Building on existing knowledge in the classroom

Teaching strategies

Building on existing knowledge in the classroom

The logical starting point for all teaching programs, units of work and lessons.

Building on existing knowledge – the concept that all students arrive with some knowledge, even if the subject is completely new. Linking existing knowledge with new information makes learning easier and faster.

Integration aide shown assisting a group of students in a classroom.

Before we begin discussing literacy and language strategies in any depth, we first need to identify the starting point – what students already know. Teachers refer to this first step as either ‘building on existing knowledge’, ‘linking to previous knowledge’ or sometimes ‘activation of prior knowledge’. Inexperienced teachers commonly forget this essential part of the planning and preparation phase. Seemingly more important tasks such as developing resources take precedence: little time and energy is devoted to carefully and diligently considering what students already know. This latter approach ignores the fact that all students arrive to class with varying levels of prior knowledge. Assuming students know nothing is a big mistake. Even struggling and disengaged students will have a vague idea about any given topic. A few students may even rival the teacher in terms of their level of skill or understanding. However, most will sit somewhere in between: they know a few things, but they have large gaps in their understanding.

The essence of building on existing knowledge is to reduce the amount of new and isolated content that students are required to learn. Take an extreme example: it is easier to teach an avid reader how to write a novel than it is to teach the same person how to surf (assuming they have no idea how to surf). Similarly, it is easier to teach a surfer how to windsurf as they have an existing wealth of knowledge about the ocean and water sports.

The essence of building on existing knowledge is to reduce the amount of new and isolated content that students are required to learn.

In the context of a learning program, it isn’t a huge stretch for a child who knows everything about dinosaurs to learn about zoo animals. Teachers should point out the similarities between a new set of spelling words and the previous set. If 5 words are similar (out of 10) to 5 previous words, students are really only learning 5 new words and 5 similar words. In this situation, students can spend more time on the 5 more difficult words.

It is important to understand that students may know 5, 10, 30 or 50 percent of a lesson's content from the outset. They may also know a lot about a parallel or related topic which can be used as the foundation for new learning. Teachers should never assume that learning starts at zero knowledge – this is never the case. Learning is slow and staggered when it begins from zero and is therefore taught in a vacuum. When students already know something however, adding to that knowledge is relatively easy. This is how the ‘building on existing knowledge’ strategy works in practice: teachers identify what students know and they use that as the starting point for each lesson.

Teachers should not assume that students automatically make the link between existing knowledge and the current topic.

Teachers should not assume that students automatically make the link between existing knowledge and the current topic. This is especially the case with parallel topics. For example, students may know a lot about the Vietnam war but nothing about the Korean war. When learning about the latter, students probably won’t connect their existing knowledge about the Vietnam war to the current topic. Making connections is a higher cognitive task that requires a certain level of content mastery. Even if both wars are studied one after the other, students may not see the most obvious links. Teachers need to articulate these links precisely and clearly. Once the link has been identified, students easily add new knowledge to their existing pool of knowledge in a logical, organised and connected way (adding to a person’s ‘schema’).

Teachers of all subjects can successfully employ this strategy. Take John for example. He is a year 9 woodworking student and has already built a simple wooden box. He is about to build a hall table which is making him nervous. The teacher explains that a hall table is basically a box with legs – it’s a little bigger, but otherwise the differences are minor. In fact, it is harder to make smaller boxes than bigger boxes as the level of accuracy must be more precise. The table is certainly more challenging due to the addition of legs and a drawer. The teacher explained the link between the previous task and the current task which allayed everyone’s trepidation about the upcoming project; students are now keenly aware that they have already completed a similar task without any issues. Had the teacher made the mistake of starting from zero and not showing the link between the 2 tasks, the students would have approached the task in a very different way. Additionally, the class can reflect on the first task in order to make improvements for the second task.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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