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The Background Building Controversy and The Common Core State Standards

As I’ve worked with teachers over the last several years to improve practices for English learners (ELs), I’ve begun to hear an alarming refrain repeated by many well-meaning teachers in different contexts: “The Common Core State Standards prohibit building background knowledge.” When I ask teachers why they believe this, I often get the response that “building background knowledge is akin to giving students the answers.” This blog post is the result of my attempts to understand how this (faulty) logic has developed in the field, and work through the lens of best practices for language learners to critique this trend.

Let’s start by stating that the Common Core State Standards do not explicitly prohibit building background knowledge in any way. Rather, the CCSS for Language Arts focus on developing knowledge through close reading and analysis of text. It seems that many have interpreted this focus as an implicit prohibition on building background knowledge for students, on the grounds that if you build background you will be giving the students the answers and they will not actually have to read the text themselves in order to learn, in effect setting them up to be poor readers and poor learners because they will not know how to independently pick up a book and read to learn new information.

This inference is faulty. First of all, it is widely accepted that the more background knowledge you have on a topic, the greater your reading comprehension will be. This is true for all students, not only English Learners (See this article from Reading Rockets for a good explanation of this phenomenon). Thus, when any student does not have background knowledge on a topic, their reading comprehension will suffer, and they will learn less - sometimes much less if there is no foundational knowledge on a topic.

We also know that the background knowledge of English learners often is different from that of their monolingual English-speaking peers. English learners have different life and academic experiences and different perspectives as multilingual and multicultural individuals than what is assumed by a curriculum created for monolingual English-speaking students. Because of this, building background knowledge is one of the tenets of good instruction for ELs and is a component of instructional models in the English language teaching field today. The SIOP Model includes building background as one of 8 major components. The Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach prompts teachers to make an explicit plan for activating student prior knowledge during content instruction. Project GLAD includes building background under its Focus/Motivation component.

Both Timothy Shanahan and Dianne Staehr Fenner have written previously about the conflict between this interpretation of the CCSS and best practices for ELs. A quick internet search will yield about 56 million results on building background knowledge for English learners. Clearly, this avoidance of background building under the guise of Common Core teaching is problematic for our English learners. Needless to say, avoiding connections to background knowledge at all cost will not serve your English learners well.

So how do you build background knowledge appropriately? Building background for English learners does not mean giving them the answers. Pre-teaching answers and information is not background building. Good background building will give students experience with a foundational concept from which to build further knowledge. Done right, building background will put learning into hyper-drive by allowing students to make many connections that they would not have otherwise. Background knowledge needs to serve as the foundation upon which towers of knowledge and skills can be built.

Some strategies for building background conceptual knowledge for English learners:

  • Field trip

  • Many times we go on a field trip at the end of a unit. For English learners, the field trip would be best placed at the beginning of a unit as a concrete background building experience.

  • Science experiment or observation of natural phenomena

  • Again, students will be much more able to learn the words for phenomena they have first-hand experience with.

  • Role play or role-playing game

  • Especially in Language Arts and Social Studies, role playing can give students background knowledge on how certain characters or historical figures acted and responded to events that concerned them.

  • Deductive thinking game

  • Guess what I have in this bag… Here are three clues…

  • Analysis of visual or musical art.

  • A picture speaks a thousand words. ELs can learn literature analysis skills first through art before moving into challenging text.

  • Concrete experience with the enduring understanding

  • This is the most powerful way to build background knowledge if students don’t have the requisite knowledge to understand the lesson. We learn best by doing!

  • Video and multimedia

  • It isn’t always possible to take a field trip. There are many resources available that will let you bring the world to your classroom.

As I write this article, it is May and the school year is wrapping up. Many teachers use this time to reflect on the past year and build stronger lessons for the next. This spring and summer, I challenge you all to take a critical look at your lessons and build a #BackgroundBuilding experience into each unit to provide all students with a foundation for learning. Your students and their learning will benefit, and you will not regret!

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