ELLs of diverse backgrounds may struggle to grasp content and may approach the content from very different perspectives. Drawing on your students' background knowledge and experiences, can be an effective way to bridge gaps and to make the content more accessible. This article offers a number of suggestions to classroom teachers as they find ways to tap into the background knowledge that students bring with them.
1. Learn about your students' backgrounds and find culturally relevant resources to teach content
One of the important steps of the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol model (SIOP) of teaching content to ELLs is to build students' background knowledge before teaching content by linking concepts to students' personal, cultural, or academic experience. Dr. R. Cipriani-Sklar, Principal of the Fairview School in Corona, NY, offers this suggestion in Random House's RHI: Reaching Reluctant Readers magazine:
"Tap into Students' Background Knowledge. Students need to connect with literature on three basic levels: text to text, text to self, and self to the world. All students bring something to the classroom. Becoming familiar with the backgrounds and/or prior knowledge of ELL students allows a teacher to engage students in literacy experiences that connect with their diverse backgrounds, thereby building on this knowledge."
How to tap into this background knowledge if it's very different from your own? You can start by researching your students' native countries, cultures, and educational systems. You may even want to study the historical figures, musical and artistic traditions, geography, and biodiversity of these countries so that you can connect your lessons to something that the students already know.
You can also find ways for your students to contribute their own cultural experience in the classroom. This may mean asking students to show how a topic connects to their lives or to give an example of a particular idea as they would experience it in their native country. Students can bring music or art from their culture and describe its significance and meaning to their classmates. Students can also interview their parents in order to learn more about their memories and experience. ELLs may find this valuable because even if they speak their native language with their parents and are surrounded by their culture at home, they may not have had an opportunity to talk to their parents about their parents' life experiences and values.
These strategies will work in mainstream classes as well. For example, if U.S. students are studying civil rights in the 1960's, they may remember information better if they relate it to historical and cultural information shared by family members.
One word of caution if you plan to ask students to contribute their experiences to the class, as noted by Dr. Cynthia Lundgren and Giselle Lundy-Ponce in a recent article about culturally responsive instruction:
"Consult more than one internet or library source and do not expect a student to be your sole "ambassador" or resource for finding out about a whole culture or ethnic background. Multiple sources are always a good idea for formulating knowledge about a particular subject.
More importantly, do not put a particular student on the spot without asking them beforehand if they are comfortable sharing information with the whole class. Each student is an individual and their experiences may or may not be similar to that of the group they represent."
It is tempting to view your students as the experts, and it is certainly important to draw on what they have to offer to the class, but it is also important to discuss whether they feel comfortable doing so beforehand, and to avoid putting them on the spot — particularly about cultural, political, or religious subjects that might be particularly sensitive.
2. Look for resources that go beyond the textbook
Try to find materials that will engage students and involve them in the learning process so that they find elements they can connect to and learn from. These may include:
There are many ways to bring educational content to life through art, and to use art as a starting point for discussing different cultural traditions. For example, in a history class, you may offer students a couple of different artistic representations of historical events from different perspectives, and ask whether a particular perspective resonates with their experiences.
Or you might want to compare artwork depicting similar kinds of events as they occurred in different countries, such as revolutions, battles, the signing of a famous document, inaugurations, elections, protests, and major milestones. Perhaps students can share depictions of those kinds of events in their country as a way to open up the discussion and connect their experience to the content as well. Students can examine artistic style, theme, the artist's intent, and the materials used while comparing artistic works from different cultures as a way of applying what they learning about the content.
Using artwork that depicts day-to-day events and celebrations can also be a provocative starting point for a discussion about the similarities and differences between other cultures, and a way of affirming the students' daily lives, traditions, and lifestyles in the classroom.
Students are a great resource for sharing music, and older students especially like to share music, discuss the meaning, and connect it to content. If the song is in a language some students do not understand, ask the student to translate it and discuss the meaning. Songs from other countries often describe political events or re-tell folk stories in poetic form.
