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Prior Knowledge is Your Connection
to Learning

by Flora M. Brown, Ph.D.
Copyright November 1, 1999

  • What is your Achilles’ heel?
  • Why is “ Luddite World Wide Web Site” an oxymoron?
  • Why did a patient surrounded by tubes, wires and machines remark that he felt as if he were in “Peter Coffin’s inn?”
  • Why did your coworker call you a Pollyanna?
    These questions all refer to characters or events from literature or history and can stall your comprehension if you don’t recognize them. Throughout college textbooks and other sophisticated reading you will encounter references such as these. These allusions, as they are called, point to characters and events from literature, the Bible, history, music, mythology, and sometimes even advertising. Authors expect educated readers to be familiar with them and they use allusions to help illuminate, dramatize or enrich the concepts they are presenting. Here are four suggestions to help expand your knowledge and decrease the likelihood that you will get stumped by allusions.

    1. Expand your cultural literacy by reading widely. You may even want to learn more about a movement launched by E.D.Hirsch, Jr. called Cultural Literacy. Advocates believe that to be well-educated you must know certain facts or knowledge. While many don’t subscribe to this need for a common band of knowledge, you will find a wealth of interesting information there. Please visit the website http://www.snhhsc.milford.nh.us/cult.html

2. Continue to expand your vocabulary beyond the mandatory vocabulary exercises assigned by your teachers. Many allusions will be explained in your desk-sized dictionary; others can be found in an unabridged dictionary, reference books or on the Internet.

3. Read in areas that don’t normally interest you. When I read the sports page, for example, I am impressed by the colorful imagery used by sports writers. It also expands my knowledge and my vocabulary into an area outside my everyday usage. Learn how to read a difficult book at http://www.ucc.vt.edu/stdyhlp.html and http://www.ucc.vt.edu/stdysk/vocabula.html

4. Go beyond the textbook assignments and read related information in other books, magazines, and on the Internet. Create your own links between what you’re learning in the classroom with material, events and phenomena outside the class. While you may be discussing the Vietnam War in class, you’ll get an entirely different perspective from talking to a veteran, watching a documentary or reading a novel set during the War.

Following these four suggestions will expand your knowledge base and help you recognize more allusions in your reading.

Aren’t you glad I’m giving you the answers to the questions posed at the beginning?

1. According to Greek mythology Achilles could only be killed in his heel, his only weak or vulnerable spot. Now Achilles’ heel means any weak or vulnerable spot not only physically, but also emotionally, psychologically and so on.

2. Luddites were 19th century British textile workers who smashed new labor-saving machinery because they believed the modern technology to be responsible for unemployment and reduced wages. Now Luddites means anyone opposed to modern technology or technological advances.

3. Peter Coffin was the proprietor of Spouter-Inn, the lodging house in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, “Moby Dick,” where Ishmael had to share a bed with the magnificently tattooed Queequeg.

4. When your coworker called you a Pollyanna it meant that you were excessively or persistently optimistic. This was the name of the young heroine of novels by Eleanor H Porer in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.









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