Best Practice: Activating Learners' Prior Knowledge


All students bring knowledge and experiences from the world and their lives into the language classroom. A reading passage or a spoken message means something different to each person, based on the individual’s experiences, education, and culture.

One of the challenges in teaching a diverse group of learners is that everyone comes to class with different life experiences and expectations! As you prepare to do an activity, think about how you might prepare your student or students. How can you link the material to what they already know? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Introduce the topic. “Today we’re going to talk about making a doctor’s appointment.”
  • Ask questions. The kinds of questions you ask are dependent on the level, of course. If possible, find out what they do in this country to make a doctor’s appointment. Ask them to compare it to practices in their home countries.
  • Assess language. What language do they already have to talk about the topic?
  • Use visuals and props to help pre-teach new vocabulary. Model and demonstrate as much as possible.
  • Explain the purpose of the activity.
  • Make sure students understand their task or tasks. Consider asking them to repeat your instructions back to you or demonstrate them to you.

Now, let’s put you in the role of the student. The following video demonstrates clearly, and with humor, the value of activating prior knowledge or schema. If the two men in the video were ESL teachers, what suggestions would you have for them, besides the importance of revealing the topic to you before they start? What questions could they ask to assess your knowledge before the presentation? What vocabulary might they pre-teach? What props or visuals might be helpful? What tasks or activities might they give you to complete during and after this listening exercise? Now watch the video and replay it as many times as you need to.

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