5 Schema Building Strategies for ELLs

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 12.17.42 PM.png

 Background knowledge, also referred to as schema or prior knowledge, is vital to learning comprehension.  When students are able to apply what they already know within novel contexts, they become more resourceful in constructing meaningful understanding.  Robert Marzano encourages, 

“What students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relevant to the content.”

Activating and strengthening background knowledge is a core tenet of impactful instruction for English language learners.  ELLs may require additional support to establish schema in the new social and historical dynamic.  They may also need explicit direction in order to recognize the validity of their own previous acuity and to link this knowledge to new learning.  


It is important to keep in mind that all students, including ELLs, bring rich volumes of schema with them into our classrooms.   As we plan and implement lessons, our role is to seek out embedded prior knowledge and identify potential lulls in content-relevant schema.  To do so effectively, we must be mindful of our own educator assumptions about what students know and do not know.  

This can be especially true of newcomers, whose experiences are likely to be different, though no less valid, than our own.  The value of our students' diverse schemas should not be underestimated- especially as it contributes the broader cultural knowledge bank of the class as a whole. 

 What we can do is employ specific strategies to elicit layers of understanding in order to connect existing schema to new academic concepts.  Strategies for activating and building background knowledge for ELLs can be beneficial for all students, across all language learning levels.  In fact, even students from heterogeneous cultural and linguistic origins have vast discrepancies in background knowledge. (Bransford & Johnson, 1973). 

After all, each student has access to different life events, classroom experiences and content knowledge/academic language exposure. Such varying levels of schema impact comprehension and recall in highly individualized ways (Anderson, Reynolds, etal, 1977).  Differentiating our approach to activating background knowledge can enhance comprehension for all learners. 

As we look to ELLs, the spectrum of background knowledge diversifies to an even greater extent. Of course, we can expect that certain cultural implications will impeded the direct transfer of background knowledge. We can do our best to be informed of possible cultural misalignments and explicitly address those in our planning.  Nonetheless, many aspects of schema are cross-culturally universal, with an ability to resonate across the human landscape (Patricia Carrell, 1983).  We enhance learning by bringing these universal connections (family, excitement, thirst, conflict, thunder, cooking) to the forefront of student learning.  

Background knowledge is explored from three lenses of connection: text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world.  The following exercises encourage students to activate, share and expand on schema in order to make meaning from each of the schematic lenses.   


5 Strategies for Activating & Building Schema for ELLs


1.  Make it visual.

     A.  Illustrations- picture file cards, photos, student drawings

     B.  Realia- clothing, food and other artifacts

     C.  Diaries, postcards, letters

     D.  Maps

     E.  KWL Charts

     F.  Picture Walk-the-Room: Pictures related to a topic are posted around the room.  Students             move from picture to picture, discussing with a partner what they know about the image.


2.  Make it Engaging

     A.  Tangible Experiences- physical/virtual field trips, kinesthetic learning

     B.  Media clips

     C.  Carousel- in groups of 4, students rotate through stations, talking about a specific topic or                    picture and recording all they can about that topic on a poster.

     D.  Non-linguistic representations- Tableaus, dramatic enactments

     E.  Expert/Guest- parents, volunteers, older students


3.  Read About It

     G. Picture walk

     H. Cloze reading

     I.  Content word wall- ideally, student generated

     J.  Word sorts- using key text vocabulary and explaining sort strategy

    K.  Picture sequencing sorts

    L.  Flexible small group reading instruction


4.  Talk About It

     A.  3-step interview- In groups of four, two students take turns interviewing one another                              about personal experiences related to a topic.  The second pair does the same. 

          Then, each student reports out to the group on their partner’s experiences.

     B.  Inside-outside circle- One group forms inner circle; second group forms circle around first,                   facing a partner; facilitator calls on inside or outside to respond to prompt;

          outside circle shifts one spot to the right.

     C.  Jigsaw- Students read and or/research different parts of a text; in small groups,

          each member shares out critical information, or “teaches” his or her text.


5.  Write about it

     A.  Anticipation guides- students indicate agreement/disagreement of a statement related to                    text; teacher facilitates discussion.

     B.  Thinking maps and Graphic Organizers

     C.  Student-centered Journaling

     D.  Sentence frames

     E.  Storyboard with sequence- Using a storyboard, students draw or write all that they know                       about a topic in sequential order.

Read more in The Newcomer Student (2016), available HERE

and The Newcomer Fieldbook (2017), available HERE.

Louise El YaafouriComment