Activating prior knowledge for ELLs

Activating prior knowledge takes what students know and helps them build a foundation for learning. This technique provides needed support.

Curriculum frameworks like the Common Core and International Baccalaureate address this need by requiring that students draw from their prior knowledge and experience in preparation for learning new concepts and skills.

English language learners especially need to activate their prior knowledge. They often don’t recognize the vocabulary you’re using. ELLs simultaneously must learn academic and content vocabulary while learning new concepts and skills. Without activating prior knowledge, they have nothing to connect to.

The research on activating prior knowledge

To activate prior knowledge, focus on what ELL students do know.

Carnegie Mellon psychologists have discovered that chunks of information known as prior knowledge are stored in long-term memory. They are a permanent part of knowledge and experience.

As ELL students grapple with new information, they must attach it to what is stored in their long-term memory. By taking fresh chunks of information, students can arrange them into meaning and make them part of their long-term memory. Imagine these chunks as bricks that fit together to form a solid foundation.

Strategies for activating prior knowledge in ELL students

You can help your students activate prior knowledge by showing them how to make connections. These connections link back to what they read and what they explore.

  • Techniques to help student activate prior knowledge include:
  • Graphic organizers like Venn diagrams, KWL charts, and thinking maps
  • Reflection journals that provide ample space for doodling and writing
  • Frequent opportunities for discussion

Other strategies for activating prior knowledge may require more preparation. These strategies help to scaffold instruction so ELL students can prepare for more rigorous learning.

  • Multimedia with English subtitles. Videos, slideshows, and photographs can provide a starting point for discussion.
  • Advance reading materials. These texts may be shorter and written at a lower Lexile level than the standard classroom reading. Best of all, ELLs can interact with the advance reading materials outside the classroom.
  • Anticipation guides. This strategy engages ELL students in thinking, writing, or talking about their beliefs and opinions about a subject. For example, ask students to agree or disagree with a statement. Try placing simple answers around the room (yes, no, maybe) and ask your students to stand next to the word that is their answer to the question you ask. Students can do the same thing in a reflection notebook. Combine this strategy with others or use it alongside classroom instruction.

One of the most essential strategies for activating prior knowledge begins with the teacher. Culture and language differences are assets rather than deficits. The knowledge and experiences that ELL students bring with them have immense value in the classroom. Savvy teachers validate this foundation in their ELL students and help them springboard from it and share their experiences with others.

In conclusion

By activating prior knowledge in your ELL students, you are giving them the tools they need for academic success. The techniques and strategies you provide help to scaffold their learning experiences so that they become part of long-term memory.

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