As I was munching on goodies and enjoying the ads during the Superbowl game, I thought about growing up watching football with my family. Then I thought about how much fun it was to play rugby with my brother and his friends. As a young girl, playing rugby with a bunch of older boys was intimidating, but a ton of fun at the same time. My friends had no idea what the games was and, honestly, I didn’t really know what I was doing either. I just listened to my brother as he told me what to do and where to go. It made me wonder about how many people are familiar with American football, but unfamiliar with other sports like rugby that are popular in other parts of the world.
We encounter so many unfamiliar things all of the time and need background knowledge to navigate our world. Yet, many of our students lack the background knowledge they need to navigate their learning. How do we provide this for them?
As an EL teacher, I always struggled with balancing providing students background knowledge when there was so many other things I needed to teach (decoding, comprehension, writing organization, and so much more!). How do I tap into my students’ prior knowledge and provide them with the information they need, and still have time to teach it all? I could teach background knowledge all day, but then my students would lack other essential skills. How should one balance it all?
How important is background knowledge really
According to Robert Marzano in his book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, “What students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.” We all have experiences that make up who we are but it is the academic side of background knowledge that assists students in their learning. So, how do we provide background knowledge to our students, specifically our English Learners, concisely and efficiently?
Framework for Building ELs’ Background Knowledg
Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder in their book Unlocking English Learners’ Potential created a framework to help educators determine how and what to teach in regards to background knowledge:
Staehr Fenner and Snyder suggest teachers ask themselves the following questions to assist them in determining what background knowledge their ELs need (183).
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Do non-ELs have background knowledge on the topic?
ELs should have a comparable amount of knowledge of a topic as their non-EL peers. This provides equity amongst all students.
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Does the background provide information in place of what the author is going to provide in the text?
If students are going to gather the information in an upcoming text, then don’t spoil it! It is still crucial that we provide students support and scaffolding as they access this information.
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Is the background knowledge about big issues that will help ELs make sense of the text?
Teachers don’t have to provide students everything about a topic. Rather, provide them information that is critical to comprehending the information.
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Is the background knowledge you’d like to provide concise?
There isn’t a need to take up an entire hour or class period on background information. Take just enough time to provide the critical information and move on.
The figure below is also a great reference to refer to when you are unsure about which background knowledge to teach. Keep it in your lesson plan book!
What are some quick strategies I can use to teach background knowledge?
The key to all of these strategies is to find out what students already know and determine what critical information to teach quickly and concisely.
Back to Rugby: an example.
I know you are still thinking about that rugby game, right? Here is a brief clip with the rugby rules along with visuals, websites and even a rally table. Maybe when spring comes around again you can try rugby. Trust me, it’s really fun!
Please reach out if you are interested in exploring more ideas for building background knowledge for your ELs.
This post brought to you by Katie Miller, K-12 EL Implementation Associate
My best friends when I was growing up—the ones that I kept going back to again and again for support, reassurance, and comfort—were all fictional. It wasn’t so much that I was a nerd or a bookworm per se (although I did grow up to become both), but rather that my day to day world didn’t have in it anyone who looked or acted like me: so I sought them out in books.
You see, as a kid I didn’t have any tangible women in my life with whom I really identified—at least not holistically. My day to day life was filled with men—my father, my older brothers, and most of my friends. And then there was my mom: my mom, who was 100% sugar, and spice, and everything nice—while I, on the other hand, was mainly spice. Unlike my mother, I enjoyed changing the oil with my dad, going fishing with my brothers, and shingling roofs with my guy friends. However, I wasn’t ‘one of the guys’ either: I had a Caboodle full of banana clips and Bonne Bell, Yankee Candle was my favorite store in the mall, and I wore Love’s Baby Soft every day of junior high. So, instead, I found kinship in Mallory from The Baby-Sitter’s Club series, in Jo from Little Women, and in June Osborn [Offred] in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The thing is, each of these friends were introduced to me by teachers. I met Mallory at Jefferson Elementary when Mr. Vanort pointed out the series to me one day in the Library. I met Jo at Kellogg when Mrs. Ollenberg noted in the margin of one of my journal entries that I might enjoy it. And, I met June at Mayo when Ms. Evans set her own personal copy on my desk and said I should read it over winter break (I still have that copy, by the way: if you’re reading this Ms. Evans, let me know if you want it back).
But the other thing is: I’m white and cisgender. I was also born in the United States and raised middle class. These factors made it easier for me to see myself in the books I read growing up. It also made it easier for teachers to put the right books in my hands.
