Prior Knowledge vs. Background Knowledge for ELL Students

Instructor: Ralica Rangelova

Rali has taught Public Speaking to college students and English as a Second Language; She has a master's degree in communication.

This lesson discusses the difference between prior and background knowledge and how it applies to teaching ELL learners. Cultural and geographical differences that affect English language learners' knowledge are also examined.

Prior and Background Knowledge

I ask you to put together a 300-piece puzzle. You don't have the box but you already have 50 pieces, which gives you a vague idea of the picture. Then, I provide you with 120 pieces. Now you have 170 pieces: more than half the picture. At this point, you can easily connect the rest of the pieces once you get them.

In this metaphor for learning, the first 50 puzzle pieces are your prior knowledge. The second 120 pieces are your background knowledge. The remaining 130 pieces are new content that can easily fall in place because you have a solid foundation.

Prior Knowledge

What students already know about the surrounding world from academic instruction and through life experiences is called prior knowledge. It helps your students make sense of new information by comparing it to what they already know and fitting it in. Think again of a puzzle. Your life is a big puzzle and every single thing you see, read, hear or try gives you a couple of pieces. So, when you get a new piece, or new information, you try to connect it to the rest to get a fuller picture.

Prior knowledge can be accurate or inaccurate but, regardless, it influences students' beliefs, attitudes and expectations. It can help or hinder comprehension but it plays a role in developing fluency and student engagement. Some students have a more reliable database of prior knowledge to draw from, or they have more of the puzzle put together and find it easier to connect a new piece. Others need more help.

Activating and Assessing Prior Knowledge

Although students may have some prior knowledge, they don't always have an instant access to it. It could be a great foundation to build on, but it has to be surfaced. Using certain strategies, you can activate students' prior knowledge:

  • Discussions where students reflect on what they know
  • Prompting where students write down what they know
  • Cloze exercises where students insert omitted words

Be careful to activate and retain only directly related prior knowledge as anything else may become a distraction. Once prior knowledge is activated, students are not only prepared, but also motivated and engaged.

Misconceptions and misunderstandings in prior knowledge affect students' comprehension of information. Unfortunately, more often than not, we misinterpret messages because we let our pre-formed expectations determine what we hear or read. We need incoming information to fit what we already have in storage. If it doesn't, we make it fit by misreading it.

Your job as an instructor is to make sure students' prior knowledge is not incomplete or based on misconceptions as that would hinder their comprehension of the content you are trying to teach. Also, the more students already know about the content, the easier it will be for them to learn the new related material. So, assess the quality and quantity of their prior knowledge before you try to introduce a topic.

  • What do they know?
  • How much do they know?
  • Is there a cultural disconnect?
  • Are there misconceptions or inaccuracies?

One way to answer all these questions is to use prediction guides. Provide a list of statements and have students indicate true/false or agree/disagree and then have a discussion about their reasoning. Once assessed, misconceptions can be corrected and gaps can be filled.

Background Knowledge

Depending on what background students come from and what experiences they have had, they may have poor or no prior knowledge of a topic, which can lead to difficulties in learning. However, we still need a foundation, or a couple of puzzle pieces, to get started. This is where background knowledge comes in handy. Background knowledge is supplemental information provided by you, the instructor, to create basic understanding of a concept or material to facilitate students' comprehension later. So, instead of having your students look for puzzle pieces they might already have, you hand them a few puzzle pieces, which they pre-set to later connect with the rest.

Building Background Knowledge

Instructors provide students background material to help them to better understand and process new content they are about to study. You will usually provide background knowledge when you want to define a concept or a term; clarify a complex idea; or explain a cultural difference. All in all, anything that might facilitate students' comprehension or success with a task has to be previewed. Some techniques you could use to build background knowledge for your students include:

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