Sheltered Instruction for ELLs: Activating Background Knowledge and/or Creating Shared Knowledge - Down River Resources

Sheltered Instruction for ELLs: Activating Background Knowledge and/or Creating Shared Knowledge

Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand. -Chinese Proverb
Howdy, friends.
Thanks again for joining me as I share my knowledge on the components of sheltered instruction. This is another installment in my new blog series. In the event, you missed the introduction to the series, catch it here! And now, for the feature presentation...
We all know the ever-so popular K-W-L Chart. The chart that tracks what a student knows (K), wants to know (W), and has learned (L) about a topic. It can be used before, during, and after units of study. This has been the basis for activating background knowledge for years in education, at least since 1986 when Donna Ogle created it. Did you know that this chart has been around 28 years?! Me, neither.
Activating background knowledge is one of the more common-sense components of sheltered instruction, but can often be overlooked. This first stage in sheltered instruction is significant as it helps bridge or connect students' new learning to their prior knowledge and experiences. We must plan a variety of ways to access the students' prior knowledge and create shared experiences to allow all students the same starting point for their new learning.
If we choose to skip this phase in learning, all students will not be able to access the information and, consequently, not master the content. With more and more pressure on teachers to perform on standardized tests, this is essential. I can think back to units of study where I did not do a sufficient job of establishing the students' prior knowledge, and as a result, my class performed low on unit assessments. Before you make the same error, consider these steps.
Steps to Active Background Knowledge and/or Creating Shared Knowledge:
There are many things that you can do in your classroom to activate background knowledge. We will focus on three high-yielding things you can do in your classroom, including the use of graphic organizers and manipulatives and providing your students with shared experiences.
Graphic Organizers record student language and drawings that reflect what they know. In the box above, two of my more recent uses of graphic organizers are featured.
On the left, a Project G.L.A.D. Inquiry Chart is shown. Inquiry Charts are similar to the traditional K-W-L chart, but it only has two columns. The left side houses students' prior knowledge about the five senses while the right side houses their inquiry questions about the subject. Eventually, as we work through the unit of study, we will record the answers to the students' questions.
On the right, a Thinking map, in particular, the Circle Map was used to record students' responses to the question, "What is Science?" Since this was generated with my kindergarteners, I recorded their oral responses. Younger students can also draw a picture on a sticky note and place on the Circle Map. See this link for photograph of this. In upper grades, students can come up to the map and record their own responses. Circle Maps are most often used for generating ideas or brainstorming on a particular topic.
Manipulatives provide students the opportunity to discuss and explore all related concepts.  Concrete objects are used to build background knowledge and vocabulary that students will need to master the new topic. These objects provide students the opportunity to see, feel, hear, and smell the object being explored. This is the hands-on component in a lesson which really gives the students the chance to experience the concept. It could be an open, unguided exploratory time or a teacher-directed activity depending on the desired outcome. We often think of this is a math context, but can be used in any subject. We will explore this subtopic more in the next component of this blog series.
In kindergarten, there is obviously a lack of background knowledge for many topics of study throughout the year. Creating shared experiences is helpful for bridging the academic gap that so many students face, due to a general lack of knowledge, cultural or socio-economic reasons, etc. I often find there to be many gaps.
The other day, I was helping some fifth graders in a tutoring group learn about animals adaptations. The text discussed a duck's beak. As we continued reading, it was apparent that the group of English Language Learners did not know of an animal's beak. This was shocking as they are in fifth grade, but understandable as they are learning English. Luckily, my dry-erase marker was handy to draw a quick picture and I had a clothespin that we passed around to mimic the function of the beak. Together, we created a shared experience. We cannot overlook experience when teaching students of any age, as there is always going to be a difference in knowledge from student to student. 
Informational big books, videos, field trips, and interactive technology provide shared experiences. With school budgets getting tighter each year, field trips are almost out of the question for many classrooms around our state and nation. Still, we need to expose our students to new concepts. We can do this through books and videos. The internet has so many resources that teachers can access. One of my favorites are zoo websites, like the San Diego Zoo. They often feature short videos of their animals being enriched with special meals or treats...often times they are seasonal. (Monkeys and sea otters playing with pumpkins.)
Big books are another favorite of mine. I started writing my own science big books to cover concepts specifically aligned with the Texas standards (TEKS).
I hope this installment in the Sheltered Instruction blog series has been helpful to you. If so, let me know and comment. I look forward to next time as I share how to support meaning with realia.

Happy Experiencing!

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