ELL Strategies for Success

How to Connect ELLs' Background Knowledge to Content

Guatemalan girl in parade

Learn how to make instruction more culturally relevant by connecting content to ELLs' experiences with a number of ideas from Kristina Robertson.

"Diversity is the one true thing we have in common. Celebrate it every day."

— Anonymous

When my children were younger, we would often listen to books on tape while I did errands and drove them to their activities. When my daughter was four years old and we were listening to a story, she said, "Mom, when I listen to the stories, I see pictures in my head. Do you see the same pictures?"

This was a thought-provoking question for a number of reasons. First, she was describing what good readers do — visualize the story as they read while the details add up to a mental picture. Second, I was reminded that we all create mental pictures while reading, and that our pictures may vary greatly. For example, when my children and I read the Harry Potter books, we discussed our different ideas about what Harry, Hermione, and Ron looked like. (After seeing the movies, I can't seem to remember what I thought they looked like!)

Perhaps what is most interesting about the visualization that takes place as we read is that the pictures in our minds reflect our own experiences. We connect what we read to our context, and, as a result, we comprehend new ideas more deeply if we can relate to them.

What the research says

In a 1979 study on cross-cultural comprehension, subjects from the U.S. and India read letters about an American and an Indian wedding and recalled them following interpolated tasks. When subjects read the passage about the wedding from their own culture ("the native passage"), researchers observed the following behaviors: subjects read the passage more rapidly, recalled a larger amount of information, and produced more culturally appropriate elaborations of the content. When the subjects read the "foreign passage" about the other culture's wedding, they read the passage more slowly, recalled much less information, and produced more culturally-based distortions. The results indicated that cultural context influences comprehension, and that this phenomenon occurs regardless of an individual's background. (Steffensen, Joag-Deve, & Anderson, 1979).

It makes sense that if I were to read passages on both American and Indian weddings, I would recall more details from the American wedding because I've experienced it many times, and I would probably be able to produce a more detailed description of the event because it is more relevant to my experience.

What are the implications of this idea for teachers who must help a diverse student body retain valuable information about a variety of subjects? By drawing on students' experiences for instruction, teachers can enhance their curriculum using a variety of resources in order to make the material more culturally relevant and accessible. This can help English language learners (ELLs) in particular make important connections to content.

Recommended reading

To see more recent research about the academic and cognitive benefits of culturally responsive instruction, see Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond.

Background knowledge and ELLs

Before jumping into strategies you can use to access students' existing background knowledge, it's important to look at the big picture. Background knowledge is the foundation on which learning happens. In some cases, you may need to build the background knowledge that enables ELLs to comprehend and access grade-level content.

However, it's important not to think of background knowledge only in terms of "gaps" or "deficits." ELLs bring a rich range of experience and perspective to the classroom, and tapping into this knowledge is an essential step in making meaning of content in the classroom. In fact, linking concepts to students' personal, cultural, or academic experience is considered a key component of sheltered instruction.

Dr. R. Cipriani-Sklar, Principal of the Fairview School in Corona, NY, discusses the importance of tapping into students' knowledge Random House's RHI: Reaching Reluctant Readers magazine:

"Tap into Students' Background Knowledge. Students need to connect with literature on three basic levels: text to text, text to self, and self to the world. All students bring something to the classroom. Becoming familiar with the backgrounds and/or prior knowledge of ELL students allows a teacher to engage students in literacy experiences that connect with their diverse backgrounds, thereby building on this knowledge."

So how do you start? As a first step, you can find out what background knowledge your students have on a particular topic related to your lesson. You can do this by:

Note: Choose strategies that match your students' language and literacy levels. For example, having students speak in groups may be a good fit for younger students who aren't writing yet or for older students with interrupted formal education who are still developing literacy skills. Graphic organizers are helpful to use with younger students who have some language background or older students who are acquiring new language skills.

Once you have a better idea of what students know about a topic, you can look for ways to connect the content to things that are familiar and students' experiences. This also opens up the thinking of the rest of the class to the different cultures of their peers.

