Building Background for English learners

There has been some confusion in past years about the role of building students’ background, particularly since the Common Core was introduced. In the early years of the Common Core, it was not unusual for teachers to report that they “weren’t supposed to” spend time, especially during reading instruction, connecting the text to students’ background knowledge and experiences.  This misguided notion was probably in response to practices where teachers spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about ideas and experiences related to the text instead of having students actually read text.  For example, spending 20 minutes talking about the types of gardens students have seen and the teacher’s favorites gardens before even cracking open the book, The Secret Garden.

Or, in some cases, not enough time was spent on teaching students how to read text.

I’d like to think those extreme ideas are behind us and that teachers spend appropriate amounts of time linking to background as needed to enhance comprehension, or that they begin a lesson with a brief introduction asking students what they know about the topic. It seems there is currently a general awareness that making a connection between text and students’ background knowledge and experiences is valuable – and necessary in many cases. One of my favorite quotes is from P. David Pearson who I heard say, “Asking students to read without using their background is like asking them to breathe without using oxygen.” Well said. We use our background all the time to make sense of new information and figure out the meaning of something we read.

With English learners, it is even more important to make connections to what they know and to build their background knowledge when needed. Sometimes cultural differences mask the similarities between the content of the lesson and what English learners know. In other cases, the content and its antecedent information may be unfamiliar to students because of gaps in schooling or language proficiency hampered understanding of the information when it was taught.

Here are some effective ways to connect lessons to students’ knowledge and to build background for English learners.

  • Preview the chapter by looking at headings and illustrations. Ask what the chapter will be about and chart what students predict about the chapter. As the chapter is read, refer back to the chart and clarify facts, ideas and information through discussion about the text.
  • Use visuals — photos, diagrams, video clips, illustrations — to convey meaning, provide context and as a reference point for English learners. Technology provides innumerable ways to show a visual representation of information or a concept. I recall the days when effective teachers pulled out transparencies from previous lessons to review on the overhead projector! #noexcuses #usetechnology
  • Acknowledge that concepts or vocabulary terms may have different meanings for English learners and explicitly address those differences. Revolution in the context of the American Revolution is typically presented with a positive outcome. Some English learners may have had a very different experience with revolution which may result in confusion about its meaning. Similarly, students in urban settings may use an alley between apartments as an area for congregating and playing. When the text describes a character who “walks quickly down a dark alley” to connote danger, it may be lost on students.
  • Apply a KWL chart or quick-write individually to see what each student knows about a topic, and the questions she has about it. The information students provide give teachers ideas for grouping and conducting mini-lessons to fill in gaps.
  • Arrange small groups so that students can comfortably discuss ideas, issues, and concepts with related vocabulary to develop the necessary background knowledge some in the group may be lacking.

Students with knowledge about a topic have better recall and are better able to build on that knowledge than students with limited knowledge of it. English learners benefit from having new information explicitly linked to their background knowledge and experiences to make the connection between what they already know and the topic. Also, there needs to be scaffolding provided so that English learners make sense of the material that they aren’t familiar with. Building background is a necessary part of lessons for filling in gaps and facilitating understanding for English learners.

Based on: Echevarria, Vogt & Short (2017). Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model, Fifth Edition. New York: Pearson.



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