Building Background Knowledge: Helping ELL Students Access Social Studies Curriculum

According to recent surveys, at least 55% of classroom teachers have one or more English Language Learners (ELLs) in their classroom. ELLs arrive in our classrooms with varying levels of the four domains of English (listening, reading, writing, and speaking) for conversational and academic purposes. As a social studies teacher, how can you help an ELL student make sense of the advanced vocabulary and sentence structures that come along with academic instruction? One proven strategy is to build or activate background knowledge BEFORE starting the unit.

Lay the foundation

Background knowledge refers to being familiar with the context of the topic/theme of the unit and knowing some associated vocabulary or concepts related to that topic. Prior knowledge, as well as a strong foundation of English vocabulary and grammar, will help the average student make sense of a unit on, say, the economic policies of the Jeffersonian era, while an ELL student with only basic conversational skills and a 2nd grade reading level in English will be at a natural disadvantage. Background knowledge is also important because in expository texts (e.g., primary sources and textbooks), and often in classroom lectures, it is assumed that the students can comprehend a certain language level, and often students have to infer facts and concepts from what they read or hear. Even leveled readers may not be sufficient to help students understand the context and language being used.

By providing structured activities that help students learn key vocabulary and context for what will be taught in the next unit, students will be more prepared to actively participate and learn once the unit begins.

Create meaning from the ground up

Before beginning any background-building activities, identify key vocabulary and concepts that need to be understood prior to teaching the lesson. For example, if the next unit covers Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase as well as economic policies of the time, you may want to teach these concepts and terms first: economy, Jefferson, embargo, trade, purchase. It is also important that students understand what they will need to be able to demonstrate their learning. For example, if a unit objective is that students will be able to identify causes and effects of Jefferson’s policies, then the concepts of “cause” and “effect” could be incorporated into the building background knowledge stage.


Put it into action:

Here are some ideas to build background knowledge through interactive, participatory experiences:

1) Simulations

Use a hands-on, whole-classroom experience in which students actively participate. For example, if you need to teach the concept and related vocabulary of an “economy,” pass out Monopoly money and assign roles to students so they can act out their parts. Create situations in which students can trade for different goods and purchase land or other items, and then connect it to students’ real-life objects/items so that they are using familiar vocabulary. Through different scenarios or situations, students can identify how actions of others can produce different effects on other classmates’ finances.

2) Visuals

Provide photos, graphic organizers, or videos (with comprehensible verbal content) to help represent vocabulary items and concepts whenever possible. Maps and other geographic tools are useful in orienting students to time and place of various concepts and in giving them a reference point for different historical events.

3) Demonstrations

Rather than describing or defining vocabulary, show them examples of the concepts whenever possible. For example, if you are trying to teach the concept of “embargo,” give different office supplies (e.g., paper clips, paper, pencils) to three different students. Ask them to trade one item with each other so they have an even number of items between the three of them (at least two of each item). Next, tell two of the traders they cannot trade with the third, and can only trade between the two of them, signifying an “embargo.” Students can discuss cause/effect from this demonstration and how that affected the third student’s ability to get the other two items, and the other two traders’ abilities to get the third item.

4) Hands-on manipulatives

Students can easily grasp concepts when hands-on materials and activities are involved. Although this can be challenging for more abstract vocabulary, try to connect words to real-life items that students can connect with.

5) Explicit instruction

For all of these activities, it is important to verbally label the key vocabulary/concepts learned and then add those terms to a word wall or some type of vocabulary book that students (and teachers) will have for future reference. If the activity is done without any reflection on the specific vocabulary and how those words are used in sentences, it ELL students may not retain them.

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Susan McDonald, M.S., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and English language instructor based in southern California. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology from Western Washington University in 1997, and her master’s degree in Communication Sciences from the University of Vermont in 1999. Susan completed coursework for the Vermont State English as a Second Language Teaching Endorsement from Saint Michael’s College in 2006. When she’s not teaching or writing, she enjoys riding her bike, traveling, and spending time with her friends and family.

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