Unfortunately, for many of our students, it’s uncommon for them to see themselves reflected in the books they read, and while the diversity we are seeing in children’s and young adult literature is on the rise, it still doesn’t match our student population. It only takes one look at the numbers to realize how true this is:
As BJ Epstein, Ph.D., noted in The Conversation, “we know that children’s books can act like both mirrors and windows on the world. Mirrors in that they can reflect on children’s own lives, and windows in that they can give children a chance to learn about someone else’s life.” Knowing this to be true, then as educators it’s important we ensure students have opportunities to see characters who look like them, share similar backgrounds, and have comparable personality traits. Simultaneously, it important to ensure students are reading books that provide insight into worlds different from their own.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her 2009 Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” sheds light on how her personal view of how she saw herself and who she could aspire to become someday was inaccurate and thin because of the limited types of novels she’d had access to. In other words, the mirror she had access to—the one she was able to hold in her hands—didn’t give her a clear picture of herself.
Adichie goes on to talk about how the books one reads can also create windows into the lives and worlds different from one’s own. In fact, reading literary fiction helps build empathy.
For me, this was certainly true. My world view expanded greatly through literature. Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of being black, poor, and female in America. Cisneros' The House on Mango Street helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of poverty and immigration. Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of holding on to one's heritage when one is Native American and/or biracial.
No matter our cultural backgrounds and experiences, reading fiction “can usher us into other worlds—it can make us step into other realities” (Elemans).
When it comes to surrounding students with literary mirrors and windows, one of the first steps is accessing the right titles and then getting those titles into students’ hands. Below are a wide variety of resources that can help you find texts to then share with students.
Book List Resources:
Reading Challenges that Honor Diversity in Literature:
No matter what your role in education, you could be that staff member who hands out mirrors to and opens windows for our students. It’s important that we all work together to guarantee our students are able to see themselves reflected in the books they read and ensure that they’re able to build empathy for those who are different from them.
My childhood would have been rough without characters like Mallory, Jo, and June. My worldview would have been much thinner without authors like Hurston, Cisneros, or Dorris. To this day, I am grateful for those teachers who introduced me to these close friends and who showed me more of the world.
These protagonists taught me that being smart and outspoken, being strong-willed and brash was admirable—even if I was a woman. These authors taught me to empathize with others different from myself. Now, imagine what lessons our students will learn if we just introduce each of them to a wider array of books.
This post brought to you by Heather Lyke, Secondary Implementation Associate
Larry Ferlazzo notes in his Educational Leadership article “Micro-Writing for English Learners,” that “short burst of writing can boost English language learners’ confidence and skills.” Ferlazzo explains this to be because micro-writing:
As a bonus, the benefit extends beyond our EL students. For all learners—not just EL learners—the above bulleted list still applies. Plus, the recently published Ed Surge article “Micro-Writing is having a Macro Impact on Identity Development,” Bryan Christopher notes that micro-writing can be used as a check for understanding, a pre-write for what will later be shared aloud, or even as a vocabulary builder. Moreover, he notes that, “the value of micro-writing goes beyond academics, addressing social and emotional needs like self-perception and confidence.”
Personally, I love that micro-writing often pushes students to the highest level of Bloom’s, but without taking up large periods of valuable class time. When students write, even just for a small amount of time, they hit the “Creating” stage (level 6) of Bloom’s Taxonomy because they are generating something new with their knowledge. As a bonus, in getting to level 6 of Bloom’s, students often cross through the “Evaluating” stage (level 5) as they create an argument, make a value judgement, or evaluate a problem.
If you would like to try micro-writing in your own classroom, here are three strategies to help you get started:
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For the first ten minutes of our math block, my co-teacher and I introduced polygons to our students. Ten minutes into the lesson, it occurred to me that we, the teachers, had been doing all the talking. We decided to have students do a quick Turn and Talk.
I told the students, “Tell your elbow partner the characteristics of polygons.”
Things started to go awry immediately. Immediately, we had students asking to go to the bathroom, some were looking at their iPads, other partner sets said one or two words to each other and then nothing more, while other students didn’t say anything at all but instead just looked at each other. My first thought was, I guess we need to keep teaching about polygons because they don’t seem to understand polygons yet. Instead, I should have thought, Did I teach our students how to Turn and Talk? That's where I went wrong: I had assumed our students knew how to speak in an academic manner to each other. I was very wrong!
So, here are some eight steps to help you not make the same mistake by instead creating an environment that teaches students how to build the skills needed to interact with one another and to use academic language (Echevarría and Short).