This, however, is just the beginning. There are many other ways to enrich your instruction through connections to students' experiences; the better you know your (ELLs), the more easily you will be able to tap into their background knowledge. Here are some ideas that can guide that process.

Learn about your students' backgrounds

What are some other ways you can tap into background knowledge if it's very different from your own? You can start by choosing a single topic to research that you think might be relevant to your students. These might include learning about:

  • your students' native countries, cultures, or educational systems
  • historical figures, musical and artistic traditions, geography, or biodiversity from your students' countries so that you can connect your lessons to something that the students already know.

Family liaisons are an excellent source of information here and can also guide you to choose examples that are likely to be appropriate and meaningful to students.

Helping students make connections

You can also find ways for your students to contribute their own cultural experience, funds of knowledge, talents, and interests in the classroom. You can do this by asking students to:

  • show how a topic connects to their lives
  • give an example of a particular idea as they would experience it in their native country
  • bring music or art from their culture and describe its significance and meaning to their classmates.

Another activity is to ask students to interview their family members in order to learn more about their memories and experience. ELLs may find interviews valuable because even if they speak their native language at home and are surrounded by their culture, they may not have had an opportunity to learn about their family members' life experiences and values.

Note: These strategies will work in mainstream classes as well as students may engage more deeply with content when they can relate it to historical and cultural information shared by family members.

Proceeding with care and sensitivity

If you plan to ask students to contribute their experiences to the class, it is important to keep a few things in mind. First, Dr. Cynthia Lundgren and Giselle Lundy-Ponce remind teachers to consult with multiple sources and not to expect students to be the sole 'ambassador' for a culture. They write, "Do not put a particular student on the spot without asking them beforehand if they are comfortable sharing information with the whole class. Each student is an individual and their experiences may or may not be similar to that of the group they represent."

It is tempting to view your students as the experts, and it is certainly important to draw on what they have to offer to the class, but it is also important to discuss whether they feel comfortable doing so beforehand, and to avoid putting them on the spot — particularly about cultural, political, or religious subjects that might be particularly sensitive.

This is also important because students may not feel comfortable sharing their culture or prior experiences for a wide range of reasons, including trauma or stigma. For example, some Indigenous students from Latin America "hide" their culture and identity because of the persecution (sometimes violent) that they have faced in their home countries. Be patient with your students, and look for ways to increase their confidence in the classroom as you get to know each other. They may share information with you privately that they do not wish to share with the class. Honor their confidence and look for other ways for them to contribute.

Related resources

Video: Getting to know your students

Teacher Omar Salem talks about the importance of getting to know your ELLs, their interests, and their concerns.

Go beyond the textbook

Look for resources that go beyond the textbook that will engage students and involve them in the learning process so that they find elements they can connect to and learn from. These may include:

Artwork

There are many ways to bring educational content to life through art, and to use art as a starting point for discussing different cultural traditions. For example, in a history class, you may offer students a couple of different artistic representations of historical events from different perspectives, and ask whether a particular perspective resonates with their experiences.

Or you might want to compare artwork depicting similar kinds of events as they occurred in different countries, such as revolutions, battles, the signing of a famous document, inaugurations, elections, protests, and major milestones. Perhaps students can share depictions of those kinds of events in their country as a way to open up the discussion and connect their experience to the content as well. Students can examine artistic style, theme, the artist's intent, and the materials used while comparing artistic works from different cultures as a way of applying what they learning about the content.

Finally, be sure to invite students to share artwork and traditions from their own cultures and look for ways to connect what they share with the curriculum.

Using artwork that depicts day-to-day events and celebrations can also be a provocative starting point for a discussion about the similarities and differences between other cultures, and a way of affirming the students' daily lives, traditions, and lifestyles in the classroom. You may find that these connections are even more powerful than you expected, as seen in the student story below.

Video: Why an indigenous student hid his identity

ESOL resource teacher Manuel Portillo Gomez shares the story of an Indigenous student who kept his cultural identity hidden for much of the year until Manuel planned a lesson plan about Guatemalan basket weaving.

