Strategy for success: Using background knowledge

Sarah Barnhardt

Some students instinctively use the knowledge they have already obtained through life experiences when learning a second language, whereas others approach language learning as though nothing they have ever experienced could be related or helpful. All language students can benefit from explicit instruction about how to use background knowledge to help them build upon their existing knowledge base when learning a new language.

Using your background knowledge means using information you already know about the topic, the world, and language to help do a task. This strategy should be used/taught because thinking about what you already know helps you get ready for the task by familiarizing yourself with it. By having in mind what you already know, it is easier to understand and learn new information. When you create connections between new information and known experiences, what you have learned becomes more meaningful and thus more memorable.

You should use this strategy when you have knowledge about the topic of the task; use it whenever new information comes up in the task. This versatile strategy can be used in all phases of learning. During planning use it to get ready and anticipate information. When monitoring use it to check whether information makes sense. During problem solving think about what you know to make good inferences. When evaluating after you finish all or part of the task use what you know to check your comprehension and production against what you know might make sense.

You can teach background knowledge explicitly to all levels of students. Give the strategy a name in the target language to keep instruction in the L2. Explain what it means to students by providing a definition and rationale of why and when to use it. Model for students how you use it on a language task. Give students examples: If you are reading an article on a trade agreement in the target country, think of what you know about the target country's economy and relationship with other countries before starting to read. Prompt students to use the strategy by providing them with lots of practice opportunities. As students master the strategy themselves, fade explicit prompts. Finally, ask students to evaluate the usefulness of the strategy and to think of other situations in which it might be valuable. By teaching background knowledge you are giving students a critical skill that will help them in language learning and throughout their lives.

From an effective language learner using their background knowledge:

Student is reading an article on the history of chocolate:

"...Montezuma is another Aztec leader, well actually emperor...I like history so I recognize that. It says Montezuma but it doesn’t say he was an Aztec emperor but I know that...’en aquel tiempo el chocolate se servía frío' this is about serving it cold and I know that because we did a cooking unit in class."