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Teaching Opinion

The Whys & Hows of Activating Students’ Background Knowledge

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 15, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to activate and build students’ background knowledge, and why is it important?

Our students have a great deal of background knowledge that teachers need to activate so that they can learn new content. And students need to be provided with additional background knowledge so that they can access even more content!

This two-part series will look at what we mean by the term “background knowledge,” why it’s important, and how we teachers can best identify and develop it both in the physical classroom and during remote teaching.

Today, Adam Fachler, Jeffrey Wilhelm, Rachel Bear, Cheryl Abla, Elizabeth Villanueva, Jenny Vo, and Sarah Said share their commentaries. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jeffrey, Rachel, Cheryl, and Elizabeth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources for Learning About the Importance of Prior Knowledge (& How to Activate It).

“Priming” students for success

Jeffery D. Wilhelm, Adam Fachler, and Rachel Bear are the authors of the book Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must-Make Moves to Transform How We Teach--and How Students Learn":

In our book, Planning Powerful Instruction (Corwin), we argue that a central move of teaching is priming to prepare students for success. (This is much more efficient and fun than remediating learners once they have begun to struggle.) The only resources that learners have for approaching a new challenge is what they already know and are already interested in. The only way to build new interests and capacities is by activating and building on students’ prior interests and background knowledge before instruction. This process honors what students bring to the classroom and provides them with necessary context and connection to the purpose and payoff of what is to be learned. It is essential to culturally relevant pedagogy.

But the biggest reason we begin new learning experiences with activities that “prime” students for the learning ahead is this:

There is no alternative! All new learning builds on prior learning.

When we activate and build students’ background knowledge:

  • Students see the connection between previous and current learning.
  • We establish a set of conceptual “hooks” on which students can “hang” new learning.
  • Students get on the same page with us.
  • We receive formative-assessment data we can use throughout the learning experience.

Not only does this practice provide myriad benefits and accord with how the brain functions, it also describes how experts in every field develop expertise. Everyone from engineers to entrepreneurs ask themselves, “What is already known and how do we know it—and how might we extend and build on it?” before undertaking a new project.

If the best instruction mirrors or approximates how individuals in the real world learn, then it stands to reason that we should do what they do.

So, what are the best ways to get it done? Here is a short list of our favorite techniques:

  • Solving a “junior,” mini, or scaled-back version of the problem you will teach students to solve.
  • Unpacking images or art related to the targeted learning (e.g., see-think-wonder protocols that mirror the process of inquiry: establishing the facts, interpreting facts and inference chains, asking questions to drive further learning).
  • Providing autobiographical prompts related to the learning ahead (e.g., make students face a moral dilemma the character will face, putting them in the thematic driver’s seat).
  • Asking questions that address problematic or controversial aspects of the content.
  • Facilitating a simulation.
  • Ranking products or concepts (which requires making value judgments and applying reasoning).
  • Conducting surveys or opinionaires.

Remember: The best priming activities are accessible, focused, relevant, and revealing of students’ knowledge and abilities. If your priming activity leaves a good taste in your students’ mouths and creates energy and interest in future learning, then that positive spillover can affect the vibe of the whole unit. So, while we know time is of the essence in every classroom, it’s a necessary investment to make priming student learning a mainstay of yours.

Background knowledge and curiosity

Cheryl Abla is a former teacher who now, with McREL International, leads professional learning and coaching for K-12 educators on research-based strategies for effective instruction, use of classroom technology, English-language acquisition, and classroom culture and climate. She’s a co-author of Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, which provides easy-to-use tools and learning activities to help teachers get CITW strategies into the classroom on a daily basis:

At McREL, we’re huge believers in the power of curiosity to propel lifelong learning, but we’re not naïve about its limitations. Without background knowledge, what would students have to be curious about? You’ve got to start somewhere. Learning is about filling in the gaps between what is known and what isn’t yet known.

The best way to leverage background knowledge is to give students cues, questions, and advance organizers about what they’re about to learn. Sound familiar? Together, these tools form one of the nine classic research-based strategies from Classroom Instruction That Works. What cues, questions, and advance organizers have in common is that they’re about beginnings. They all precede the delivery of new content and they all rely on the understanding that knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum but builds upon prior knowledge and in turn gets built upon.