I got this idea from the Dakota County library system in Minnesota. They have a learning resource called "Bifolkal Kits" that patrons can check out. The kits have themes such as the "The Fifties," "Work Life," or "African American Lives." Each kit contains items relevant to the topic, reading materials, and questions that can be asked of a person who has experience in that area. It would be a wonderful addition to a curriculum if students created their own Culture Kits with special items that would bring culture alive as a way of sharing their cultures and discussing what can be learned from different multicultural traditions.
3. Use literature, stories, and folktales from other cultures as a way of encouraging students to connect what they are reading to their own experiences
While this seems like a simple and logical place to start, it will take some research to find just the right additions for an educational unit. However, libraries across the nation have increased the amount of multicultural literature available from a wide variety of countries and cultures. Some of the material is written in other languages, and some of it is translated into English. There are also many publishers who have focused on increasing multicultural literature in the classroom, and Language Arts series often will have a multicultural connection with suggestions of books to read with the class.
(To read about one high school teacher's use of multicultural literature in the classroom, read Time is Not on Our Side: Literacy and Literature for High School Language Learners.)
4. Use storytelling in the classroom
Many cultures have a rich tradition of storytelling that often gets lost in the U.S. with the focus on developing literacy skills. Many of the common stories in cultures have been translated and written in story form, but children also enjoy telling and acting out stories. There are many resources to help build storytelling skills, and some students may also have a relative who is a great storyteller and would be willing to visit the class and tell a story. The class can have great discussions about what made the story interesting, what the story was trying to tell them, and if they know other stories that are similar. For example, many cultures have a story version of "Cinderella."
One final note: Teachers spend a lot of their own money to add to the school curriculum in order to meet the needs of their students. Adding multicultural curriculum and materials shouldn’t be an additional financial burden on the teacher. Many schools are willing to fund the purchase of multicultural items if the teacher has researched the purchase and can explain how it will enhance student learning. If the school does not have resources, there may be funding at the district level or diversity grant funding available to teachers.
In the end, the efforts that teachers make to add a rich, cultural dimension to the curriculum will enhance student learning and comprehension, and create excitement in the classroom. The most wonderful thing about adding a multicultural perspective to the lesson is that it is a way of letting your students know — particularly ELL students — that their diverse experiences and backgrounds are valued in your classroom. Students may also be motivated to explore content and deepen their understanding of material that they had not previously shown interest in. As students share insights with you and with each other, they will develop appreciation for other cultural perspectives and they may find that there are more similarities than differences among them — and that might prove to be the greatest lesson of all.
Why is background knowledge important for ELL students? ›
Having the right background knowledge is critical to ensuring that students understand a lesson. This knowledge provides a foundation on which the rest of the lesson can be built. For ELLs, it can make a significant difference in their comprehension of the lesson and any related materials or texts.How do you currently gather information about your ELLs background academic experiences and language readiness? ›
Sources of Information: You may be able to learn about the student's background from students themselves, parents, siblings, the home language survey, or student records. Once you know more, it may be helpful to learn more about: Country of origin. Cultural and religious traditions.What is the best way to assess an ELL student? ›
- Rubrics and Performance Criteria. Using rubrics and performance criteria is a great way to assess a variety of student work. ...
- Oral Presentations or Performances. ...
- Non-verbal Assessments. ...
- Written Assessments. ...
- Begin by teaching words in categories. For example, you can try something as simple as this: “I'm going to say the following words:strawberries, bananas, papayas, pineapples. ...
- Use contrasts and comparisons. ...
- Use analogies. ...
- Encourage topic-focused wide reading. ...
- Embrace multimedia.
There are several different methods to assess pre-existing knowledge and skills in students. Some are direct measures, such as tests, concept maps, portfolios, auditions, etc, and others are more indirect, such as self-reports, inventory of prior courses and experiences, etc.How do students build their background knowledge in the classroom? ›
To strengthen and deepen background knowledge, double up—combine two content areas in one lesson. For example, embed social studies, science or math in reading. For a more memorable and hands-on learning experience, surround students with information that stimulates their senses.What are examples of background knowledge? ›
What is an example of background knowledge? Background knowledge is information that a student does not have but gains through teaching. For example, a student with prior knowledge in math may lack the language ability to express that knowledge if they move to a new school and are learning a new language.What is background knowledge in ELA? ›
Background knowledge is a reader's understanding of the specific concepts, situations and problems associated with the words encountered in the text. Knowledge of the topic provides readers enough understanding to make meaning and build onto what they currently know.How do I make content more accessible for ELL students? ›
Using gestures and slowing the rate of speech as you lecture or direct teach may support English learners and help make content accessible. Pointing to objects or demonstrating while talking aids students in comprehending the spoken word.How do I make content more accessible to ELLs? ›
- Infuse instruction with peer-to-peer discussion and exploration. ...
