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Another strategy for improving teacher-directed instruction is to encourage students to relate the new material to prior familiar knowledge. When one of us (Kelvin) first learned a foreign language (in his case French), for example, he often noticed similarities between French and English vocabulary. A French word for picture, for example, was image, spelled exactly as it is in English. The French word for splendid was splendide, spelled almost the same as in English, though not quite. Relating the French vocabulary to English vocabulary helped in learning and remembering the French.
As children and youth become more experienced in their academics, they tend to relate new information to previously learned information more frequently and automatically (Goodwin, 1999; Oakhill, Hartt,&Samols, 2005). But teachers can also facilitate students’ use of this strategy. When presenting new concepts or ideas, the teacher can relate them to previously learned ideas deliberately—essentially modeling a memory strategy that students learn to use for themselves. In a science class, for example, she can say, “This is another example of…, which we studied before”; in social studies she can say, “Remember what we found out last time about the growth of the railroads? We saw that…”
If students are relatively young or are struggling academically, it is especially important to remind them of their prior knowledge. Teachers can periodically ask questions like “What do you already know about this topic?” or “How will your new knowledge about this topic change what you know already?” Whatever the age of students, connecting new with prior knowledge is easier with help from someone more knowledgeable, such as the teacher. When learning algorithms for multiplication, for example, students may not at first see how multiplication is related to addition processes which they probably learned previously (Burns, 2001). But if a teacher takes time to explain the relationship and to give students time to explore it, then the new skill of multiplication may be learned more easily.
Elaborating new information means asking questions about the new material, inferring ideas and relationships among the new concepts. Such strategies are closely related to the strategy of recalling prior knowledge as discussed above: elaboration enriches the new information and connects it to other knowledge. In this sense elaboration makes the new learning more meaningful and less arbitrary.
A teacher can help students use elaboration by modeling this behavior. The teacher can interrupt his or her explanation of an idea, for example, by asking how it relates to other ideas, or by speculating about where the new concept or idea may lead. He or she can also encourage students to do the same, and even give students questions to guide their thinking. When giving examples of a concept, for example, a teacher can hold back from offering all of the examples, and instead ask students to think of additional examples themselves. The same tactic can work with assigned readings; if the reading includes examples, the teacher can instruct students to find or make up additional examples of their own.
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