Vocabulary Knowledge Rating, which we adapted from Camille Blachowicz, introduces students to critical vocabulary terms before instruction begins. Students rate their understanding of each term before and after the lesson, to see if their knowledge has grown.

Anticipation Guide reverses the traditional model of learning enough about a subject to then be able to form an opinion about it. First, students are asked their opinion of a subject. Then the lesson is delivered. Was their background knowledge adequate to support their original position, or do they need to re-evaluate? Now they’re not only learning new content, they’re learning how additional evidence can influence their understanding.

Power Previewing teaches students to skim a text strategically. The teacher guides the previewing process by pointing out useful things to look for, such as recurring themes. There are many questions a teacher can include in an advance organizer, and one of them is, “Does anything look familiar or relate to something you’ve seen, read, learned about, or experienced?” Students become more proficient readers when memory is activated as part of the process of acquiring new knowledge.

While none of us wants schools to be curiosity-free drill-and-kill zones ever again, we have to acknowledge the importance of background knowledge and develop skill in helping students acquire it. Background knowledge plus curiosity is the most powerful formula of all.

“Funds of knowledge”

Elizabeth Villanueva is a Spanish teacher and world-language department chair at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. She has been recognized as the 2018 National Education Association Social Justice Activist Award Finalist; 2018 California Teachers Association, César Chávez “Sí Se Puede Human Rights Award"; and Sacramento City Unified school district, Teacher of the Year 2015-16. Elizabeth is an Ed.D. candidate at the University of San Francisco in the Learning and Instruction Doctoral Program with an emphasis in heritage-language maintenance:

Academic learning success must be founded at the personal level of each learner and teacher. Its relevance brings meaningfulness and connectedness to each individual creating a learning atmosphere of interconnectedness that stimulates curiosity for the known and unknown. That bridges to a deeper level of understanding to explore and discover the purpose for academic access and success. Therefore, the power of disseminating the funds of knowledge of each learner to develop self-determination for personal growth and academic success is correlated with the teacher’s willingness to share their own personal funds of knowledge that may trigger students’ interest and motivation to thrive.

I come from a family that can be labeled as “dysfunctional,” since there was domestic violence, lack of love, low economic status, and then at an early age, my parents separated. It was then my mother left my father and migrated illegally to Salinas, Callif., looking for better life opportunities. It was she who, after crossing the border, began telling me and my siblings to get an education to have more and better life opportunities because being uneducated, she was only able to work in the fields and then at a packing company. So five years after her arrival to Salinas, I came to Salinas knowing her expectations. Those were to finish high school, learn English, get some educational degree, and find a better job than she had. It was her insistence to apply myself to study that made me realize how important it is to go to school and most importantly the role that teachers play in a child’s education.

Teaching promotes and advocates for social, cultural, linguistic, and economic consciousness for change in the human race. As a teacher, I can’t leave behind my personal story and just focus on teaching the subject content and standards. A lot of the students that I work with have similar stories to my own. They come from low-income families whose hopes and dreams are uncertain or may not even exist because of their social, economic, linguistic, and legal status. Utilizing my personal story and funds of knowledge, not only as a Spanish teacher but as a learner, too, has become a crucial teaching and learning tool to activate and build my own students’ background knowledge or what some call “funds of knowledge.”

As a language teacher and an English-language learner, I believe there is no language more powerful than the language of empathy, sensitivity, and kindness for one another. I know that if I take care of my students’ educational well-being by valuing and integrating their funds of knowledge, it is transformed into meaningful and relevant instructional material that becomes students’ academic success. Building that relatedness can enhance students’ competence to develop their autonomy to continue thriving. Thus, learning from the funds of knowledge of my students is my motivation to strive and enhance meaningful relationships that empower a bigger community.

ELLs & prior knowledge

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has worked with English-learners during all of her 23 years in education and is currently an ESL ISST in Katy ISD in Katy, Texas:

Our English-learners come to us from many countries and bring with them different backgrounds and experiences. In order to successfully support their learning in the content areas, we need to make sure we find out what they already know and what gaps need to be filled. We can do this by activating the students’ prior knowledge and then building their background knowledge.

