English language learners (ELLs) have great difficulty jumping into new texts without any background support. Students should know at least something about the topic before reading. Some topics may be unfamiliar to students, such as recreational activities at the beach if students have never been to the beach before. Pictures, drawings, or short skits can help develop relevant background information.
Students need to know at least 90% to 95% of the words they read if they are going to comprehend the text. Therefore, it is important to use several strategies to build background knowledge that leads to better reading comprehension and overall achievement for ELLs. It doesn't hurt to review many words we often take for granted — not only for the benefit of ELLs, but also for students who may not come to school with a rich vocabulary background or exposure to certain experiences.
Pre-reading strategies to increase comprehension
Before reading a selection aloud or before students read a text, try taking seven to ten minutes to build word and background knowledge. This should increase all students' comprehension of the text.
Begin by reviewing the selection and identifying the main concepts you want to teach. Take into account your students' potential knowledge of these concepts, including your ELLs. Decide how you might best make these concepts relevant and accessible to all of your students. This might be through a film, discussion, student reading assignment, or a text read by you. Try using a combination of three or four of the following strategies:
Do motivating activities You can use any activity that interests students in the text and motivates them to read it. For example, you can bring a real frog to class before reading a frog story.
Build text-specific knowledge
Activate students' prior knowledge of a topic so that they can consciously use it as they read their text. For example, before reading a text with a jungle as the setting, ask students what they already know about jungles and discuss.
Relate to students' lives This is a powerful way to motivate students to read and to help them understand what they will be reading. Before reading a story about winning and losing a race, for example, you might want to have your students reflect on the times they have won or lost a race or a contest.
In addition to pre-teaching traditional vocabulary words, include words that convey concepts that ELLs already know. For example, students may know the concept of finding something, but do not know the word find or finding. Write these words on the board and review with the class.
There are times when not only ELLs but all students need to learn new and possibly difficult ideas or concepts. For example, the concepts of democracy or envy may be difficult for all young children to understand at first. Give examples that your students can relate to.
Predicting and direction setting You can focus students' attention on what is important to look for as they read their text. Making predictions about what might happen in the book gives students a purpose for reading. Setting a direction means using questions that peak students' interest. It also means focusing students on the purpose for the reading. For example, "Today we are going to read about differences in climates and regions. Let's read first about the climate in our community."
Suggest comprehension strategies before reading the text, make students aware of what they should be looking for. If you want them to identify cause and effect, point out several examples of this beforehand.