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There are many factors that influence students' academic achievement and language acquisition. The skill of the teacher, the socioeconomic status of the student, the cultural background and experiential background of the student, and other factors as well are all elements that impact the ELL student and all students for that matter. One of the more important factors that has a great impact on the amount of growth in academic knowledge a student gains is background knowledge.
Background knowledge is commonly understood by researchers, theorists, and educators as what a person already knows about a topic. And the "research literature supports one compelling fact: what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content." (Marzano, 2004). The relationship between achievement and background knowledge is undeniable, and academic background knowledge "affects more than just 'school learning.' Studies have also shown its relation to occupation and status in life." (Marzano, 2004) There are different types of background knowledge, nonacademic and academic. The evidence points to the fact that although both are important, academic background knowledge is critical to a students' achievement in school.
According to Robert Marzano in his book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement (2004), there are two factors that interact helping us to acquire background knowledge. The first is our ability to process and store information and the second is the "number and frequency of our academically oriented experiences." Those students who posses a high ability to process and store information (fluid intelligence) and who also have access to many experiences that create academic background knowledge are obviously going to be better off academically. Also on the continuum of student understanding and ability to develop background knowledge, there are those students with high fluid intelligence and a low amount of experiences, there are those students with low fluid intelligence and a high amount of experiences, and finally there are those students with low fluid intelligence and also have few encounters with experiences that develop background knowledge of topics. Basically, fluid intelligence is what it is for students as human individuals. However, "the more academically oriented experiences we have, the more opportunities we have to store those experiences as academic background knowledge." (Marzano, 2004)
"Like native English speakers, English language learners have differing levels of cognitive ability. When ELL's struggle with schoolwork, however, teachers should be aware that the problem may be related to background knowledge rather than to intellectual ability." (Short, 2005). "Teachers need a vehicle for providing grade-level content and meeting the language needs of each student, that vehicle is building background knowledge and front-loading vocabulary. The field of English as a Second Language is moving towards a content-based support system for the grade-level." (Norwood, 2010) It behooves educators, therefore, to pay attention to the manner of instruction and activities in the ELL classroom to enhance the experiential base of students for language acquisition.
For classroom teachers of English language learners, it is critical that thought and attention are given to activating and strengthening background knowledge before jumping in to any content area topic. "Many English language learners struggle with curriculum content because they lack back ground knowledge of the topic or have gaps in the information they have learned. Teachers much either activate what prior knowledge exists and apply it to lessons or explicitly build background knowledge for these students. For example, immigrant students may not have studies the U.S. Civil War in their native countries, but they may have studied another war or even experienced a military conflict firsthand. By tapping into what students know about such conflict, the teacher can set the context for a lesson on the U.S. Civil War." (Short, 2005)
There is a big difference between building background knowledge and teaching vocabulary, and both are interrelated and necessary. Marzano (2004) recommends using an indirect approach for building background knowledge and a more direct approach for introducing and teaching vocabulary.
In his book, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Marzano discusses six principles for creating background knowledge with an indirect approach. These six principles are specifically regarding memory and how knowledge is retained. The first principle is about how background knowledge is stored. Information is stored in "bi-modal packets" in our memories. In essence, words are simply labels for meanings and experiences that are linked with other meanings and experiences. These are called propositions-"abstract statements of what occurred" during a given activity or experience. Propositions are not stored in isolation, but rather in networks in the brain. "Linguists explain that propositions represent our deepest level of understandingâ€¦When we speak of our experiences we translate our deep structure understanding into what is referred to as 'surface level language.'" (Chomsky, 1957-1965)-language that is actually spoken or written." (Marzano, 2004) When teachers can get students to talk about and write about their experiences, it brings deeper understandings to a more accessible surface level for language.