What is prior knowledge and why do we need to activate it? Prior knowledge is what the students bring with them that they have gained from previous schooling and their life experiences. It is important for teachers to activate their students’ prior knowledge so they know what students already know about a certain topic and what gaps in learning they will need to fill in order for students to be successful. It helps them to understand the reason why the students are struggling. Is the poor comprehension or struggle with assignments due to lack of language, lack of experience, or lack of skills? Having a firm grasp on the reason or reasons will enable the teacher to know how to support the students.

I like using anticipation guides at the beginning of a unit to see what students know. Anticipation guides have statements that students answer at the beginning of a unit and then at the end. The responses can be in an Agree/Disagree or True/False format. KWL (Know-Want to Know-Learn) charts are also great for activating prior knowledge. Charts can be filled out as a class or by individual students. Another great strategy is the observation chart. This GLAD strategy has students walking around the room looking at pictures and writing observations, comments, and questions on them. I either give each student a different colored pen or have them write their name after their observation so I can track which student wrote what.

Once you have a grasp of your students’ prior knowledge, your next step is to build their background knowledge to fill in the gaps. Building background knowledge allows you as the teacher to link the students’ past learning and experiences to new learning. There are many ways to build background knowledge. Videos are great for this. Choose ones that are not too technical and easy to understand. Stop periodically to check for understanding. Virtual field trips are a great alternative to live field trips when you are unable to schedule them. I like virtual field trips because you can keep going back to them if needed. The most important way teachers can build background knowledge is to explicitly teach key academic vocabulary. Give students multiple opportunities to use and practice the vocabulary so that the words are internalized and permanently connected to the topic of study.

As you can see, it is essential for you to plan activities to activate your students’ prior knowledge and to build background knowledge so that your students, especially your English-learners, can make that critical connection between their past learning and their new learning. With the info gained from the activities, you can better plan how to support your students so they are successful in their learning.

“Language dives”

Sarah Said is the director of language and equity programs at an EL (Expeditionary Learning) Education School in the Chicago suburbs. In her role, she oversees support programs for multilingual learners, works with others to create a community that fosters success for students from the diverse communities her school serves, and helps strengthen school to community outreach. In the past, she has been a director of ELL, dean, and curriculum coordinator. In addition to her role in her building, she is a contributor for ELL Confianza and has written a variety of blog posts online. She is a member of the #ELLChat and #ELLchat_bkClub where she helps advocate for multilingual learners. Follow her on Twitter at @MrsSaid:

As I always say, “We don’t eat something in a restaurant when we don’t understand what it is on the menu"—at least I don’t. Our minds are “picky eaters” when it comes to what we engage in and connect with. Be able to front-load information and support students with connecting to past knowledge is something we need to do to support them as educators. How do we do this? We engage students in activities that help us learn about them. This helps support us in being culturally responsive teachers in the classroom.

One strategy that I like to use at the beginning of the year is a project that I call the “cultural bag.” I explain to students that their cultural bag is something that they always carry around with them that holds their values, norms, and experiences. What I like about this activity is that it can be done with any age level from K-12 and be effective. Simply, you give students a paper bag, explain what a “cultural bag " is with an age-appropriate explanation, then they can collage or draw the bag with effective images to emulate the “cultural bag.” Depending on the age level of the students, you can have them then either write or explain what the images on the bag mean.

As you continue to get to know your students during the year, you can use ideas from what you know about them to scaffold conversations about new content. This helps students learn, and it makes the classroom more engaging for all.

When you are considering multilingual learners, you need to think about other ways to build background knowledge. You may need to utilize cognates in the native language to support students’ understanding vocabulary in English. This can be supported in an interactive word wall. These word walls are not just word walls that sit on a wall; students actually create the word wall and utilize the word wall to actively support it.

Another great way to build background knowledge for multilingual learners is to utilize the strategy of a language dive. Working in an EL (Expeditionary Learning) School, we utilize language dives to deconstruct, reconstruct, and practice language using the EL education ELA curriculum. Students can use existing language that they know to help develop their understanding a sentence and text. They can then continue to use the knowledge of the structures they learned to practice writing.

Building background for students helps support them in really engaging with and grasping content and language. This is an essential part of teaching and learning. It is critical in supporting a culturally responsive classroom.

Thanks to Adam, Jeffrey, Rachel, Cheryl, Elizabeth, Jenny, and Sarah for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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