What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You, Unless You Don’t Know You’re Wrong is the title of a study by Tenaha O’Reilly, John Sabatini and Zuowei Wang that suggests a strategy that is to me for assisting students who might lack background knowledge about a text.

Most educators understand the important role prior knowledge has in reading comprehension (see The Best Resources For Learning About The Importance Of Prior Knowledge (& How To Activate It)).

In many cases, we teachers are “flying blind” in really knowing what background/prior knowledge our students have about the topic of a text.  A common way that many of us try to deal with this challenge is by asking students to complete a K-W-L chart.  Those can give us an idea of generally what knowledge many of our students have, but we realistically can’t cover all the gaps in our pre-teaching.

So, then, what can we do to help students develop skills they can apply themselves to gain a greater understanding of a text where they may be missing needed background knowledge?

That’s where this study comes in.

They gave students a version of a no-stakes anticipatory set with a series of questions about the topic.  It was multiple choice, and “I don’t know” was an option.

They discovered that the students who chose more “I don’t know” responses did a much better job of comprehending the material than those who “knew” the answer, but chose the wrong ones:

When encountering a word or concept they don’t know, they may adjust their standard of coherence (van den Broek et al., 2001) and set a goal for learning new information. In other words, their “don’t know” during the BK task response may cue them to areas of the text where the concepts are covered and subsequently, allocate attention and resources to learn what they previously didn’t know.

Of course, this means that the teacher would need to take the time to create the questions but, if you do it in a Google Form and re-use the same text for a few years running, it could be worth the time and effort – if nothing else, you could do it as your own teacher action research project (see The Best Resources For Learning About Teacher Action Research – Help Me Find More).

The paper, which is not behind a paywall, also has a great review of research on the importance of background knowledge, so it could be handy to have if you have justify any of your lessons to an administrator.

I learned about the study from a post by the Institute for Education Sciences, and that piece has a number of other useful links, too.