Schema Schematics: 5 Explosive Ways to Activate Prior Knowledge While Teaching ESL Reading

You’ve picked the best story to read to your students.

It’s got spaceships, planets, astronauts and tons of cool stuff they’re bound to love.

Plus, it’s jam-packed with educational nuggets and fresh vocabulary!

You’re sure you’ve nailed this.

But after you finish reading, you look up to see twenty blank expressions staring back…and one kid picking his nose.

What went wrong?

Well, you’ve got a great story, but how many of your students know what NASA is?

Or how many have ever stargazed through a telescope in their backyard?

If you’re not asking these questions first, then you’re missing out on the most important teaching tool sitting right in front of you. (Hint: It’s not the nose picker.)

Your students’ memories!

Those young and ready minds are packed with experience that will boost the learning process and make texts more accessible.

All you have to do is activate it.

What Is Background Knowledge and Why Does It Matter?

Schema, background knowledge, prior knowledge…take your pick. When a student makes a connection to a text based on previous experiences, they create a foundation upon which new ideas and concepts can be built.

Using that background knowledge is one of the keys to English comprehension success.

A good reader, or listener, unconsciously taps into previous experiences to visualize images in their mind as a story unfolds. They try to make sense of a story by connecting to it and seeing how it fits with what they already know.

How Do You Burp in Space?: And Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know

So to return to our outer space example, let’s say you’re reading your students “How Do You Burp in Space? And Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know.” With a title like that, you might think it’s guaranteed to be entertaining.

But maybe a student’s native country isn’t involved in space exploration.

Or maybe they’ve only lived in the big city and under the bright lights, where stargazing isn’t a known activity.

This disconnect in prior knowledge will put a screeching halt to comprehension.

All readers have different background experiences that are cultural-specific. And while you might not be able to learn the nuances of experience in your entire diverse student body, you can enhance your lesson plan so your students can activate their own prior knowledge—or create new knowledge—to connect with a text.

So, are you ready to launch reading comprehension in your classroom?

Let’s get off the ground with these five stellar ways of activating background knowledge in your students.

Blast from the Past: 5 Stellar Ways of Teaching ESL Reading with Background Knowledge

1. Watch a Video

If your students have very little background knowledge to begin with, short videos that relate to your story help create new memories.

More importantly, if your students lack in visual images about a subject, showing a video helps to create those images in their minds. When you go to read the story, they can mentally refer back to the video to make a connection.

Short on classroom time? Don’t worry. The videos don’t have to be long. Even a quick visual element will spark your students’ interests and get them excited about the new text.

For example, this video of a space shuttle launch on YouTube is only four minutes long, and it gives your students a real-life example of space exploration. You can easily search through videos on YouTube with specific keywords such as “space,” “animals” or “cooking.”

Sign up for a free account on PBS Learning Media and you can have access to thousands of classroom-ready digital resources organized by topic and grade level. Like this two-minute video on comets. It comes with support materials and discussion questions to boot.

You can also find movie clips and scenes from over 12,000 films on the website

2. Use a K-W-L Chart

The K-W-L chart stands for what a student knows (K), what a student wants to know (W) and what a student has learned about a new topic (L).

The K-W-L chart is most effective as a pre-reading strategy. It will help you determine the level of prior knowledge of each of your students so you can build the lesson accordingly.

But, wait, there’s more! This chart can also be used during and after reading a new text, and be modified to all language levels and ages.

Start by modeling the use of the chart yourself. Place a transparency of the chart on an overhead projector and select a topic heading, such as “space.”

Fill out the chart as you think out loud, so your students can hear the thought process. When you’ve completed the K and W parts, read a short expository paragraph out loud and then complete the L section based on what you just learned.

Now, give your students their own copy of the chart. You can either select a new topic or use the cover of the book they’ll be reading as a discussion point.

Ask them to fill out the K part independently, then as a class discuss what everyone knows about the topic. This is your opportunity to dispel any misconceptions.

No, Marcus, a spaceship is not used to blast your little brother into space.

