If so, were they able to give reasons?
  • Did you need to intervene at any point? Would you modify the activity next time? If so, how?
  • Did this activity help you to assess your students’ learning?

This activity helps students to understand more about the skills they use when they read a text, and will help them to understand and remember texts more. It could be difficult for students, but they will get better with practice. Try the technique again with another text, and see if your students are able to understand more.

1 Asking questions as you read

3 Identifying key points in a text