Strategies for Developing Background Knowledge
What strategies do you use to develop background knowledge for your students?
Background Knowledge is an important concept when teaching language arts skills. The KWL chart (Know,Want to know, Learned) works well when the curriculum is at an age appropriate level and in a language that is understood. However, when there is no prior knowledge in the language that is being taught, different strategies must be developed. How can you teach children what they don’t know when you are teaching in a language they don’t fully understand? This question is compounded even further when teaching children with learning disabilities.
I teach third grade standards to students who read and write at the kinder -1st grade level and who English is not their first language. These students all have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). The two categories most seen for qualifications is OHI (other health impairment) or SLD (specific learning disability). I usually get one or two children identified with autism. Of the 12 students I have this year, 10 are English Language Learners (ELL). That means that the first language that they learned to speak was not English. For all of them, Spanish continues to be the language spoken at home.
All of the ELL students have been in school since Kindergarten and are fluent English and Spanish speakers. However their is a huge chasm between their oral language and literacy development. Where they differ significantly from my English only students is in background knowledge. This absence of background knowledge in English hinders their ability to pick-up context clues and there ability to relate the unknown to the known and thus create new knowledge.
For these students pre-teaching vocabulary trumps activating prior knowledge. For these students expressing prior knowledge must be replaced with direct instruction, and repeated rehearsal. Most teachers with ELL students rely on pictures to help pre-teach vocabulary. I use pictures, videos, songs and manipulatives. I try to make it as real as it can get. For a week I wore a silk scarf and jeans. Every opportunity I spoke about how I could not make jeans from the silk material in my scarf. I also ask the students to repeat or echo my words. It takes about a week, sometimes longer, of repeated exposure to the terms and concepts, but it paid off when a student said, ” I know why he couldn’t use it. It was because the material was not strong enough.”