ML teacher

Reading Instruction for Multilingual Learners: The Role of Background Knowledge

Scenario: Supporting multilingual learners (MLs) in a 9th Grade U.S. History class
Mr. Nguyen has six MLs in this U.S. History class of 22 students at varying proficiency levels.
The MLs in his class speak a variety of languages, such as Spanish, Swahili, and Arabic. Mr. Nguyen is struggling to support some of the MLs during reading activities. He provides them with graphic organizers and amplified text
 to scaffold the reading. He also gives students sentence stems for discussions, but these supports don’t seem to be quite enough to fully engage the MLs in his class or help them understand the content. He wonders what else he can do to support them so they can understand the texts in his class and successfully engage in discussions with their peers

ML teacher

Mr. Nguyen, a high school history teacher, is planning his upcoming lessons for his 9th grade U.S. History unit on the Gilded Age. During this unit, students will read texts on immigrants and their living and working conditions. Then they will write a paper connecting immigration issues during the Gilded Age to immigration issues today. Students use their literacy skills throughout Mr. Nguyen’s history course as they read and write about events in modern U.S. History. Even though he is not an English teacher, he knows developing literacy skills is the key to opening doors to countless opportunities for all his students in the future, including his MLs.

Literacy Instruction Needs are Increasing for MLs

Mr. Nguyen’s experience is not unique. Many content area teachers are unsure how to support MLs with reading comprehension. The topic of literacy instruction has garnered a lot of attention and debate recently. A growing number of articles, blog posts, and podcasts have shared various viewpoints on what works in reading instruction, particularly in the primary grades. Literacy experts contend that all students need comprehensive literacy instruction that includes developing skills in word recognition, comprehension, language, and writing². However, MLs also need literacy instruction that builds background knowledge, fosters oral language skills, and takes into account their social and cultural experiences³.

In this article, we are going to look at how to support one facet of literacy that is essential for MLs—the development of background knowledge. In 2013 Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner wrote a series of blog posts for the Colorín Colorado website on building background knowledge for MLs. With the current debate about literacy instruction, recognizing the role of background knowledge for MLs is even more relevant today. 

We are going to revisit and expand on the thoughts shared in those blog posts by exploring the importance of activating and teaching background knowledge, sharing a tool to determine what background knowledge to teach MLs, and providing some practical strategies to activate, assess, and teach MLs background knowledge. Connecting prior knowledge and experiences to the content reading is vital for MLs’ reading comprehension, and we will be exploring that connection through Mr. Nguyen’s classroom and his planning process. 


Why is Background Knowledge Important for MLs? 

Much of the conversation about literacy instruction is centered around young elementary students learning to read. However, MLs need literacy development at all levels of schooling to develop word recognition and comprehension skills. In general, all learning, including literacy development, relies on making connections between past experiences and prior knowledge and new information and skills. Therefore, background knowledge plays a key role in comprehending text. Instructional strategies that activate and teach background knowledge are important to foster a multicultural learning environment by helping MLs make connections between their experiences and prior learning and new classroom content⁶. 

Understanding MLs’ culture can help teachers recognize the valuable assets, unique perspectives, and background knowledge MLs bring to enrich discussions and engagement with the text. Activating and developing background knowledge also helps MLs make meaning out of the words and phrases they are reading. When teachers take the time to kickstart MLs’ schema, assess what they already know, and then help them link what they know with the lesson, MLs will have a greater understanding of the content they are learning and reading. Even though developing background knowledge is just one piece of literacy instruction, background knowledge is crucial to MLs’ literacy development. 

How to Determine What Background Knowledge MLs Need? 

Knowing the importance of background knowledge is one thing. However, knowing what background knowledge to teach MLs is another thing. We know it is essential for MLs to engage in productive struggle when faced with new texts, but there are times when some concise instruction of background knowledge would enable them to access the content better. To maximize planning and instructional time, we provide a framework in Figure 1 for building MLs’ background knowledge to support reading comprehension.  

