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December 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 4

The Bridge of Knowledge

Teachers who recognize English language learners' prior knowledge as an intellectual resource can use that wealth.

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For the past few years, I've prepared preservice teachers to teach English language learners (ELLs). It's not unusual for one of my students, during his or her field observation and tutoring sessions, to feel at a loss with the lack of prior knowledge among ELLs. Lynn, for instance, who student taught at a local middle school, was shocked when she assessed her students' prior knowledge about the U.S. Civil War. One of her Latino English language learners asked whether the Civil War was fought in South America. "How can an 8th grader not know about the Civil War?" Lynn wondered. "How can I deal with this lack of prior knowledge?"
Certainly, some students who come to the United States from other cultures have crucial knowledge gaps. But it's worth considering: Did Lynn's student really know nothing about the concept of civil war? Might Lynn have uncovered knowledge if she'd probed deeper?

Clearing the Bar

Just as the Common Core State Standards set a high bar for students across subject areas, they set a high bar for subject-matter teachers. As teacher education programs, districts, and schools change their curriculums and instruction to meet these new standards, they must also design ways to address the needs of students for whom achieving the standards is especially challenging. ELLs are the fastest growing student population in U.S. public schools (National Education Association, 2011). Many of them spend a significant amount of time in mainstream subject-matter classes. All teachers thus need to expand their repertoire to respond to these students' needs in a standards-based era.
Although many teachers understand ELLs' language needs and provide help in terms of vocabulary glossaries, visual aids, adjustments of teacher talk, and so on, language support alone isn't sufficient to facilitate both language and subject-matter learning for these students. As they encounter subject matter through a new language and within an unknown culture, many ELLs find themselves struggling simultaneously with language and literacy problems and with cultural unfamiliarity (Wilburne, Marinak, & Strickland, 2011).
Cultural issues are subtle and elusive, so teachers may not be aware of their students' cultural needs. The new standards can bring such needs to light; as the standards demand rigor, they also create opportunities to build bridges between where our students are and where they need to be to master content and skills.
One way all teachers can bridge knowledge gaps and address ELLs' cultural needs is to recognize those students' prior knowledge as an intellectual resource and integrate it into their lessons (Dong, 2011, 2013; Freeman & Freeman, 2009; Lee, 2003). Research has shown repeatedly that language learners' prior knowledge—which includes their previous learning history, native language, cultural and life experiences, and any understanding they have about the topic at hand—is a key ingredient of their meaningful learning (Ausubel, 1968; Cummins, 1979; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). Culturally familiar teaching examples and cross-cultural comparisons are effective tools for teaching these students (Alexander-Shea, 2011; Dong, 2011, 2013; Rupley & Slough, 2010). And using instructional and assessment materials that connect to students' home cultures increases their understanding and motivation for learning tremendously (Ballenger, 2008; Fradd, Lee, Sutman, & Sazton, 2001; Hudicourt-Barnes & Ballenger, 2008).
In my courses for preservice teachers, I encourage students to assess the language learners they work with for strengths and prior knowledge they bring to learning. I also have students examine their curriculum and instructional and assessment materials they use and find opportunities to make their lessons relevant for ELLs.
At first, preservice teachers struggle with making the most of ELLs' prior knowledge. Some consider it irrelevant because the students learned this content outside the United States; others assume ELLs have no prior knowledge because of these newcomers' difficulty in articulating in English what they know. Other teachers fear that students' prior knowledge may distract from learning or even contradict information they expect students to master.
Through field observations, interviews with English as a second language teachers, and tutoring of individual English language learners—as well as through readings, discussions, and reflections—these emerging teachers begin to see language learners in a different light. They expand their definition of prior knowledge to include ELLs' native languages and cultures, previous literacy learning, and even their journeys to America.

Mining Knowledge

My preservice education students recently designed ways to investigate the prior knowledge of the English language learners they were tutoring. They created surveys like that shown in Figure 1, which they administered to students they tutored. As they planned lessons for their tutees, I encouraged the emerging teachers to think deeply about the language and cultural issues embedded in their curriculum, instruction, and assessment—and develop ways to address cultural issues. Let's look at how three pre-service teachers wove young people's intellectual resources into a lesson, while aligning instruction to the Common Core standards.

FIGURE 1. Survey of English Language Learners' Previous Learning – Social Studies

Your home country: ________________________________________________

Your native language: ________________________________________________

When did you begin learning social studies in your native country? ________________________________________________

What subjects did you learn in social studies? (Mark the ones you learned)

 ☐  Your country's history

 ☐  Your country's geography

 ☐  Your country's economics

 ☐  Your country's religion and traditions

 ☐  Your country's government

 ☐  Global/world history

 ☐  Other (please list any topics that are not on this list) ________________________________________________

Which social studies topic(s) did you enjoy most in your school back home? Why?

Which cultures and traditions are your favorites in your school back home? Why?

How did your social studies teacher teach history?