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Teach students how to listen to each other.
If we want students to talk, we need to teach them also how to listen. What does listening to each other look like? Model for students what active listening looks like. Have students practice listening skills using social conversations first (i.e. tell each other about their favorite TV show) and then move into more content-rich conversations.
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What types of respectful words or phrases do you hear (I agree with you because…, I don't know that I can agree with you, and here's why...)? Provide sentence frames and model how to use them. Hang them up or write them on the board for students as a reference or to keep in a journal.
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Make sure students know the goal of the lesson. That way they know if their academic conversations are on-topic or on-target. If they are not on-topic, remind them of the target or objective to help get them back on track.
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If you want students to increase their academic language, then make sure questions lend themselves to higher-order thinking skills. Questions should make students think, clarify, predict, or explain. A question such as “Tell your partner one fact about the Gettysburg Address” could be changed to “What do you think the reaction of the crowd was after President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address and why would he have reacted that way?”
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Students often need to be taught how to keep a conversation going. Put question and sentence frames around the room that expand discussions, such as Tell me more about …, Why do you think… I heard you say…, That made me think of …, Do you think that …, or That idea connects to the story by …. These frames allow students to build on each other’s thoughts and create engaging conversations.
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Academic speaking and listening are deeply tied to reading and writing. Student discussions that are linked to text bring forth deeper academic discussions.
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Think about how long it will take students to talk to each other. Don’t let a turn and talk that lasts 1-2 minutes turn into 10 minutes. This creates wasted academic time and often leads to off-task behavior.
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Let students know that you are listening to them. Walk around and listen to what they are saying. Have a clipboard and write down what students say. Them, when the class is brought back together, talk about the great conversations you heard. Provide examples and discuss why these conversations were so powerful. This will motivate students moving forward because they know you are listening and sharing out their examples and ideas.
And, of course, feel free to connect with me directly. I would love to help you increase the academic talk in your classroom.
- Echevarría , Jana and Deborah Short. Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: the SIOP Model, fourth ed., 2017.
One Minute Reading Conferences
Students benefit from getting timely feedback about their reading practice. Some studies say that feedback is the #1 factor in improving student achievement. One minute conferences can be an effective and efficient way to get meaningful feedback to all of your students.
Tell students that you will be conducting one minute conferences. The whole class will begin reading as usual and when you come to them they will begin whisper reading. You will be listening to hear if the book is the right level for the reader and will be listening for how fluently s/he is reading. After listening for this you will also ask a question about what is being read to gauge comprehension. S/he will receive a score of 3, 2, or 1 for each part of the conference:
- 3 ... Student was able to decode all the words. They read it like talking and paused when there was punctuation. Expression was also used appropriately.
- 2 ... Student may have missed one or two words as they were reading. They read somewhat fluently but could improve expression or phrasing.
- 1 ... Student struggled to decode more than three words. They may have also had difficulty with phrasing or expression. It may be a good idea to choose a book that is closer to their independent reading level.
- 3 ... Student was able to answer the question about their book with details showing that they are thinking about what they are reading.
- 2 ... Student answered the question but could have provided more detail to show understanding of the content of the book.
- 1 ... The student was unable to answer the question with details from the text. They may need more frequent check ins or may need to choose a new book.
Additionally, here are some possible comprehension questions to ask students:
- What do you predict will happen next? Why?
- What is one problem that is happening in your book?
- Describe one of the main characters and compare them to someone that you know.
- Retell what just happened in the section that you read.
- What is one surprising thing that has happened in your book so far?
- Which character do you like least? Why?
Sticky Note Status Check
Many student benefit from more regular feedback on their reading. This is a way to provide feedback and improve motivation for those students who may struggle with reading stamina.
- Choose three students. One high achiever, one average student, and one who struggles with reading.
- Place a sticky note two pages into their books (starting from where they each are now).
- Tell them that when they get to that spot, they will tell you about the character and the setting.
- If they are able to do this, move the sticky note three total pages. This time let them know that they are going to retell what happened in these three pages.
- If they are able to do this, move the sticky note four total pages. This time they need to generate one question that they have about the text they are reading and answer one question that you pose.
Keep notes on which students can do all three and you have a great formative assessment.
WIDA is a consortium of 36 states and Minnesota is one of its member states. WIDA’s mission is “Wida advances academic language development and academic achievement for children and youth who are culturally and linguistically diverse through high quality standards, assessments, research, and professional learning for educators.” WIDA has developed standards and assessments that assist English Learners in developing their academic language.