The second principle to know in the indirect approach to building background knowledge is that "the process of storing experiences in permanent memory can be enhanced." It has been proven that as learners, people will access their permanent memories for knowledge and understanding even when not aware of it. For this reason, it is important to provide ELL students opportunities to add as much information into permanent memory as possible. The likelihood of getting information into permanent memory can be improved by providing students with sensory experiences (using realia) and getting students to process information numerous times, as "the more times a student processes information, the more likely the student will remember itâ€¦ In summary, information must make it to permanent memory to become part of our background knowledge, and the quality of processing in working memory enhances or inhibits the likelihood that information will reach permanent memory." (Marzano, 2004) A great example of using realia in the classroom is to bring in the real thing! When reading nonfiction text, for example, about fruits and life cycles, bring in the fruits, the seeds, branches, and buds! Provide time for students to "observe, touch and have oral language experiences prior to encountering the new vocabulary in the text." (McCall, 2005)
The third principle is that "background knowledge is multidimensional and its value is contextual." (Marzano, 2004) There are two main ideas to understand about this principle. "First, to develop background knowledge that will enhance success in specific academic subjects, the information critical to those specific academic areas must be the target of instruction. Second, educators must keep in mind that all students have background knowledge even though not all of them have the academic background knowledge necessary to do well in school." (Marzano, 2004) Both types of background are important, and even the non-academic background should be used and honored.
The fourth principle is that "even surface-level background knowledge is useful." (Marzano, 2004) According to researchers who have studied vocabulary development, there is proof that background knowledge exists at different levels. The deeper the level of background knowledge, the easier it is for students to grasp new concepts. However, even surface-level (low level) understanding is beneficial. "Students must be familiar with the terminology of a given topic and have some general idea as to the terms' meanings." (Marzano, 2004) Comprehension and learning will be greatly increased.
The fifth principle of creating an indirect approach to building background knowledge is that "background knowledge manifests itself as vocabulary knowledge." (Marzano, 2004) Since a word is simply "an acoustic configuration of speech sounds and a written rendition (more or less) of these sounds, comes or is assigned to refer to things, events, and ideas arbitrarily. There is no inherent connection between a word and its referent; a 'tree' could be called a 'drink' and vice versa." (Drum, 1987) "The actual words we know, then, are tags or labels for our packets of knowledge. Thus, it makes intuitive sense that the more words we have, the more packets of knowledge, and, hence, the more background knowledge we have." (Marzano, 2004) It is easy to see how very important vocabulary development in line with experiences is, and this principle "greatly expands its usefulness" in terms of the English language learner. With an ELL, if a new word can be attached to background knowledge already known in the first language, the comprehension of the activity and the language learning during the activity will be greater!
The sixth principle is that "virtual experiences can enhance background knowledge." (Marzano, 2004) Obviously, direct experiences, such as field trips to museums or places or realia in the classroom and any other ways students can directly interact with a concept, are the best ways for teachers to help students build background knowledge. "However, schools are limited in the quality and quantity of direct experience they can provide for students. Fortunately, virtual experiences can be as powerful as direct experiences in enhancing background knowledge." (Marzano, 2004) Reading is one of the best virtual experiences possible. Research has shown that sustained silent reading programs that are long-term and consistent and also revolve around high interest material, including publications and internet articles, are excellent virtual experiences for developing language and background experience. Another virtual experience is language interaction. "Just as reading generates virtual experiences in working memory, so, too, can language interaction-talking and listening to others. When we describe our camping trip to a friend, that friend translates our words into working memory representations. The more we talk to our friend about our camping trip, the more our friend's background knowledge of camping trips expands." (Marzano, 2004) So, the more students are able to talk with each other and listen to each other, the more background knowledge can be created and stored. Educational television is yet another form of virtual experience. Research has shown that information from general television yields little background knowledge, however, educational television such as documentaries, etc. yields a significant higher amount of background knowledge.
Part of background knowledge is vocabulary. Vocabulary is basically the number of words a student knows, and academic vocabulary, like academic background knowledge, is the type of knowledge that students need to achieve at high levels. Vocabulary instruction, in terms of helping build background knowledge, should be taught directly. Marzano presents "eight research-based characteristics of effective vocabulary instruction."