Figure 1. Framework for Building MLs’ Background Knowledge


Further, Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner developed key questions to guide teachers in determining what background knowledge to teach MLs to foster literacy skills. These questions were inspired by a complex project led by Drs. Diane August, Diane Staehr Fenner, and Sydney Snyder to scaffold English language arts content standards for MLs. These questions can be a helpful tool to use during planning as you consider what background knowledge MLs have or need to be able to comprehend grade-level content texts. You can access an easy-to-follow flowchart in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Flowchart for Determining Which Background Knowledge to Teach MLs 

ML background knowledge decision chart

Background Knowledge Classroom Example

Let’s revisit Mr. Nguyen as he plans his lessons on the Gilded Age. He met with the English language development teacher, Ms. Patel, to discuss his concerns about the MLs in his class and the upcoming readings. Ms. Patel recommended he assess and activate his students’ background knowledge to help him get a sense of what the MLs already know about the Gilded Age and then concisely teach them essential vocabulary and content that will help them to interact with the text and their classmates.  

Through his collaboration with Ms. Patel, Mr. Nguyen engaged the class in a gallery walk that included images from the era to assess their knowledge and experiences with the topic. Mr. Nguyen and Ms. Patel met again after the gallery walk to discuss the formative assessment data Mr. Nguyen collected through that activity to determine what background knowledge the MLs in his class already had and what they may need to access the content in the upcoming readings. Ms. Patel asked the four key questions¹ to help Mr. Nguyen reflect and plan his next steps to determine what background knowledge to teach the MLs in his class. Figure 3 outlines Mr. Nguyen’s reflection and planning steps based on their conversation.

Figure 3. Mr. Nguyen’s Reflection and Planning Steps

Adapted from Staehr Fenner, 2013; Staehr Fenner & Snyder, 2017 


Three Practical Strategies for Assessing, Activating, and Teaching MLs’ Background Knowledge

Now that we explored the importance of background knowledge for MLs and how to determine what background to concisely teach, we are going to share three practical strategies for assessing, activating, and teaching MLs’ background knowledge. Strategies can serve multiple purposes, such as activating and assessing prior knowledge on a topic. Figure 4 outlines the strategies that follow and whether they assess, activate, and/or teach background knowledge in the examples. 

Figure 4. Sample Strategies and Uses

Background Knowledge Strategies for English Learners

1.Carousel Brainstorming 

Carousel brainstorming is a strategy that can be used at the start of a unit or to prepare students, especially MLs, for engaging with a new text. The teacher displays chart paper containing guiding questions, statements, or images around the room. Students work in small groups and rotate to each chart paper to respond to the information or add onto previous groups’ responses. Questions and statements should be open-ended enough to encourage discussion and be written at a linguistic level that MLs can understand. As students discuss the guiding questions and images, they activate their background knowledge and current understanding as a group. The teacher can also use this activity as an assessment of background knowledge by taking note of misconceptions or gaps in knowledge.

MLs at the beginning and intermediate stages of language proficiency may need additional scaffolds to support them as they engage in this activity. Modeling the activity prior to the lesson would help them understand the procedures of the activity and be able to better participate in the conversations with their classmates. Another scaffold for MLs would be to group them with other students so they can discuss ideas in their home language or receive peer support during the activity. Finally, providing MLs with visuals, word banks and sentence stems will also support them in accessing the content in the carousel brainstorming activity and expressing themselves during conversations with their classmates.  

For example, in Figure 5, students will be studying humanity’s impact on Earth’s resources, so the teacher prepares several images for students to discuss during a carousel brainstorming activity. Students were grouped so that MLs could discuss the images in their home language before adding their ideas in English to the chart paper. Students activate their background knowledge by discussing the images in their small groups while the teacher circulates between the groups, noting student comments, questions, or misconceptions. The teacher will use the information from the chart papers and their notes to determine what background students already have about natural resources and humanity’s use of those resources and what additional instruction may be needed.   

Figure 5. Carousel Brainstorming

background knowledge-english-language-learners-SupportEd

2.Categorized Sticky Notes 

Categorized sticky notes are another strategy that can be used at the start of a unit or lesson to assess and activate students’ prior knowledge on a topic of a text, particularly for MLs. The teacher poses a question related to the topic of the upcoming text. Then, students write or draw a response to that question on a sticky note and post their sticky notes on the board or a chart, sorting them into categories. The class can return to their responses at the end of the lesson or throughout the unit to confirm, revise, or add to their thinking based on what they learned from the text. Students may even decide to move a sticky note to a different category.  