EL teachers use WIDA’s English Language Development Standards to increase English language development and academic language. Some of the essential pieces within the English Language Development Standards are:
- Can Do Descriptors - These are examples of skills that English Learners can do at different stages in their language development. It highlights that a skill that a level 5 EL student can do will be different than what a level 2 EL student can do. This why scaffolding towards an English Learner's language level is so important.
- WIDA’s Features of Academic Language - The three features of academic language are:
- Word/Phrase Level - Vocabulary usage is a focus of English language development.
- Sentence Level - At the sentence level, the focus is on language forms and conventions which include grammatical constructions and fluency.
- Discourse Level - This level focuses on the amount and structure of sentences. It analyzes the variety of sentences and their usage.
Now you know a little bit about WIDA, but what is ACCESS? ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 is the standardized assessment to monitor students’ growth in academic language and English language development. It assesses ELs each year during the months of February and March. Every student in kindergarten through twelfth grade who has been identified as an English Learner must take this assessment. The results provide teachers a language level. The language levels are:
- Level 1 - Newcomer
- Level 2 - Emerging
- Level 3 - Developing
- Level 4 - Expanding
- Level 5 - Bridging
- Level 6 - Reaching
If you are wanting to know about your English Learner’s levels and their needs, please seek out the EL teacher at your building or myself. We are happy to help you meet the needs of the ELs in your classroom. If you would like to know more about WIDA or the ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 assessment, please see the WIDA website.
Strategy #1: Teach students textbook elements
Show students textbooks elements that are designed to help them navigate a textbook. ELs who have had have interrupted schooling may have never encountered these elements in their past school experiences. Others will benefit from a reminder.
- Table of Contents
Also, show students examples and ask them questions to aid in comprehension. Here are some examples of questions you may ask:
- “How do you know where to find the definitions to words you don’t know?”
- “Where would I look to find the chapter on ____?”
Strategy #2: Teach students chapter elements
Show students examples of chapter elements and talk about their functions.
- Chapter Objectives
- Headings and subheadings
- Vocabulary lists (refer them back to the glossary)
- Bold print
- Content-related elements (i.e. Periodic Table of Elements)
- Graphs (pie chart, bar graph, etc.)
- Bullet Points
- Review Questions
- Technology-related (i.e. websites that are provided for student reference)
Explicitly teach the difference between these elements and when to use them. Ask students questions to aid in their use. Here are some examples of questions you may ask:
- “What does this caption tell us about _________?”
- “What can we learn from the bar graph on page 13?”
Strategy #3: Teach students to do a “Chapter Walk”
- Students look for certain elements in the chapter (i.e key vocabulary, diagram and headings).
- Students predict what the chapter will be about. (Students communicate what chapter elements they used to make their prediction.)
- Students share what they know about the chapter topics to build background knowledge and activate prior learning.
- Students explore the review questions at the end of the chapter to get a better understanding about what they are going to be learning.
At first these strategies may seem time-consuming, but as students become more familiar with elements of a textbook and chapter, they will begin to navigate the information much more quickly and efficiently. They will also be more engaged in the learning as they have become invested in searching for information. They will see the textbook as a vital tool to assist them in learning.
For more information regarding a Chapter Walk:
- Read this Colorin Colorado article.
- View the video below.
Connect new information to prior learning or experiences
An anticipation guide can be a great tool to assist students as they access prior knowledge and transfer to new knowledge.
- Prepare a list of true and false statements from the text you will be reading.
- Students select their answer prior to reading. Discuss with a partner or group. Students may change their answer after the discussion.
- After reading, students can go back to their guide and make any changes as needed.
Provide opportunities for students to talk
Think-Pair-Write-Share is a strategy to allow students the opportunity to express their thoughts orally before writing.
- First allow students time to think about a question or topic.
- Students then talk in pairs or small groups about the question or topic.
- Students do a quick write after their partner/small group conversations.
- Students then share their thoughts.
- Place students in groups of 4.
- Each student selects a word or phrase that captures the important aspect of the reading or discussion.
- Students share their word/phrase with their group. Groups come to a consensus as to the one big idea of the reading or discussion.
- Group selects a spokesperson for the group who shares their group’s big idea.
Use graphic organizers to help students organize their thoughts
An “H-Map” is a variation on a Venn Diagram for compare and contrast.
- Create an “H” with two different contrasting thoughts on either column of the uppercase H.
- Place the similarities on the connecting part of the H.
- Place the main idea on the left side and the details on the right of it (to make the letter E).
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Analysis & Inquiry
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Quality Of Feedback
Regard For S's Perspective