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Activating Prior Knowledge

Determing Student Knowledge About a Topic

There is a fine distinction between "activating prior knowledge" and "building background" that is often misunderstood. Before ESL teachers teach a lesson to English learners, it is important that they determine the extent to which students have prior knowledge about a certain topic. It's important that teachers also recognize that students' prior knowledge of a topic may be influenced by cultural practices from their home language and culture, and their prior knowledge may differ from the background experiences of the teacher.
For example, we once observed a classroom lesson where the ESL teacher discussed the notion of "soup" before reading the story with students during an ELD lesson. The teacher asked the class of English learners what types of food might be included in soup and many of the students told her that "bones" are often included. The students also informed the teacher that fish and leaves are also placed in soup. The teacher told students that bones are not put in soup, and that soup typically consists of tomatoes and other vegetables. At the end of the lesson, the teacher commented that she was surprised that the English learners had no knowledge of what is typically included in soup. In this case, what the teacher didn't realize was that the students were bringing prior knowledge from their home culture, which differed from her own culture. In many of the local latino dishes in the community, bones were typically placed in soup, as well as fish and many herbs which might have been mistaken by the students for leaves. In this instance, the teacher thought that students had limited understanding of the topic, yet students actually possesed an understanding of the topic influenced by their particular culture.
A similar example of the cultural mismatch of background knowledge is presented in the book "Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP model". The SIOP book describes an incident where a teacher was reading aloud a story about a boy on the bus who got off the bus and left his magazine on the bus. As he got off the bus, some Russian men began to chase the man through the neighborhood and the boy eventually lost them. However, when the boy arrived at home the men eventually found his house. After reading the story, the teacher asked students how the Russian men had found the boy. She assumed that the students would remember that the boy had left the magazine on the bus, which included his address on the mailing label. However, the students informed the teacher that someone in the neighborhood had told the men where the boy lived. Upon further discussion, the students explained to the teacher that in many of their neighborhoods people can ask neighbors and local store owners where people live. 
In the two previous examples, there was a disconnect between the ESL teacher's background knowledge and that of her students.  It's important for teachers to have discussions with students in order to determine whether there might be a cultural disconnect between the background knowledge that students bring to school with them and what might be taught in class. Once teachers determine whether there is a cultural disconnect, or whether students actually have limited or incorrect prior knowledge of a subject, teachers can then design classroom experiences that will build the necessary background information.
The following strategies will assist teachers in determining whether students have prior knowledge about a topic:
Classroom Discussion
Have a classroom discussion about the topic that will be studied.
KWL Chart
A KWL chart (Ogle, 1986) is a three column chart that asks what students know about a topic, what they want to know about a topic, and what students learned about a topic. A KWL chart will give teachers an idea about the extent to which students have some prior knowledge about a topic. Teachers write down what students know about a topic, including inaccurate information or misconceptions. After asking students what they know about a topic, they then ask students to brainstorm questions that students may have about a topic. At the end of the unit of study, or throughout the unit of study, teachers revisit the "know" and "want to know" columns in order to write down what they have "learned" about a topic.  Click here to watch a short video about the KWL chart.
Inquiry Chart 
The inquiry chart is a Project GLAD strategy and is a variation of the KWL chart. The inquiry chart has only two columns: 1) What we know about ___ and 2) What we are wondering about ____. Teachers write down all student comments about what students know about a topic, including misconceptions and inaccuracies. Throughout the unit of study, teachers return to the inquiry chart to confirm or revise students' initial understandings about a topic. Click here to watch a short video with the inquiry chart.
Anticipation Guide
 An anticipation guide is a list of statements that are given to students prior to reading or learning about a topic in order to elicit student discussion and determine prior knowledge about a topic. The list can contain "true/false" statements or "agree/disagree" statements that students discuss with their classmates and teacher prior to reading. For example, prior to reading the book "Tuck Everlasting" teachers can give students a graphic organizer that asks whether students agree or disagree with the following statements:
  1. It is never okay to kill another person. 
  2. Having eternal life would be a wonderful experience.
  3. People who break the law should always be punished.
Students can discuss the three statements related to themes that will be addressed in the book, and can revisit the three statements during or after reading to discuss whether their beliefs or views about the statement have changed over the course of the reading. 
Observation Charts
Observation charts are a Project GLAD strategy designed to engage and motivate students as well as determine prior knowledge about a topic of study. Teachers print various pictures about the topic of study and allow students in pairs or teams to observe the pictures and write down their observations, questions or predictions. You can view a sample observation chart by clicking here.
For additional strategies designed to activate students' background knowledge, please click here to view the book "99 Ideas and Activities for Teaching English Learners with the SIOP Model".


What is a KWL chart?

What is the inquiry chart?

What is an anticipation guide? 

What are observation charts?