ELL Toolbox

A Resource for Educators of English Learners

Winter 2016

Strategy of the Quarter

Carousel Brainstorming: Activating Prior Knowledge

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"The mind is not an empty vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." ~Plutarch

Why Use Carousel Brainstorming

  • activates prior knowledge
  • creates connections to content
  • encourages critical thinking
  • allows for small group discussion
  • creates a collaborative environment
  • incorporates movement
  • fast paced and interactive
  • facilitates language/vocabulary practice

How to Use Carousel Brainstorming

1. Think of your lesson and what your objective is.
2. Now, think of 4-6 open ended questions or words connected to the lesson that would spark
3. Write each question or word on separate, large pieces of paper and hang them around the room.

Click here for a teacher preparation guide.

  1. Explicitly tell your students that you are starting a new unit/lesson and, to begin, as always, they must activate their prior knowledge.
  2. Assemble your students in groups of four. Smaller groups will work best to allow students more opportunities to talk and for ELs, more opportunity to practice the language and vocabulary.
  3. Assign each group a marker color and a poster.
  4. Students should read the question/word, discuss it and write any of their ideas on the paper. Allow students only a few minutes at each poster.
  5. When the time is up, have students rotate or "carousel" to the next poster. Their marker should move with them.
  6. At their new posters, groups should read what the previous group wrote, discuss the new question/word and write any ideas that come to mind. They should not repeat what a previous group has written.
  7. Have groups continue to "carousel" until they've rotated through each poster and have returned to their original poster.
  8. Once they've returned to their original poster, groups should be given time to read and discuss what other groups have added to their original comments and possibly star what they think is most relevant.
  9. To wrap up the activity, go around the room and have each group summarize the comments on their poster.

Click here for a video that could be used to explain the activity to students.

MORE Practical Applications

While Carousel Brainstorming is a great way to activate prior knowledge, it is a very versatile and powerful strategy that can be used in a multitude of ways. Carousel Brainstorming can be used across the curriculum.

Social Studies:
- put the name of a battle on each poster and ask for the causes
- write the name of a region on each poster and ask what they know about that particular place
- write the name of a historical figure or event and have students write what they know

Language Arts:

- write a story element on each poster and have the groups discuss each element
- write a character or author's name on each poster
- use book discussion questions that could have multiple answers for each poster
Click here for a book discussion example.
- put a blend on each poster and have students brainstorm all the words that start with those letters

- write different habitats on each poster and have students comment
- put different labs from throughout the year on each poster and have students review what they've learned in the class

- attach a graph to each poster along with a discussion question

- attach a painting to each poster and have students comment on it
- name a period in time and have students remark on the art from that particular period

Quick Tips and Variations

  • If you notice, despite the fact that students are in small groups, that there are still group members not participating, assign each student a role. For example, in each group you could have a reader, idea checker, recorder and presenter.

    • If you have younger students, allow them to draw pictures rather than write their thoughts.

    • As groups rotate, they may have questions regarding previous groups' comments. If that is the case, have groups put a question mark next to the comment they need clarifying.

    • Don't throw your posters away. If you use this strategy for activating prior knowledge, keep them on the wall and continuously refer back to the posters throughout the lesson/unit. Referring back to the posters will create a true connection for students.

    • Don't fade into the background during this activity. Make yourself present. While groups should work to generate their own discussion, there may be groups that need prompting or an item clarified. It is also a great opportunity to interact with small groups and to see exactly what their prior knowledge is.

    • If you used Carousel Brainstorming to introduce a topic and activate prior knowledge, carousel again at the end of the unit to add any additional ideas to the posters.

    • If you are using this strategy to activate prior knowledge, don't let it be a secret. You should discuss what prior knowledge is and its importance often with your students. Continually discussing prior knowledge will make creating connections a natural habit in students.


    Kagan, Spencer (2009). Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente: Kagan Publishing.

    CESA 6 Language and Culture Center. "ELL Teaching Tip: Activating Background Knowledge: Carousel Brainstorming." Message to the author. 19 Oct. 2015. E-mail.

    Michelle Garcia

    ELL Coordinator

    Cedarburg School District