Tuesday, April 29, 2014

TESOL Teaching Tip #10 - Different Culture = Different Background Knowledge

As a teacher at an International School, many of my students are English Language Learners. Even my native English speakers are living in a non-English speaking country. Due to my unique teaching position, I have had some readers ask for tips on teaching English Language Learners. Here is this week’s Tuesday TESOL Teaching Tip:

TESOL Teaching Tip #10 - Expect different background knowledge from different students. Since background knowledge affects language learning, students will learn at different rates. Find out more about helping your esl or ell students at my blog - Raki's Rad Resources.

ESL Teaching Tip of the Week:  Expect Diverse Sets of Background Knowledge
 This year, my class is wonderfully diverse.  I have students from many different countries, with a few in their first year of living outside of their own culture mixed with a variety of Moroccan students, some who have traveled out of the Morocco and others who haven’t.  Because of this diversity, we regularly have cross-cultural conversations.  For example, I had two girls have a long debate about how popcorn was made the other day.  The girls were working together to write a persuasive essay to their parents about why they should have popcorn for dinner.  The conversation went something like this:

Expect diverse background knowledge from your ESL students - ways to help diverse learners in the elementary classroom - from Raki's Rad Resources

 At this point, I stepped in and showed both students (and a few others who were on each side of the debate) how popcorn could be made in the microwave OR on the stove by showing them videos from YouTube of popcorn being made each way.  Great “ahhhh” moment for students on both sides of the debate.
While this may seem like a trivial thing for kids to understand, the differences in background knowledge can play a big part in how you understand a topic, and the inferences you make during reading.  Most books and tests are designed with an assumption that students share a certain amount of background knowledge.  If you are teaching students who don’t speak English at home OR whose parents come from another culture than the one you teach in, this assumption can be dangerous for students, as they can be deemed as not understanding a topic simply because they have different background knowledge.  Here are a few real life examples I’ve come across this year alone:
TESOL Teaching Tip #10 - Expect different background knowledge from different students. Since background knowledge affects language learning, students will learn at different rates. Find out more about helping your esl or ell students at my blog - Raki's Rad Resources. 1.  On daily language, we had the analogy: Big Bird:yellow::Oscar the Grouch: _______   Ummmm, yeah only students who have watched Sesame Street regularly growing up would know the answer to this question and the majority of the students in the group with this question had NO idea who Big Bird was.

2.) During our Earth Day read aloud, one of the tips for saving energy was not to run the dryer when only half full.  This led to the question by one of my Moroccan students - “What is a dryer?”  Insert long explanation and video before he believed me that most people in the US use a dryer and very few hang their clothes on the line.

3.)  While reading a Raz-Kids book about going on a picnic, the students couldn’t understand what the carrot stick picture was and kept guessing “French Fries”, since carrot sticks are not regularly eaten here.  The packet of apple slices threw them equally as often.

4.)  One of our running records is based around the topic of Peanut Butter, a common food in the US that is not common in Morocco.  This lack of background knowledge caused so many students to fail the quiz based on this passage that I ended up switching passages because all of the kids could pass the next higher level, but not this particular passage.

TESOL Teaching Tip #10 - Expect different background knowledge from different students. Since background knowledge affects language learning, students will learn at different rates. Find out more about helping your esl or ell students at my blog - Raki's Rad Resources. 5.)  One of my reading groups completely misunderstood a chapter of Mister and Me that happened at a church rally.  All three students are Muslim, so I pre-taught a lot of “church vocabulary words” like pew and altar to help them understand.  However, when they read the chapter that had extreme difficulty visualizing what was happening or understanding why they did things like “pass a basket for money”.

So, background knowledge DOES make a difference, in so many ways.  Names – for people, common restaurants or stores etc. throw students during word problems regularly.  Unfamiliar situations cause misunderstandings in reading.  ESL students, or those with a different background from your “common culture” will be at a disadvantage.  So, how do we help them out?
1.  DON’T IGNORE THE DIFFERENCES.  So many teachers breeze over these cultural misunderstandings in an effort to ‘get on with the lesson’.  Not only does this prevent amazing conversations, where all parties involved (including you!) can learn something, but it allows students to sit in muddled confusion and become frustrated.  If a student doesn’t know who Big Bird is, take the time to pull up a picture or video and show her.  Talk as a class about the cultural differences when they occur.


2.  BRING IT UP.  With some populations, these won’t come up in conversation as much.  When I taught in the US, I often had a population of “Hispanic” and a population of “Non-Hispanic”.  The students who were Hispanic had enough exposure to general US culture to think they understood it all and the students who were Non-Hispanic often had enough Hispanic friends to think they understand Hispanic culture completely.  I often pushed the envelope in these situations, bringing in read alouds and math problems that would purposely put one group or the other at a disadvantage and forcing a discussion.  For example, when we read “Too Many Tamales”, I would point out that many of my Hispanic students had a greater understanding of this topic because they made tamales at home with their family.  Then, I would invite students to share how tamales were made.

3.  MIX IT UP.  Kids learn best from each other.  Giving students time to work with students from a variety of cultures and language abilities allows them to learn from that experience and have discussions like our popcorn discussion above.

4.  STRESS THE SIMILARITIES.  Kids expect that everyone around them has had similar experiences.  Sometimes when they start to “get” that their background experiences are different from those of others, they feel weird, or left out.  Stress to them that everyone has different background knowledge and that it’s okay and wonderful.  Put emphasis on the similarities while you learn about the differences.

5.  GET TO KNOW YOUR STUDENTS.  Differences in background knowledge affect more than just ESL students or students from other countries.  Socio-Economic status and ethnic groups can also effect your background knowledge.  Since students understand the world through the lens of their background knowledge, it is vitally important that we understand our students’ background knowledge.  Talk to your kids about what they ate for dinner last night, what they do on the weekends, where they have traveled to etc.  By knowing what your students’ home life is like, you can be better prepared for cross-cultural situations.


What is your best cross-cultural classroom discussion story?


Successful Strategies for English Language Learners by Heidi Raki of Raki's Rad ResourcesDo you enjoy the weekly TESOL Teaching Tips? Would you like to view an hour long presentation on this topic? I recently presented on Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners at the Everything’s Intermediate Expo. Now you can grab the presentation for just $3.95 from Teacher’s Notebook.


Tips for teaching ESL students - from Raki's Rad Resources Find more TESOL Teaching Tips here, and come back every Tuesday for a new tip!
Heidi Raki of Raki's Rad Resources