Brainstorming: Tapping Prior Knowledge—Serving as a Basis for New Knowledge

What do you know? About Antarctica? Earthworms? Ultraviolet light? Ernest Hemingway? Chances are, if you were going to read a passage about any of these topics, you would spend a few moments recollecting what you already knew before you started. You would “take stock” of your prior knowledge.

Activities which guide students in marshaling what they already know are an excellent way to jump-start learning about a topic. Many researchers feel that a student’s prior knowledge about material is the single most important variable in their reading comprehension. Therefore, devising ways to activate what students know before they read can help them make connections to new learning.

Teaching/Learning Activities

Brainstorming activities provide one useful framework for eliciting student background knowledge before learning. Several classroom variations are possible.

Step 1: List-Group-Label (Taba) is a general brainstorming activity that is effective for students who have a baseline of information about a topic. Decide upon an appropriate stimulus word, and give students a limited period of time (such as 2 minutes) to write down as many words as they can that are in some way associated with the term. For example, before studying this topic, ask students to jot down their associations for the term “amphibian.”

Next solicit these associations from the students and list them on the chalkboard or overhead transparency. Ask for a quick justification for how each word or expression relates to the topic. A likely list might include “frog,” “salamander,” “live near water,” “toad,” “eats bugs,” “cold-blooded,” “ponds,” “aquarium,” “slimy skin,” and so forth.

When you have a sufficient list, have the students work in cooperative teams to group items that have something in common. It might be helpful during this phase to provide each team with small slips of paper so that they can record items and physically manipulate them to determine their groupings. They should aim for at least three items per grouping, although occasionally there may be “misfit” items which do not seem to correspond with the others.

The final stage of this brainstorming activity involves categorization. Students examine their groupings and decide upon an appropriate label, which can be written on a slip of paper and placed as a title for each sub-list. Each team shares its categories and explains its rationale for organizing the lists the way it did. Labels for “amphibian” could include “types of,” “where they live,” and “what they are like.”

Step 2: The Sequential Roundtable Alphabet (Ricci & Wahlgren) is a brainstorming format that is effective when students have more extensive background knowledge. Give each student or cooperative group a blank copy of the Alphabet chart. The task is to generate a related term that begins with each letter. Students try to fill in as many boxes as possible within a designated time period. The chart serves as a prompt for remembering, as in this case when history students prepare to study the 1960’s time period.

Step 3: Another brainstorming tactic is to use a stimulus word as an acronym. The acronym is presented vertically and students flesh it out by supplying related words that share a letter with the term. (See “Lizard” example.)

Step 4: Brainstorming exercises can also be a good activity for review after learning. Lists can be revisited so new information can be added, or erroneous information can be corrected. Questions about the accuracy of items need to be addressed during this phase, so that misconceptions about the material can be confronted.


Brainstorming helps students make connections between what is already known and new learning. In addition:

Student interactions allow an opportunity for sharing of background knowledge, so that all students can begin their study with some familiarity with the topic.

Student misconceptions about the material become apparent, and can be directly confronted during instruction.