 ☐  Lecture

 ☐  Reading the textbook

 ☐  Studying maps

 ☐  Reading historical figures' biographies

 ☐  Memorizing historical facts and famous people's sayings

 ☐  Watching historical films

 ☐  Viewing historical artifacts and pictures

 ☐  Taking tests

 ☐  Reading aloud historical essays or textbook excerpts

 ☐  Writing research papers and essays

 ☐  Other (please explain) ________________________________________________

Who influences your social studies learning?

 ☐  My teacher

 ☐  Myself

 ☐  My parent

 ☐  My siblings

 ☐  My elders (my extended family or community elders)

 ☐  Well-known historical figures (please explain) ________________________________________________

 ☐  My classmates

 ☐  Other (please explain) ________________________________________________

What do you know about U.S. history? ________________________________________________



A Dictator Builds a Bridge

Alex, a social studies preservice teacher, tutored Rebecca, an 11th grader who came from the Dominican Republic three years earlier. Talking with Rebecca (in both English and Spanish), Alex found out that Rebecca was seriously behind in her social studies learning, not only because of her limited English proficiency, but also because she lacked knowledge of U.S. history and culture. Her parents repeatedly pulled Rebecca out of school to return to their home country for long periods. Rebecca's social studies teacher actually mistook her for a newly arrived ELL.
The class was studying World War II. Rebecca knew little about Nazi Germany and was overwhelmed by the new material and vocabulary. However, through administering the survey, Alex learned that Rebecca knew a lot about Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. Alex decided to use this figure from Rebecca's homeland—who was allied with the United States in World War II—as a way into the unit's content.
Armed with his Spanish skills and a translation website, Alex translated into Spanish key vocabulary and an excerpt of Hitler's autobiography. Alex first talked with Rebecca, in Spanish, about what she knew about Trujillo. Using a bilingual glossary and keeping in mind her prior knowledge, Alex helped her learn key concepts related to the lesson in English. He read aloud an excerpt of Hitler's autobiography in both English and Spanish to engage Rebecca in identifying those concepts in the reading. Rebecca used the new English words to talk about the similarities and differences between the dictators; she then compared and contrasted the two dictators, using a Venn diagram to illustrate her understanding of concepts like totalitarianism, genocide, and alliances, and the English vocabulary for these terms.
Starting with the culturally familiar example of Trujillo enriched Rebecca's learning of the subject matter. Doing a cross-cultural comparison engaged her in analyzing, in English, characteristics of the two dictators, their methods of ruling, and their roles in the war. This facilitated her language development. By helping her read several texts, do vocabulary work, research topics using online sources, and complete a graphic organizer, Alex also addressed such grade-appropriate Common Core standards as analyzing ideas that emerge from a text and using new vocabulary to communicate ideas.
Alex reflected that although his future students may not always have the prior knowledge he expects, it doesn't mean they won't have any prior knowledge at all. He may need to meet them halfway.

Removing Barriers in Math

Another preservice teacher, Kim, tutored two 7th grade English language learners in proportions in math. Min-Jun had recently arrived from Korea, and May had arrived from Thailand. As a Korean American and former ELL herself, Kim had firsthand knowledge of the difficulty of learning mathematics in English. She had intimate memories of being totally confused when working on a problem set in a culturally unfamiliar setting.
The worksheets the girls' teacher provided made Kim wonder whether those problems were assessing students' language and cultural knowledge rather than their math knowledge. Problems required students to have insider cultural knowledge, such as a typical pay rate for babysitting or a reasonable price (plus a discounted and sale price) for Thanksgiving groceries. To overcome those cultural barriers, Kim revised the context of the word problems to one that was more culturally familiar for the girls. Min-Jun and May were delighted to see problems set in familiar scenarios and dove in.
Kim introduced the girls to word problems set in American culture, like the babysitting one, after they were solid with the concepts and operations connected to proportions. Armed with a concept they'd mastered, Kim's tutees could navigate details of American culture and apply that concept to solving the problem. To promote language skills and address the Common Core standards, Kim then asked students to create their own word problems in English. Here is Min-Jun's problem:
Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish and considered Korea's national dish. My grandmother cooks great kimchi using napa cabbage, radish, scallion, red pepper, and many seasonings. It is my favorite dish! The U.S. rate of currency for Korean won is $1=1,112 won. A bowl of kimchi costs 11,120 won. How much would the kimchi cost in U. S. dollars?
Min-Jun first set up this equation:


Removing the currency labels, she solved the equation with these steps:


Kim's experience-based insights enabled her to identify cultural barriers in the curriculum from an ELL's perspective and modify her teaching materials accordingly. Kim reflected on how culturally familiar examples empowered Min-Jun and May. Eliciting students' prior knowledge as a motivational technique is one thing. Validating that knowledge by integrating it into teaching materials, and even inviting students to write their own word problems using culturally familiar examples, is another—and more powerful—thing.
Kim responded to the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice by moving beyond simply asking students to plug in formulas for word problems to engaging them in designing their own real-world problems. Kim believes mathematics is not universal in terms of how people learn it. She considers it her job as a future mathematics teacher to identify cultural barriers in her teaching examples and modify them for her nonnative speakers.