- Offer adapted or engineered texts when reading materials are dense. ...
- Provide daily opportunities for written expression in all content areas with the use of scaffolds and accommodations.
How do you connect students background knowledge and experiences to the content? ›
Use literature, stories, and folktales from other cultures as a way of encouraging students to connect what they are reading to their own experiences. While this seems like a simple and logical place to start, it will take some research to find just the right additions for an educational unit.What are the two purposes in assessing students for ELL? ›
diagnose students' language abilities and skills. monitor students' progress in cognitive learning and language development.What is the purpose of assessing ELL students? ›
ELL Assessments are designed for tracking students' language skills progress at key points in the school year. Assessments at all grade ranges give teachers in-depth information about students' language development across the domains of speaking, writing, reading, and listening.How do you identify ELL students in the classroom? ›
A home language survey is by far the most common means and tool to determine who might or might not be an English learner (EL). It is intended as a means for determining who should be assessed.How can teachers help students build background knowledge? ›
The most important way teachers can build background knowledge is to explicitly teach key academic vocabulary. Give students multiple opportunities to use and practice the vocabulary so that the words are internalized and permanently connected to the topic of study.How do teachers activate background knowledge? ›
Asking students to brainstorm about what they already know about a topic. Making explicit connections between previously learned concepts and new ones. Using graphic organizers and other visuals to show the connections between students' prior experiences and new knowledge.What must a teacher know in order to teach the students of various backgrounds effectively? ›
- Discipline Skills. ...
- Classroom Management Skills. ...
- Observation Skills. ...
- Student Engagement Skills. ...
- Strong Communication Skills with Students and Parents. ...
- Teaching Skills. ...
- Subject Matter Expertise. ...
- Time Management Skills.
Information about student learning can be assessed through both direct and indirect measures. Direct measures may include homework, quizzes, exams, reports, essays, research projects, case study analysis, and rubrics for oral and other performances.Why is it important to understand the student's background knowledge when planning? ›
Being able to gauge our students' background knowledge can help teachers create lessons that are culturally relevant. Being able to use this knowledge to help foster a classroom where students are motivated and engaged with the material is paramount to creating an environment where students can learn effectively.What is students background knowledge? ›
What is Background Knowledge? Background knowledge is the amount of information or knowledge someone has on a particular topic. Background knowledge is acquired by the number of experiences someone has in life or the amount of knowledge they have retained from reading or listening.
What is comprehensible input for ELL students? ›
What is comprehensible input? Comprehensible input is an instructional technique in which teachers provide input that allows EL students to understand most, but not necessarily all, of the language. The concept comes from American linguist, education researcher, and activist Dr. Stephen Krashen.How did you engage students of all backgrounds and abilities in the learning? ›
Promoting student engagement through active learning
Strategies include, but are not limited to, question-and-answer sessions, discussion, interactive lecture (in which students respond to or ask questions), quick writing assignments, hands-on activities, and experiential learning.
"Tap into Students' Background Knowledge.
All students bring something to the classroom. Becoming familiar with the backgrounds and/or prior knowledge of ELL students allows a teacher to engage students in literacy experiences that connect with their diverse backgrounds, thereby building on this knowledge."
