Thursday, May 24, 2012

Engaging English Language Learners In Discussion Related to Prior Knowledge and Experiences

Engaging English Language Learners
In Discussion Related to Prior Knowledge and Experiences

By Jackie Wissman, SWCS District Trainer

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Though tapping prior knowledge to connect new learning and understandings to existing schema is important for all students, it is highly emphasized in readings related to meeting the needs of our growing English Language Learner (ELL) population.    In fact, tapping student’s prior knowledge is one of ten accommodations that have been proven effective for English Language Learners (Laturnau, 2003).  Often, there is the misconception that ELL students abstain from conversations related to prior knowledge because they lack related experiences or background knowledge.   We need to realize, however, that the ways in which we elicit information greatly impacts the level in which students can connect, discuss and engage.    Helping children connect to the larger themes and overall ideas of stories will help all students, including English Language Learners, make meaningful connections and take part in valuable discussions that enhance comprehension.  If we want to engage our English Language Learners, we need to think carefully about the questions we are asking!

Connecting to the Literal Meaning Vs. Overall Theme: A Case Study Comparison

Recently, I had the opportunity to see two teachers introduce Snow on the Hill to two different guided reading groups of mostly ELL second graders.  The text is about a family whose car gets stuck in a ditch while driving to town on a snowy day.  While waiting for the tow truck, the children use plastic bags to sled down the hill.  In the first introduction, the teacher elicited background knowledge by asking if the children had ever been sledding.  The teacher and one student talked about sledding for about a minute.  The other students, 3 of 4 who were ELL, listened respectfully but did not contribute to the discussion.  They had no prior experiences or connections to sledding.

In the second introduction to a group of 5 students, 4 of which were ELL, the conversation related to prior knowledge was quite different.  Instead of asking the students to connect to the literal meaning of the text, the teacher asked them to connect to the larger theme, “ Have you ever had to make the most of a bad situation or had something good come from something bad?”  After the teacher shared a time where her family made the most of a two-day power outage, they all had something to say.  One student shared the time that she forgot her lunch and was quite upset until all of her friends gave her a small part of their lunch.  “It was my most favorite lunch ever!” she exclaimed.  This is certainly an example of something good coming from something bad!  The students all participated in a 5-minute conversation connecting to the big idea of the text before the teacher moved to a more literal discussion and introduction of unknown vocabulary and concepts including sledding, ditches and tow trucks.  

Why is Discussing the Overall Theme Prior to Introducing Literal Meanings so Important?

Cummins (1994) shares that we must provide instruction which values the educational and personal experiences of our ELL students rather than ignore or try to replace these experiences.  Going beyond the literal level and helping kids think about the larger themes and ideas makes it possible for all students to connect and discuss.  This values their experiences and knowledge even if it is different than our own.

Key Vocabulary and Concepts:

This is not to say that talk related to literal meanings and concepts is not important to ELL students.   In fact, teaching key vocabulary and concepts is another one of the ten accommodations proven effective with ELL students (Laturnau, 2003)!    Meaningful vocabulary and concepts must be included in instruction including book introductions and interactive read aloud discussions if our ELL students are going to truly comprehend.   We must remember, however, that though it is quite necessary, there is much more to building background knowledge than introducing vocabulary!    We need to help students think within, beyond and about the text!

Links Across the LC Framework:

The idea of tapping prior knowledge beyond the literal level can easily be applied across the framework. 

Guided Reading: The Snow on the Hill example demonstrates how helping students connect to the overall theme in book introductions can result in more meaningful engagement and comprehension. 

Interactive Read Alouds and Shared Reading: We can certainly engage students in intentional conversation that allows them to connect to and think about larger themes and author’s purpose during our interactive read alouds or shared readings.  We can also model our own thinking as a means of lifting the thinking and connections of the students.  In addition, we can help students begin to see the connections between themes across texts; that authors often write about universal themes such as friendship or overcoming obstacles.

Writing Workshop:  We must recognize and value different perspectives and experiences.  Students need to connect with topics in order to invest in them!  Though we help kids think about ideas worth writing about, we cannot rely on prompts! 


When we help kids connect to the big ideas and overall themes, we open the possibilities for response and honor the experiences and prior knowledge of all students, including our English Language Learners.   We must remember that the ways in which we elicit background knowledge and experiences will certainly impact if and how students respond!


Cummins, J. (1994). Knowledge, power and identity in teaching English as a second language.
In F. Genesee (Ed.), Educating Second Language Children.  New York:  Cambridge University Press. 

Laturnau, J. (2003). Standards-Based Instruction for English Language
Learners. In G. G. Garcia, & G. G. Garcia (Ed.), English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy (pp. 286-305). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc.

Smith, A. (1997). Snow on the Hill. Illustrated by Greenhatch, B. US Edition: Rigby

Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2001, 2008). The Continuum of Literacy
Learning Grades PreK-8: A Guide to Teaching
. Portsmouth: Heinnemann.