Connect Students’ Background Knowledge to Content

Learn about your students’ backgrounds and find culturally relevant resources to teach content.


One of the important steps of the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol model (SIOP) of teaching content to ELLs is to build students’ background knowledge before teaching content by linking concepts to students’ personal, cultural, or academic experience. Dr. R. Cipriani-Sklar, Principal of the Fairview School in Corona, NY, offers this suggestion in 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.”

How to tap into this background knowledge if it’s very different from your own? You can start by researching your students’ native countries, cultures, and educational systems. You may even want to study the historical figures, musical and artistic traditions, geography, and biodiversity of these countries so that you can connect your lessons to something that the students already know.

You can also find ways for your students to contribute their own cultural experience in the classroom. This may mean asking students to show how a topic connects to their lives or to give an example of a particular idea as they would experience it in their native country. Students can bring music or art from their culture and describe its significance and meaning to their classmates. Students can also interview their parents in order to learn more about their memories and experience. ELLs may find this valuable because even if they speak their native language with their parents and are surrounded by their culture at home, they may not have had an opportunity to talk to their parents about their parents’ life experiences and values.

These strategies will work in mainstream classes as well. For example, if U.S. students are studying civil rights in the 1960’s, they may remember information better if they relate it to historical and cultural information shared by family members.

One word of caution if you plan to ask students to contribute their experiences to the class, as noted by Dr. Cynthia Lundgren and Giselle Lundy-Ponce in a recent article about culturally responsive instruction:

Consult more than one internet or library source and do not expect a student to be your sole “ambassador” or resource for finding out about a whole culture or ethnic background. Multiple sources are always a good idea for formulating knowledge about a particular subject.

More importantly, 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.

Teachers can work creatively to elicit background knowledge from students on content topics in order to increase comprehension of the material. This may be as simple as taking the time to do a “K/W/L” (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart, or as individualized as asking questions about the topic: “Has anyone ever visited the jungle? A jungle is like a rainforest. What do you see in a jungle?” Students can share their knowledge and see how it is connected to new academic information.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s