For example, for a unit on bees, the teacher could ask students to identify one thing bees do on a sticky note and place it on the board under the categories “positive” and “negative” as seen in Figure 6. One student could respond on their sticky note with “bees give honey” and place it under the positive category. Another student could respond on their sticky note with “las abejas pican”, or bees sting, and place it under the negative category. A third student could draw a picture of a bee near a flower and place it under the positive category. Once all the students place their sticky notes on the board, the teacher asks students to share with their elbow partner why they placed their notes in each category before asking students to share with the whole group. In this example, one student shared that they saw bees making honey on their field trip last year and they liked honey. Other students agreed with that statement. Another student shared that their partner said they were stung by a bee, and it really hurt which is why they placed that statement in the negative category. Based on their responses, the teacher has a better understanding of each student’s prior knowledge of and experiences with bees.  

Figure 6. Categorized Sticky Notes


MLs at the beginning and intermediate stages of language proficiency may need additional scaffolds to support them as they engage in this activity. Modeling the activity prior to the lesson using a non-academic topic would help them understand the procedures of the activity and be able to better participate. Another scaffold for MLs would be to allow students to draw or use their home language to respond on the sticky notes. Finally, providing MLs with sentence stems and frames will also support them in writing and discussing their response.  

3.Image Discussion 

Image Discussion is a strategy in which a teacher directly teaches a vocabulary term through the discussion of images related to the term and the content. This strategy activates and teaches background knowledge needed to understand an upcoming text. MLs may need to be taught background knowledge through vocabulary development. Providing concise instruction on a key vocabulary term can activate and build MLs’ background knowledge needed to be able to understand the text. A teacher can also use this strategy to assess prior knowledge by showing the images prior to instruction, engaging students with a discussion prompt asking students what they know about the term based on the images, and taking notes during the student discussion. 

While this activity is designed specifically for MLs, they still may need scaffolds to support them as they engage in the discussion activity. Using images connected to the content along with images MLs may relate to will help connect what they already know or have experienced to the new vocabulary term. Another scaffold for MLs would be to provide MLs with sentence stems or frames to support them in sharing during the discussion.  

For example, after reviewing an upcoming text about the Roman expansion into Egypt, a teacher determines that a group of MLs would need to understand the word ancient, a term non-MLs are familiar with already. The teacher decides to use an image discussion to teach this essential term to MLs while also developing their oral language skills. Students look at the first picture, and the teacher explains the vocabulary word in the context of the picture of the pyramids. Then students talk in pairs about the picture using the word ancient. The teacher introduces a second picture and explains the same vocabulary word in the context of the picture of the trees and then students discuss the term ancient in pairs within this new context. 

Figure 7. Image Discussion


Final Thoughts

We hope you have gained some new strategies to help determine how to assess, activate, and concisely teach background knowledge for MLs to support their ability to make meaning while reading a text. The flowchart for determining which background knowledge to teach MLs can be a valuable tool when planning content lessons to ensure MLs have equitable access to literacy development. Finally, we would love to hear how you activate, assess, and teach background knowledge with your MLs. Let us know by tweeting us @SupportEduc and using the hashtag #BK4MLs. 

Explore more: What is scaffolding instruction?

About SupportEd

SupportEd, LLC is a woman-owned small business based in Fairfax, VA specializing in Multilingual Learners (MLs). Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit each client’s strengths, needs, and provides teachers and administrators the practical tools necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. All SupportEd team members have prior experience in the classroom which enables the SupportEd team to provide realistic, actionable solutions. Services include online and in-person immersive professional development workshops, easy-to-implement tools and resources, and an array of supporting services. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.


[1] Amplified texts include additional text features to support MLs in meaning making, such as embedded definitions, explanations of difficult language, and guiding questions. The text can also be chunked into meaningful sections with visuals, headings and subheadings added. Picture glossaries or bilingual glossaries can also be added to amplified texts to foster independent language access.

[2] Cárdenas-Hagan, 2020; Escamilla et al., 2022; Shanahan, 2023

[3] Cárdenas-Hagan, 2020; Escamilla et al., 2022

[4] Marzano, 2004; Brown et al., 2014

[5] Ahmed et al., 2016; Cromley & Azevedo, 2007; Evans et al., 2002; Pearson et al., 2020

[6] Hammond, 2015; Snyder & Staehr Fenner, 2021; Staehr Fenner & Snyder, 2017

[7] Billings & Walqui, 2017; Echevarria et al., 2004

[8] Staehr Fenner, 2013; Staehr Fenner & Snyder, 2017

[9] August et al., 2014

[10] Staehr Fenner, 2013


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Staehr Fenner, D., & Snyder, S. (2017). Unlocking English learners’ potential: Strategies for making content accessible. Corwin. 

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