ELL Classroom Strategies: Activating Prior Knowledge in English Language Learners

activation strategy in the classroom

There are many challenges that face students whose native language is other than English and whose background experiences may have occurred in a different culture and geography. Early experiences may have been rich or chaotic, but regardless, both make up the life experiences of these students. 

We know that students build new knowledge on previously learned knowledge, but what happens if ELL students struggle to connect the two? How can we help them to form connections between their previous knowledge and the new content they are learning in a new language? Various ELL classroom strategies, exist, and the Activating strategy is one key component.

What is the Activating Strategy and How Does It Benefit ELL Students?

The Activating strategy is an instructional teaching strategy that prepares students for learning. It is used to:

  • Assess prior knowledge
  • Build prerequisite knowledge
  • Motivate and engage students

Activating and building prior knowledge supports students’ reading comprehension by helping them attach new learning to something they already know (2018, Ferlazzo & Sypnieski). It also helps students build their confidence and become more actively engaged in the lesson.

What does this ELL teaching strategy look like in your classroom (whether in-person or remote learning)? 

  • Know Your Students: All students bring something to the classroom. It becomes important then, as educators, to become familiar with the backgrounds and/or prior knowledge of ELL students so as to help them make meaningful learning connections.  Start by researching the native countries and cultures of your students. It is important to do research as a teacher and not make assumptions if all or most of your ELL students speak Spanish. Move beyond the “Latino/Hispanic” label. Is this student a Mexican immigrant or a second generation Mexican American? Is he or she from Central America, a Caribbean island, or South America? Your students and their families have interesting histories and a rich cultural heritage to share. 
  • Expand Your Library: Use folktales, literature and stories from other cultures as a way of encouraging students to connect what they are reading to their own experiences. 
  • Use Real-world Resources: Bring in resources that go beyond the textbook that will engage students and involve them in the learning process. Bring in current events using news websites like Learn With News, The New York Times Learning Blog, Time for Kids, or Smithsonian Tween Tribune for great nonfiction articles written for students.  
  • Visuals! Visuals! Visuals! 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. When possible bring in references to the historical figures, musical and artistic traditions and geography of the students’ home countries. Perhaps ask students to 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.
  • Activate with Rigor: Rigor is often overlooked when activating students’ thinking. Use higher-order thinking strategies, like compare and contrast or determining patterns (i.e. creating analogies) to help students think outside the content “box” and find similarities and differences between what they already know and new learning. 
  • Activate with Technology: In addition to offering online access to stories and articles (with subtitles), use technology with students as a way to bring in the outside world, share personal experiences, and build a classroom community. Exploring upcoming content and concepts with technology can include virtual field trips, videos, podcasts, or music in their home language, etc. Ask reflection questions like, “What did you notice/observe/hear?” or “What did you find interesting?” Ask students to write or talk with a partner as a quick check of understanding, build background knowledge, and spark interest. Subject specific vocabulary glossaries can be provided to scaffold for students’ responses, and share their ideas using technology too (i.e. discussion threads, Flipgrid videos, online journal writing, etc.) 
  • Collaborate with Colleagues: Team up with other educators to build a bank of categorized resources to use in your lessons. Media specialists will be helpful in this effort as there is a growing body of literature based on culturally relevant and connected works. In co-teaching settings, this research can become the responsibility of the support teacher, or it can be shared among staff at each school. Some districts purchase or create their own culture snapshots to use as a starting point to understanding all of their students.

Connect School Improvement Initiatives Today

As with most school improvement initiatives, these strategies will only help your ELL students if your school and/or school district are systematically using them in every lesson, across every classroom. Contact us to learn more about how these strategies interconnect within an instructional framework to support all students’ learning. 

Vocabulary Training of Trainers Event.

Teaching vocabulary systematically must be a critical aspect of instruction at every grade level, in every subject, in every school, because it is one of the most important instructional intervention practices schools can employ to close the achievement gap and raise student achievement for all students. Check out our upcoming Vocabulary Training of Trainers events today. 

Lindsey Hampton

Lindsey Hampton

During her 20+years as an educator, Lindsey served various grade levels and subject areas. For 8 years she led inclusive classrooms and taught advanced placement courses. Following her classroom years, Lindsey spent 10 years as an instructional coach, professional development specialist, and district administrator of new teacher induction. She has presented at numerous conferences, including the Florida Association of School Administrator Conference, the Tennessee Principals Association Conference, and the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. Today, she works directly with teachers and school leaders in the implementation of the Learning-Focused Instructional Framework.

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