Encourage students to add new information that their classmates shared to the K section and correct any misinformation they might have written down.

Have the students then independently fill out the W and L sections. Share and discuss responses as a class.

3. Show and (Don’t) Tell

You can use realia to activate background knowledge and facilitate language acquisition.

Bringing in objects will make abstract or unknown concepts concrete and jog memories through tactile learning. For example, you could bring in a model of the galaxy or a spaceship, or even a telescope.

Show the class each object, but don’t provide the name or description. Allow your students to tell you what the object is and everything they know about its purpose. This is also a great method to teach your students to learn from each other.

Invite your students to share stories about a time when they may have seen the object before. In a movie? At a museum? At a toy store?

You should have the students interact with the objects so they build a closer connection with the way they work, feel and even taste.

Only if it’s food for that last one, though. Don’t let them eat the spaceship.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

You can eat “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” however. This is a hilarious short story that will appeal to even your most snooze-prone adults. Depending on the age of your students, you can organize a potluck and have each student bring a dish that’s featured in the book.

Want to up the ante and encourage authentic language? Separate your students into pairs. Blindfold one of the students and let them taste-test a dish. The blindfolded student can then describe to their partner the taste and texture of the food.

Switch and repeat.

Remember, your goal is to help your students make a personal connection with the text. Only give your input if they go way off track with their guesswork.

4. Take a Picture Walk

If your story has pictures, taking a picture walk is a great way to prepare your readers for new information. It also piques their curiosity and interest in the book. Don’t worry, this isn’t a real walk, so you can leave your kicks at home.

In this activity, you’ll show your students the pictures in the book. You can make copies of the pictures to hand out or simply hold the book up for the class to see. If your book doesn’t have pictures, you can use a quick Google Image search to find illustrations online that support the plot line of the story.

For example, “Stone Soup” is a traditional folklore story that you can print off the internet, and it’s applicable to all ages and reading levels. The story is about the main characters convincing local villagers that they can make soup out of a stone.

Most of your students will already have background experience of cooking with their family, so you’re off to a great start!

You can search Google Images for a “bowl of soup,” “villagers traveling,” “family cooking soup,” “vegetables” or even just “stone soup.”

Without reading a word, ask your students to guess what might be happening in the pictures. This will help improve your student’s comprehension of the story during reading.

Here are some questions you can ask:

  • Who is this?
  • What is going on here?
  • Why do you think this person looks mad?
  • What is this person wearing?
  • Where does the story take place?
  • Where do you think this person is going?
  • Why do you think this person is doing that?
  • How do you think the story will end?

Encourage collaboration and group discussion during the picture walk. Avoid giving your own input or dominating the conversation. You want your students to come up with their own conclusions based on their personal background knowledge.

5. Go on a Field Trip

The most effective way to trigger background knowledge or create new knowledge is to just do it!

Field trips are out-of-this-world opportunities to engage your classroom and have them connect with a text.

Book a visit to a local museum that has exhibits specific to your topic, like a planetarium. If you’re studying wildlife, local nature centers usually have guided hiking tours. The Story of Johnny Appleseed

Reading the “Story of Johnny Appleseed”? Visit a local apple orchard and pick fruit as a class! You can even set up an apple tasting so your students can discover their favorite kind.

To enhance the field trip experience, plan a scavenger hunt, task list or a quiz for your students to complete. You can create your own activity by collaborating with a guide or representative from the field trip destination.

Ask questions that may be answered on placards throughout an exhibit. If you’re going to the zoo, have students draw a picture of a specific animal in the zoo.

You can visit and find lesson plans to go along with a wide variety of field trips.

Remember to follow up with asking what the students know and learned about the activity.

You and your students are now packed, launched and ready to explore your story…or the final frontier. What you want to call it is up to all of you.

Rebekah Olsen is a freelance writer, editor and blogger. She has a Master’s in ESL from the University of Memphis and loves working with youth. Her passion is turning complex subjects into exciting articles, but she’ll also settle for a lazy day with her mastiff, Midas. Contact her at

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