You Can’t Enjoy a Meal When You Don’t Know What You’re Eating: The Importance of Building Background Knowledge for Our English Learners?

From guest blogger Sarah Said


You go to a restaurant that is new to you. You’ve never heard of the restaurant before, but there is no where else for you to eat. You need to eat, because you need nourishment. You go to this place to eat because you have to eat. You look at the menu and there are foods you have never heard of before. The menu says “ghoetisvnbost.” You don’t know what these foods consist of in their composition. You need to eat, and you have to eat. Another line of the menu says “uitybnodiyth” … this doesn’t connect to anything you have eaten before. There is an aroma in the air that is uncommon to you. You don’t really know if the aroma is a good or bad scent. You are hungry and have to eat. Will you eat? Will you eat with ease? Will you enjoy eating? Will it nourish you? Hmmm…

Many of us would not eat in that restaurant with ease. As adventurous with our eating as we can be, it is not easy for us to put something into our system that we do not know, regardless of how hungry we may be. Let’s face it, you can’t enjoy a meal when you don’t know what you’re eating. When you don’t eat with ease, your system can reject the food. Therefore, you will not always be nourished.

Is this post about the latest and greatest place to eat? No, this blog post is not about the best restaurants in the neighborhood. It’s actually about the importance of building background for our English learners. Reflect on what I just asked you, “Is it good for you to eat in a place where you have no background on the types of food they are serving?”  “Is eating this food without knowledge of the type of food you are eating good for you and your system?” Nope – Probably not. So, why do we insist on introducing new content, at times, when students may not have had exposure to it?

Teachers have to work hard to build on a student’s schema of information to connect to topics they are teaching.  When that student is an English learner, they have to work even harder. You have to learn about their cultural experiences and that helps you build background.  You also have to think about what they may have learned in their home country as well as building a bridge between content and language so that the student can really comprehend your instruction.  This is a lot…

So where do you begin:

  • Look for strategies such as “Linking Journals”  These journals are part of “99 MORE Ideas and Activities for Teaching English Learners with the SIOP® Model.”  They help students link past knowledge to future knowledge.  Having linking journals with sentence starters makes content more attainable and accessible.
  • Cognates! Cognates! Cognates!  If you are a language teacher, having students look for existing cognates between their language and English will help them be more successful in the classroom.
  • Interactive word walls!!! I can’t stress this enough, but student-created, interactive word walls help students engage with and learn new vocabulary. If students are part of creating the wall, they are empowered by the fact that they helped create that wall.
Special Thanks to Ridge Lawn Elementary School K-5 EL teacher, Yadira Moreno, for classroom word wall images.
  • Using pictures in a text to create a picture walk can help students pre-read a text and connect to concepts before reading.
  • Using realia (or real life objects) that the students recognize will help you explain content more directly to students because it brings content to life.

So, why is this important?  Building background helps your instruction be more responsive to students’ cultures and needs.  When you are building background, you are helping students feel safe and confident in the classroom. The safer a student feels, the more likely they will want to take risks. Now, let’s go back to the restaurant, you realize that “ghoetisvnbost” looks like lasagna and has pasta sauce and cheese in its composition. It starts to smell familiar. Can you eat it now? I bet you can…

If a child’s brain cannot connect the content they are learning to existing knowledge they have, they will have difficulty digesting content. Our English learners have enough on their plates already. Give them something they can eat in your classroom with the instruction you cook up!

About today’s guest blogger:


Sarah has fifteen years of experience working with English Learners in the Chicago land area from all parts of the world as a teacher, building administrator, and District Level Director of English Learner/Bilingual programs. Sarah considers herself a practicioner of the SIOP® Model framework and is always willing to learn new strategies to better herself at the implementing the components of SIOP® with fidelity. She has trained teachers in and implemented the SIOP® Model in a K-8 school district. Sarah sits on the Illinois Advisory Council on Bilingual Education, where she is about to complete the first year of her three year term. She is a regular blogger for ELL Confianza.  She has also had work appear though Ed Week blogs and has worked on collaborations with English Learner Portal and Mawi Learning.  ​

You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @MrsSaid17

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