Music & dance

Students are a great resource for sharing music, and older students especially like to share music, discuss the meaning, and connect it to content. If the song is in a language some students do not understand, ask the student to translate it and discuss the meaning. Songs from other countries often describe political events or re-tell folk stories in poetic form.

When it comes to dance, students may enjoy sharing videos of traditional dances from their own cultures and talking about when certain dances are performed. You never know — you may just have a performer in your midst who would like to share some talent with the class, as teacher Omar Salem discovered below!

Video: My students' many talents

Teacher Omar Salem describes a student who sings, dances, manages her own YouTube channel, and edits all of the video.

Culture kits

I got this idea from the Dakota County library system in Minnesota. They have a learning resource called "Bifolkal Kits" that patrons can check out. The kits have themes such as the "The Fifties," "Work Life," or "African American Lives." Each kit contains items relevant to the topic, reading materials, and questions that can be asked of a person who has experience in that area. It would be a wonderful addition to a curriculum if students created their own Culture Kits with special items that would bring culture alive as a way of sharing their cultures and discussing what can be learned from different multicultural traditions.

Special traditions, celebrations, and recipes

Invite students to share special traditions, holidays, and foods from their cultures throughout the year and across the curriculum. For example, students could describe a favorite recipe in writing or in a presentation (with plenty of practice beforehand). Ask students early on in the year what holidays they celebrate and what those celebrations look like, and invite families to share their own experiences with the class.

Video: Thirty kinds of "mole"

Juan Felipe recalls a conversation with a student who comes from the town of Hidalgo, which is famous for having many different kinds of mole, a Mexican sauce.

Realia

Using concrete objects, often called "realia," is a great way to build background knowledge and tap into students' existing background knowledge. Some objects may be very familiar, while others may be to new students. Other objects may have particular significance for students. Students can share what they know about particular objects through drawing, writing, or native language discussion groups before sharing a summary with the class.

Video: Using "realia" to build background knowledge

Albuquerque teacher Ali Nava describes the "realia" activity she used to introduce Burro's Tortillas and some of the items she brought into the classroom for the lesson.

Note: You can also see materials related to this lesson plan in our classroom module created in collaboration with Dr. Diane August.

Use things that are familiar

In addition to making important cultural connections, look for ways to tie learning to everyday objects that students are likely to have seen and used (without making assumptions, as discussed below). For example, ESOL specialist Katy Padilla prepared her ELLs for a lesson about vascular plants by pre-teaching the concept with straws — an even more relevant example since they were previewing the content in their special Secret Science Lunch Club!

Video: Making the connection between vascular plants and straws

Katy describes the challenge of the week, which is designed to increase ELLs' use of the target vocabulary.

Look for "mirror books" for your students

Using books, stories, and poems where students can see themselves, also called "mirror books," is a powerful way to tap into their experiences. Culturally relevant books are a great place to start. However, finding books about broader experiences, family traditions, or familiar situations that students recognize and relate to can be powerful as well.

Middle school teacher Anna Centi, who teaches newcomers in Dearborn, Michigan, also notes that her students dig in more deeply when they feel that connection and that she has been able to push them with more rigorous texts. You can see Miss Centi's students, most of whom come from Yemen, reading A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park in an excerpt from our award-winning film, You Are Welcome Here below.

Note: It is critical for teachers to be sensitive to what students have been through and not to ask a lot of direct questions about personal stories, especially in front of others; training in trauma-informed instruction is essential in order to lead conversations about students' experiences safely. Yet figuring out how to do this with care is worthwhile as it gives students a chance to connect more deeply with content and share their own stories if they wish. You may wish to request that training be offered to staff since it can benefit all adults in the school community.

 

Use literature, stories, and folktales from across cultures

By reading texts from different cultures, you can encourage students to connect what they are reading to their own experiences. While this seems like a simple and logical place to start, it will take some research to find just the right additions for an educational unit, as well as to find literature that is authentic and culturally relevant. If you are working with bilingual colleagues or cultural liaisons, ask them if they have recommendations or can help you make the best selections for your students.

