Students that have background knowledge about a topic are typically able to read more complex texts, participate in classroom discussions, and retain new information faster than students that are learning about an entirely new topic.
Use Text Sets
Group materials together by topic. This can be as simple as showing a video clip about the moon or reading a picture book before giving students an article to read on the same topic to having students read multiple books on the same topic for a research project. Read more about using text sets with MLs.
Language Experience Approach
The Language Experience Approach (LEA) encourages speaking, reading, and writing through a shared personal experience. This shared experience allowed the class to build shared background knowledge.
Students take part in a shared experience. This includes going on a field trip, watching an experiment, taking a walk, or looking at objects. Often the teacher takes pictures during the experience. Next students talk about their experiences. This can be open ended or the teacher can provide sentence frames to guide the retelling. The teacher writes down text about the student’s experience. Students then practice reading the text. Sometimes they then create their own written versions.
A Fun, Experiential Approach to Strengthen Reading and Writing Skills on Edutopia gives additional information about the Language Experience Approach.
Highlight Important Vocabulary
As you are building students’ background knowledge, point out important vocabulary that they are going to see repeated. This will help students start to make connections between the different resources that they are using. Have students use the vocabulary terms in spoken language, visually, and write about them.
Connect Content to Reading Instruction
Beginning readers are often given books, either leveled texts or decodable texts that focus on a particular reading skill (such as the main idea) or phonics skill (such as short vowel sound). These texts often have unrelated content. This can make it challenging for students to use background knowledge as they are reading. Whenever possible group materials by content. Fiction books that have the same characters can be helpful as well.
Emergent Readers & Decodable Books Bundle Each set comes with an emergent reader that the teacher can read out loud to students or students can read on their own depending on their reading level. The set also comes with one or two decodable texts that students can practice their phonics skills in a book about a nonfiction topic.
Colorin Colorodo has an article titled How to Connect ELLs’ Background Knowledge to Content that gives additional tips.
Whole Phonics are decodable books that use the same group of characters throughout the series.
Geodes are a collection of decodable books that go along with the Fundations phonics program. There are multiple books on each topic to help students practice reading skills and build content knowledge.
Find out what students already know about a topic. Then you can use this information to help you add in supplemental materials. Also, the act of thinking about a topic can remind some students that they do already know about it. One year I was working with a group of 4th grade newcomers. Their class was learning about Greek Mythology. One of the students told me that he had heard some of the stories before, in Amharic. I noticed that he was much more willing to talk about the stories he had read before.
- A simple KWL chart is one way to start. Include pictures and labels to support beginning readers.
- Have students vote to show how much experience they have with an upcoming topic 1- They can teach about it 2- They have heard about it 3- They have not heard about it
- Have students fill out a student interest survey. They can use this to help come up with ideas for writing, but you can also use that as you are selecting reading materials. It will give you information about topics that the student is interested in and already has some background knowledge of. Get a FREE print or digital student interest survey.
Include Culturally Relevant Content
When the materials you use are culturally relevant to students this is another way that they are able to use their background knowledge to help them learn. Include books from students’ cultural backgrounds in fiction units. If your curriculum has students studying characters and reading fairy tales include fairy tales that represent the cultures and languages of your students.
Culturally Responsive Teaching for Multilingual Learners: Tools for Equity helps teachers to examine their practice and make their teaching more culturally responsive for students.