Activating Prior Knowledge for English Language Learners

Activating Prior Knowledge With English Language Learners

When teachers activate students’ past knowledge, they do two things: first, they ask students what they already know, and second, they help students create the foundational knowledge they need to access subsequent information.

We have discovered that implementing this technique is crucial for educating all of our students, including those who are already fluent in English as well as those who are still in the process of developing their English language abilities. To take this a step further, this tactic is at the core of the pedagogical approach that we take with our students. They come to us with a plethora of prior information and experiences, which they may expand upon as they engage in new forms of education. It is up to us to support this process by creating relationships with our students so that we can understand what they already know and to make sure that they feel comfortable sharing what they already know with us.


Research conducted by psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University reveals that it is simpler to learn something new if we are able to relate it to something that we are already familiar with. The premise that activating prior knowledge is an important phase in the learning process and a crucial role in reading comprehension is supported by other research, such as the study titled “Prior knowledge activation: Inducing engagement with informational texts.” Deborah Short and Jana Echevarria have conducted additional study with English language learners (ELLs), and their findings indicate that activating and strengthening prior knowledge has a significant impact in increasing ELLs’ academic literacy.


Educators and researchers, as well as the authors of the Common Core, are in agreement that activating prior knowledge is an essential step in the process of accessing complex texts. This holds true regardless of the format of the text being accessed, whether it be written words, images, charts, or any other type of text. On the other hand, there is such a thing as having too much of a good thing. According to the architects of the Common Core, “Student background knowledge and experiences can enliven the reading. However, attention to the text itself should not replace this focus.”

Students will not be able to avoid the Common Core requirements by skipping the activities that follow since their purpose is to activate and build background knowledge as a support, not as a bypass.


Activating students’ prior knowledge and expanding their background knowledge in preparation for new learning can be accomplished in a variety of ways, which are outlined below. The activities mentioned below are designed to assist students access reading activities; however, we have also used them to help students access writing, speaking, and listening tasks. Typically, activities for tapping past knowledge are planned to be utilised before reading activities.

K-W-L Charts: Without a doubt, the tried-and-true K-W-L chart is always an effective technique of measuring the level of background knowledge that pupils have regarding a certain subject or idea. In the part labelled “What I Know,” students record and discuss what they already understand about the subject matter. They then add questions to the area labelled “What I Want to Know” and express their learnings in the section labelled “What I Learned” as they discover new facts by reading written and digital books.

Different iterations of the K-W-L chart extend the chart to include columns for how students can find answers to their questions (online searches, personal interviews), what actions they might take after learning this new information (apply it, teach someone else, create something new), and/or what new questions they have based on what they’ve learned. All of these columns can be combined into a single column.

The purpose of anticipation guides is to get students thinking, writing, and/or talking about their perspectives on the most important themes and overarching concepts that will be covered in subsequent readings and units of study. They frequently take the form of a list of assertions, each of which the student must decide whether or not they agree with. This can be accomplished either orally or in writing.

At the conclusion of a study unit, it might be beneficial to have students review the anticipatory guides they created at the beginning of the subject in order to reflect on how their thinking has evolved and to prepare for writing an essay.

A mini-unit on sports beverages was one of the topics that our students studied, and as an example, we used the anticipatory guide that was included in our book.

Students can reply to a series of agree or disagree statements by standing and positioning themselves on a continuum for a more kinesthetic form of an anticipation guide (strongly agree on one side of the room, strongly disagree on the other, and other opinions at other places along the continuum).

In addition to that, we have implemented the well-known Four Corners technique by affixing one sentence to each of the four corners of the classroom. After that, we ask students which of the statements they agree with the most, and direct them to the appropriate area of the room. When they reach that point, the students discuss between themselves the reasons why they agree with that assertion, after which one student from each group presents their findings to the entire class. The pupils’ language skills improve as a result of this thinking and talking, and they also develop an increased level of curiosity about what is to come.

Multimedia: Before beginning a new lesson or reading passage, we will frequently present the students with a relevant movie (with English subtitles) or slideshow, or we will display a photograph on the document camera. It is a terrific approach to rapidly measure students’ past knowledge, create background, and ignite interest in the topic at hand by having them write about it or discuss about it with a partner. A straightforward question like “What did you notice?” or “What did you find interesting?” could serve as a trigger. A plethora of resources, such as music from an era being studied, newscasts about a notable event, and interviews with authors, are now available at one’s fingertips, and they can be used to construct backdrop in an interesting way.

It can be very helpful in developing background knowledge and reading confidence to provide students with simpler texts to study in advance of more difficult reading assignments. These preparatory texts are known as “preparatory texts.” We frequently make use of the same text published at varying levels of the Lexile scale. The internet provides access to a wealth of resources that, when combined, make it simple to locate or produce texts that meet the criteria for accessibility. We are not advocating that teachers make the difficult literature that they intend to use for close reading any simpler than it already is. As an alternative method for developing students’ background knowledge, teachers may choose to assign simplified readings that address subjects or ideas that are comparable to those found in the more difficult literature.