ELL Teaching Tip of the Week: Remember that Background Knowledge is Variable
Each week, my students work on a vocabulary packet to help build up their English vocabulary. I have 4 different levels in each packet, and for awhile, I was keeping every student in their set level. Students who were Level 1 one week were Level 1 the next, and the same with Levels 2, 3, and 4. However, I have found that many of my English Language Learners have a very uneven set background knowledge.
Some of my students have a high vocabulary level in school related topics, like parts of the earth and shapes, but have a very low vocabulary level in topics that aren’t normally taught in school, like food and household items. This was especially true this past week as my class learned about tools. This is very common for English Language Learners, especially for those who have been learning English since Kindergarten. These students often learn the English they need to do well at school, but often have large wholes in their vocabulary, as they never learn basic vocabulary like the names of furniture found in a house. While on face value it does not seem that this vocabulary is very important for students at school, these words come up in stories, word problems, and textbooks regularly. If students do not know the meaning of these words, it can be particularly difficulty for them to completely comprehend what they are reading.
For my students, I focus on this “missing” vocabulary, by having a weekly vocabulary packet that students work through – one activity each day. However, I have also learned to pre-test my students. Before setting students on a level, I sit down with them and see which words they already know. One week a student may be on Level 1 and the next week, they may be on Level 3. Flexibility is a key to building vocabulary for English Language Learners.
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