ELL Toolbox

A Resource for Educators of English Learners

Winter 2015

Building Background Knowledge

When students have background knowledge about a subject, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to learn the content. Goldenburg and Coleman in Promoting Academic Achievement Among ELs state, "For those passages where Hispanic students' prior knowledge was equivalent to that of the English speakers, their reading comprehension was also equivalent. However, when the bilingual students' prior knowledge was less than that of English speakers, their comprehension was also lower."

Many English learners do not have the necessary background knowledge to engage in the content material. Here are some ways to build the background knowledge of your students:

  • Watch the video or go on the field trip first! Explicitly weave into the discussion the vocabulary necessary for success in the unit.

  • Preview the lesson in the textbook. Ask students questions about what they see as you preview the book. Notice the different charts, graphs, pictures, headings, and vocabulary. What do students already know about the lesson topic?

  • Look over the review questions or end-of-lesson activity before you read the book. What are some things the students think they will be learning about? What seems to be important?

  • Read or look through picture books/trade books about the subject you will be teaching. Students can work in small groups and discuss what they see in the books.

  • Visit content-based websites to have students learn about the subject.

  • Make a poster about a very specific part of the topic. Do this in groups and have students share their posters with the entire class.

  • Have students compare information about the topic in the U.S. and in their native country. For example, if you are studying about water--how is water the same and different in both countries?

  • Use graphic organizers or maps to have students brainstorm what they already know about a topic.

  • Allow students to examine photos or real objects. Have students discuss how the pictures/objects relate to the topic.

  • Create a cognate word wall or personal dictionary to allow students access to their native language.


Reading Rockets, Accessing Students' Background Knowledge in the ELL Classroom

CESA 6 Language & Culture Center (2014). ELevate success weekly tip: Building background knowledge. CESA 6. Web. 6 March 2014.

Goldenberg, C., & Coleman, R. (2010). Promoting academic achievement among English learners: A guide to the research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

App of the Quarter

BrainPOP Jr., BrainPOP, and BrainPOP Español

-Free- (district has membership)

  • Provide background knowledge, pre-teach, reteach, or review

  • Breadth of relevant topics including current events, historical figures and milestones, holidays, curricular subjects, and more

  • Featured movies available weekly, and students can also access any movie/topic of choice from BrainPOP Jr, BrainPOP, and BrainPOP Español (requires district login)

  • Movies, quizzes, and bonus features

Michelle Garcia

ELL Coordinator

Cedarburg School District