Making Biomes Meaningful

Jean quickly realized that her first lesson on the topic of biomes, using New York State as an example, was unsuccessful. Her students, three middle schoolers from Ecuador, were completely lost because of their limited English and limited knowledge about geographical and climate conditions in New York.
Talking with her students and their English as a second language (ESL) teacher helped Jean realize that these learners couldn't extract much meaning from a lesson containing new concepts, new vocabulary, and a culturally unfamiliar example. The term biome—a type of ecological community, such as desert or rainforest—is unfamiliar to many native speakers. Jean thought if she used Ecuador to illustrate the concept, students' familiarity might support their understanding.
Jean did a quick self-study on Ecuador. In her next tutoring sessions, she placed students' prior knowledge at the center. Students verbalized what they knew about geography and climate conditions in Ecuador and generated a concept map of Ecuador as an example of a lowland rain forest biome. They listed the various animals they remembered as common back home on one side of the graphic and listed plant names on the other side. They grouped together facts about Ecuador that they researched, such as latitude, annual rainfall, and so on, at the bottom, drawing arrows to indicate how various parts of the biome affected other parts. (See their concept map.)
With a culturally familiar example, students not only applied their prior knowledge but also expanded and restructured it using this new concept. Jean's subsequent repeat lesson on the New York State biome worked. The students had grasped the biome concepts and were eager to use something familiar to learn something new.
Rather than taking students' background knowledge at face value, Jean asked them to discuss their knowledge of their homeland and apply it. Concept mapping expanded her students' prior knowledge by bridging their past experience (such as the climate back home) to new knowledge (such as Ecuador's latitude and biome type), thus reconstructing their prior understanding. Jean became open to students' memories of home as a lens for thinking, creating graphics, and talking about science (all of which addressed science literacy standards).

A Positive Direction

These teachers' willingness to integrate students' prior understandings into the learning process reflects a positive direction for educating ELLs in all subject areas. As our classrooms become more diverse, students' experiences and prior learning will be diverse as well and we'll need to broaden our teaching examples and materials. Using cross-cultural comparisons, culturally familiar examples, and the like creates opportunities for ELLs to not only learn new concepts meaningfully, but also use English in reading, writing, and thinking about those concepts—the higher language and literacy work the Common Core standards require.
Although the strategies used here happened in tutorial sessions, these ideas could be transferred to larger groups, even when the language learners in the group come from far-ranging cultures. Teachers can access elements of ELLs' existing knowledge by talking with ESL or bilingual teachers who work with the various students about those youths' cultures and prior experiences.
Get creative about mining previous knowledge. Much can be learned by having nonnative speakers do short journal entries or K/W/L charts listing what they know, what they want to know, and what they learned, even in their native language as needed. Study the history, tradition, education system, and biodiversity of those cultures for meaningful connections. Besides creating culturally relevant examples, teachers might devise a multilingual glossary to accompany some lessons. Ask foreign language or bilingual teachers—or even bilingual students—to translate key words. Use online sources, such as http://translate.google.com. for a workable translation between English and ELLs' native languages. Creatively group students from similar native cultural and language backgrounds and encourage them to use what they know to learn new knowledge.
Returning to the story I began this article with, maybe Lynn's shock at her student's question about "the Civil War" should have been delight. The boy was showing he knew that civil wars have erupted in South America—knowledge Lynn could use as a point of departure. To implement the Common Core standards, we'll need to mine English language learners' intellectual resources—and use them to teach to their strengths.

Alexander-Shea, A. (2011). Redefining vocabulary: The new learning strategy for social studies. The Social Studies, 102(1), 95–103.

Ausubel, D. P. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Ballenger, C. (2008). Case study: Using two languages to learn science. In A. S. Rosebery & B. Warren (Eds.), Teaching science to English language learners: Building on students' strengths (pp. 119–124). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic inter dependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49(2), 222–251.

Dong, Y. R. (2011). Unlocking the power of academic vocabulary with secondary English language learners. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House.

Dong, Y. R. (2013). Powerful learning tools for ELLs. The Science Teacher, 80(4), 51–57.

Fradd, S. H., Lee, O., Sutman, F. X., & Saxton, M. K. (2001). Promoting science literacy with English language learners through instructional materials development: A case study. Bilingual Research Journal, 25(4), 479–501.

Freeman, Y., & Freeman, D. (2009). Academic language for English language learners and struggling readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hudicourt-Barnes, J., & Ballenger, C. (2008). Essay: Using students' conversational styles. In A. S. Rosebery & B. Warren (Eds.), Teaching science to English language learners: Building on students' strengths (pp. 21–30). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Lee, O. (2003). Equity for linguistically and culturally diverse students in science education: A research agenda. Teachers College Record, 105(3), 465–489.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.

National Education Association. (2011). Professional development for general education teachers of English Language Learners: An NEA policy brief. Washington, DC: Author.

Rupley, W. H., & Slough, S. (2010). Building prior knowledge and vocabulary in science in the intermediate grades: Creating hooks for learning. Literacy Research and Instruction, 49(2), 99–112.

Wilburne, J. M., Marinak, B. A., & Strickland, M. J. (2011). Addressing cultural bias. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 16(8), 461–465.

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