Studies have shown that readers use their background knowledge—vocabulary, facts, and conceptual understanding—to comprehend the text they read.What is an example of background information of a child? ›
Birth parents' physical and mental health histories or a child's history of emotional or behavioral problems have been considered as “material” information, for example. A child welfare professional's duty to use “reasonable efforts” to discover background information varies by State.Which is popular form of background knowledge? ›
Concept hierarchies are a popular form of background knowledge, which allows data to be mined at multiple levels of abstraction.What are the two types of background knowledge? ›
One type of background knowledge has to do with facts and information about a topic. This is helpful when a child is interacting with text about a specific topic, and can use what she already knows to deepen, clarify, or supplement her prior knowledge. Another type of background knowledge is conceptual.How can we build background knowledge about a topic? ›
In terms of curriculum design, thematic and interdisciplinary instruction is an effective approach to build background knowledge and help learners make connections between the various content areas. This content connection strengthens the learner's ability to comprehend concepts in more depth.What do ELL students struggle with in the classroom? ›
Being unable to communicate with their teachers and peers can cause the student to feel isolated or even make them a target for bullies. This can have long-term effects on their self-confidence and ability to integrate into society.How can you support ELLs in every aspect of your classroom? ›
- Read to students every day. ...
- Support students' comprehension as much as possible. ...
- Teach the alphabet when necessary. ...
- Teach phonics in context. ...
- Check comprehension frequently. ...
- Use audiobooks. ...
- Support native language literacy.
How can we help Ells learn content area academic language? ›
Introduce and reinforce academic language regularly.
She suggests writing words and phrases on the board and having students write them on index cards. She also recommends using visuals, acting, or synonyms to help students understand the meaning of a word.
Your school or district may have bilingual staff who can help communicate with ELL families, including interpreters, family liaisons, and paraprofessionals. These staff members can also provide invaluable information and insights into families' cultures or home situations.How to allow students to access and engage with the content? ›
- Presence in class sessions.
- Participation in discussions and socialization.
- Completion of work and learning tasks.
- Collaborating with peers (synchronously and asynchronously)
- Sharing thoughts and input.
- Reaching out to educators or peers for additional support.
Choose high-interest nonfiction texts. When modeling prior knowledge, choose a familiar topic such as the current president or a specific sport. Pair students to complete the prior-knowledge-quick-write, but have them draw pictures rather than write, so they will do a prior-knowledge-quick-draw.Which is a strategy for building background knowledge? ›
To strengthen and deepen background knowledge, double up—combine two content areas in one lesson. For example, embed social studies, science or math in reading. For a more memorable and hands-on learning experience, surround students with information that stimulates their senses.How can I activate the students background knowledge? ›
The most important way teachers can build background knowledge is to explicitly teach key academic vocabulary. Give students multiple opportunities to use and practice the vocabulary so that the words are internalized and permanently connected to the topic of study.What is background knowledge in language and literacy? ›
Background knowledge is a reader's understanding of the specific concepts, situations and problems associated with the words encountered in the text. Knowledge of the topic provides readers enough understanding to make meaning and build onto what they currently know.What is an example of background knowledge in a lesson plan? ›
What is an example of background knowledge? Background knowledge is information that a student does not have but gains through teaching. For example, a student with prior knowledge in math may lack the language ability to express that knowledge if they move to a new school and are learning a new language.How do teachers build background knowledge? ›
In terms of curriculum design, thematic and interdisciplinary instruction is an effective approach to build background knowledge and help learners make connections between the various content areas. This content connection strengthens the learner's ability to comprehend concepts in more depth.What are three features of building background knowledge? ›
The three features (below) remind educators of three important factors: First, helping students focus on the familiar first is a good place to start. Next, students come with valuable knowledge and skills that need to be used. Finally, vocabulary must be a conscious, sustained effort.
What is activating prior knowledge for ESL students? ›
Students learn better when they first access what they already know—and this plays a big role in improving English language learners' academic literacy. Activating prior knowledge means both eliciting from students what they already know and building initial knowledge that they need in order to access upcoming content.Why is it important for teachers to know their students background? ›
Being able to gauge our students' background knowledge can help teachers create lessons that are culturally relevant. Being able to use this knowledge to help foster a classroom where students are motivated and engaged with the material is paramount to creating an environment where students can learn effectively.What is an example of background knowledge in reading? ›
Types of Background Knowledge
Another type of background knowledge is conceptual. For example, when students are reading a fictional story, having enough experience with fiction to know the types of decisions authors can make will help them make predictions and more accurately follow the story arc.