Libraries across the nation have increased the amount of multicultural literature available from a wide variety of countries and cultures. Some of the material is written in other languages, and some of it is translated into English. There are also many publishers who have focused on increasing multicultural literature in the classroom, and Language Arts series often will have a multicultural connection with suggestions of books to read with the class. To read about one high school teacher's use of multicultural literature in the classroom, read Time is Not on Our Side: Literacy and Literature for High School Language Learners, on our sister site, AdLit.org.

In addition, you can also look for connections across stories. For example, many cultures have a story version of "Cinderella", as seen in the video below.

Video: Introducing different versions of Cinderella

In this classroom video, Albuquerque teacher Clara Gonzales-Espinoza introduces a character study of Cinderella by sharing a number of diverse versions of the Cinderella story, chosen to reflect the cultures of her students.

Note: You can also see materials related to this lesson plan in our classroom module created in collaboration with Dr. Diane August.

Use storytelling in the classroom

Many cultures have a rich tradition of storytelling that often gets lost in the U.S. with the focus on developing literacy skills. Many of the common stories in cultures have been translated and written in story form, but children also enjoy telling and acting out stories. There are many resources to help build storytelling skills, and some students may also have a relative who is a great storyteller and would be willing to visit the class and tell a story. The class can have great discussions about what made the story interesting, what the story was trying to tell them, and if they know other stories that are similar.

Asking students to share folk tales

In addition, you can ask students to share popular folk tales or legends from their own culture or bring them to life through writing, artwork, or a digital storytelling activity. You may find that many cultures have similar stories based on a certain theme, or that students have heard different versions of the same story. This is also an excellent way to engage families — who also will have strong opinions about the "right" way to tell a certain story!

Video: "How many of you have heard that story?" Teaching folklore through students' cultural experiences

Juan Felipe describes a project he oversaw for a Chicano folklore class in which students interviewed their families and compiled stories, jokes, and legends they had grown up hearing.

 

Video: My favorite section in the library

Storyteller Lucía González describes how family stories led to an important discovery in the library.

Avoid assumptions

Just as it's important not to put students on the spot, it's important not to make assumptions about the experiences they may (or may not) have had. For example, Dr. Ayanna Cooper shares a story in the video below about U.S. history teachers who mistakenly thought their Haitian students were African American students who had a deep knowledge base about U.S. history. As mentioned above, the better you know your students, the better you can plan lessons that will give all students access to grade-level content.

Finding resources for culturally responsive instruction

Teachers spend a lot of their own money to add to the school curriculum in order to meet the needs of their students. Adding culturally relevant curriculum and materials shouldn't be an additional financial burden on the teacher. Many schools are willing to fund the purchase of culturally relevant items if the teacher has researched the purchase and can explain how it will enhance student learning. If the school does not have resources, there may be funding at the district level or diversity grant funding available to teachers. You can find additional researched-based information in our resource collection about culturally responsive instruction.

Closing thoughts

Accessing students' background knowledge is a powerful way to make your instruction more culturally responsive and meaningful for all students. In the end, the efforts that teachers make to add a rich, cultural dimension to the curriculum will enhance student learning and comprehension, and create excitement in the classroom. The most wonderful thing about adding diverse cultural perspectives to the lesson is that it is a way of letting your students know — particularly ELL students — that their diverse experiences and backgrounds are valued in your classroom. Students may also be motivated to explore content and deepen their understanding of material.

As students share insights with you and with each other, they will develop appreciation for other cultural perspectives and they may find that there are more similarities than differences among them — and that might prove to be the greatest lesson of all.

References

Dr. R. Cipriani-Sklar. Generating Enriched Literacy Experiences for Older English Language Learners. RHI: Reaching Reluctant Readers. Random House, Inc.

Loewen, J. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American Textbook Got Wrong. New York: New Press, 1995.

Steffensen, M., Joag-Deve, C., & Anderson, R. "A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Reading Comprehension". Reading Research Quarterly, 15 (1), (1979: 10-29.

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Comments

With our classrooms becoming more and more diverse, it's terrific to find resources that embrace diversity and offer research-based tips and techniques. Thank you Colorin Coolorado!

Thanks so much for the wonderful and useful information.

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