The first is that "effective vocabulary instruction does not rely on definitions." Beck McKeown, and Kucan (2002) "explain that when people first learn words, they understand them more as descriptions of words as opposed to definitions." (Marzano, 2004) This is similar to how a friend would tell about the meaning of a word in a describing manner. In essence, dictionaries may be helpful after a student has developed some working knowledge of a word, but to go directly to a dictionary right away will not improve understanding or build vocabulary because of the lack of context.
The second characteristic is that "students must represent their knowledge of words in linguistic and nonlinguistic waysâ€¦.Specifically, the dual coding theory (DCT) explains that for information to be anchored in permanent memory, it must have linguistic (language-based) and nonlinguistic (imagery-based) representations." (Marzano, 2004). Strategies for expressing words linguistically would be to include conversing using academic vocabulary! For example, when teaching the commutative property of addition, the students would call it the commutative property rather than the "back and forth" property. Using academic words during independent practice and with peers is very valuable. As well, acting words out (kinesthetic), drawing pictures or other representations of words are ways children can add them to permanent memory.
"Effective vocabulary instruction involves the gradual shaping of word meanings through multiple exposures" is the third characteristic of effective vocabulary instruction. (Marzano, 2004) Essentially, students can remember words in the short term with just one or two exposures, but to make that word part of permanent memory and have it be usable and workable for the student, requires many exposures of different types to that word. Some types of exposures include linguistic and nonlinguistic ways, having students identify similarities and differences between the word and other words, classifying words into groups or categories, working with metaphors and analogies, and exposure to idiomatic phrases. "Especially difficult for ELLs are idioms, slang, and double-entendres," (Douglas, 2010) therefore, the more exposure students have with figuring out meanings of words and phrases in a variety of ways, the more they will commit the words/phrases to permanent memory.
The fourth characteristic revolves around the value of teaching word parts. This includes teaching students specifically about affixes, inflections, and Greek and Latin roots. The sense in this characteristic is that if students understand the meaning of parts, they can piece meaning of an entire unfamiliar word together more easily.
A fifth characteristic of effective vocabulary instruction involves the understanding that "different types of words require different types of instruction." (Marzano, 2004) Lumping words into a variety of categories helps students make connections. When teachers can categorize words and relate them to specific semantic features, students can more easily make connections. For example, a category of words such as Natural Phenomena can be linked to these semantic features: association with a specific process (earthquake), association with a cause and consequence (tornado), or association with a specific setting (tidal wave). This example can extend across many categories and various semantic features. (Marzano, 2004)
Characteristic six of effective vocabulary instruction is that "students should discuss the words they are learningâ€¦.Discussion helps students encode information in their own words, helps them view things from different perspectives, and allows for self-expression." (Marzano, 2004). The benefits to all students, and especially ELL students is clear.
A seventh characteristic is that students should play with words! Games "present manageable challenges for students, they arouse curiosity, and they involve some degree of fantasy arousal." (Marzano, 2004). Frankly, games are obviously exciting and fun for students, and this fact alone makes games an excellent tool for teaching vocabulary.
The last characteristic is that "instruction should focus on terms that have a high probability of enhancing academic success." (Marzano, 2004) There are three kinds of words categories: "Tier One words are basic words that rarely need to be taught." (Douglas, 2010) These words are easily understandable and occur often. Tier Two words are seen frequently but special instruction may be needed because of their difficulty. These are words such as fortunate and coincidence. Finally, Tier Three words "occur infrequently and are mostly specific to certain content areas (lathe, isotope). (Douglas, 2010) According to Marzano (2004), "if the goal of direct vocabulary instruction is to enhance academic background knowledge, then what is clearly needed is a list of subject-specific terms," because these terms are critical to success in relevant academic areas.
Building background knowledge is a necessity for all students, and especially for ELL students. Creating understandings in permanent memory through experiences, language, reading, and direct vocabulary instruction in crucial for the academic success of students!