Pre-assessing the prior knowledge of students before a cycle of instruction is the best way to plan individualized and successful growth-based units for each class of students instructors teach on a given year. When we ask teachers to provide pretests as part of their units, we're training them to analyze data and make instructional decisions BEFORE they even start teaching. Students will learn more easily during instructional units because teachers can modify lesson plans based on their students’ prior knowledge and fill in the gaps based on the holes in that knowledge for a more efficient instructional plan.
Pre-assessing students’ prior knowledge of academic vocabulary concepts is essential for faster instruction. A QHT chart, which asks students to sort their words into columns for words they could teach to others, words they have heard, and words they do not know (or question completely), could serve as a vocabulary preassessment (Cho, 2015). Instructors could check for prior knowledge of academic vocabulary in English and in primary languages for CLD students, which would provide instructors with essential planning information and allow for differentiation for each student’s needs during the unit of instruction. A simple 6-step vocabulary lesson with differentiated steps for students, who do not need the entire process, would accommodate the entire class, including advanced students.
Instructors should also have students preview challenging content vocabulary in their reading content for upcoming lessons. A simple strategy for pre-assessing content vocabulary is the 3-Read strategy, also called the multi-read strategy, which allows students to engage in one text multiple times and use that familiar content to practice several skills. Each day students read the text again to look for another specific target skill as their focus activity. One day one, they simply read; during that first reading, they circle unfamiliar words--this reading serves as the pre-assessment and allows instructors to visually see how many terms are unfamiliar. According to Reutzel and Cooter (1999), “when a teacher preteaches new words that are associated with a text the students are about to read, better reading comprehension results.” On successive days, students can look for more challenging skills--symbols, metaphors, cause-effect relationships . . . whatever skills instructors have targeted in the lesson. The familiarity with the text has provided the scaffolding to allow all students enough comfort to relax and concentrate on complex skill instead of worrying about the difficulty of navigating through unfamiliar content. “Effective teachers know that instructional decision making should include time for the preassessment" of both content and skills (Herrera & Murry, 2016, p. 26). This strategy also allows faster skill mastery for advanced students, who learn new skills with familiar content faster than they do with unfamiliar content. If we train our staff members to save unfamiliar content for summative assessment of independent reading and of independent skill-demonstration, we can save instructional time by using familiar texts.
Teachers also need to pre-assess students’ knowledge of learning strategies, which are essential to upcoming units: “Learning strategies are the patterns of thinking or goal-driven activities that help the learners attain targeted learning outcomes. The notion of a cognitive approach to learning strategies is grounded in a constructivist perspective on learning as a proactive and dynamic process. According to this view, learning involves selecting information, organizing it, relating it to prior knowledge, using it in appropriate contexts, and reflecting on the process” (Herrera & Murry, 2016, pp. 42-43). Depending upon students’ prior learning experiences, they may have significant mastery of upcoming learning strategies for particular instructional units and even serve as mentors during the unit, helping peers with newer strategies. Many students have particularly strong critical thinking and creativity strategies, which help them analyze text and write original responses in divergent ways.
A creative way to pre-assess upcoming instructional strategies is to provide an Embedded Assessment--a primary writing prompt--along with the rubric or proficiency scale--and ask students to unpack it into a list of skills and knowledge they will need in order to be successful during the unit of instruction. A collaborative group, who have a long list of skills probably don’t need a lot of strategies to be successful during the unit, but a group, who can’t generate a long list, or seem to need instructor's’ attention during the brainstorming activity even to get started, will need instruction in strategies. The pre-assessment has clearly shown they lack the skills to analyze a specific question, break it into parts, understand its global dimensions as well as its personal connections to self, and determine how to answer it along with what skills they need in order to do so along the way. “The most important understanding that teachers can gain from this theoretical framework is that what may appear to a teacher as a relatively simple task may actually be quite demanding in a cognitive sense” for struggling students (Herrera & Murry, 2016, p. 41).
These three skill areas are the most essential to pre-assess for all learners to ensure efficient mastery of new content. Checking for prior knowledge in these areas ensures more effective connection to previously mastered content and processes into which students can synthesize new material and transfer their new learning into other domains: “[T]he elaboration of a student’s prior knowledge is critical to cognitive development and transformative learning" (Herrera & Murry, 2016, p. 37). If we support our teachers in these and other strategies of reassessment, we will focus all building instruction on standards AND on using data to make wise instructional decisions for all students under our care.