The Importance of Activating Prior Knowledge / Building Background

EAL learners are an incredibly heterogeneous group that have a wide range of languages, experiences and prior education. It is vital that prior knowledge checks are done and background is built with our EAL learners because there may be gaps in their knowledge and this would mean that it would be very difficult to learn content when there are such gaps.

Imagine arriving in a new country and a new school and learning concepts that are completely foreign to you because of your cultural and linguistic background?  This would be a daunting prospect for any of us I think as well as our EAL learners.  In my current role we have a number of EAL learners from a diverse range of backgrounds and we need to take this into account when we are planning and preparing to teach them.

These gaps in background knowledge come from a range of different sources that include the previous education of the learner, the cultural background of the learner, the language background / proficiency of the learner and the learner’s general experiences in life.  Effective teachers of EAL learners must take these factors into account when they are planning and preparing lessons and resources.

Gaps in prior knowledge may include a combination of factors that Cummins says may include ‘unfamiliar vocabulary and grammatical structures in addition to complex new structures.’  Cummins’ article is well worth reading and there is a link to the article at the bottom of this blog post.  He outlines a range of strategies that should be used to activate prior knowledge particularly in the area of science that include brainstorming, visuals, direct experiences and writing about what learners know. Genesse & Hamayan (2016) discuss prior knowledge not just being about the content knowledge that a learner needs to access lessons but also about ‘the language that is pertinent to the topic‘ especially a learners first language. They say that allowing EAL learners to use their first language in building background / investigating prior knowledge can be of great benefit when learning new concepts.

As teachers of EAL learners we need to plan for specific opportunities and develop resources and strategies that help to activate our EAL learners prior knowledge as well as build their background. In planning, we should write down essential prior knowledge / background knowledge that our EAL learners need, in addition to the language demands of that content. This will make the task of planning and preparing lessons that much easier.

Particular strategies and approaches that I have found to be particularly useful in activating prior knowledge and building background can be found on my website by clicking on the links below.

  • Carousel Brainstorming.
  • Progressive Brainstorm.
  • KWL Charts.
  • Walk Around Survey.
  • Showing videos.
  • Picture galleries (key visuals displayed around the classroom for learners to view).
  • Homework tasks that reflect gaps in prior knowledge.
  • Making links to EAL learners own culture and using that to add value to the lesson or topic.
  • Using a learners first language such as when learning new vocabulary.

Activating prior knowledge and building background are essential components of supporting EAL learners in our mainstream classrooms and it is vital when we are doing this that we make connections to our learners prior education and linguistic knowledge.

Cummins, J. (N.A.) Supporting ESL Students in Learning the Language of Science.  Research Into Practice.  Pearson.  Available online at:

Gennese, F. & Hamayam, E. (2016) CLIL in Context. Practical Guidance for Educators. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge

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