Connecting new information to what students already know

Richards and Lockheart in their well-known (in ELT circles at least) Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms provide a useful taxonomy of questions which teachers can refer to when making planning decisions.  Richards and Lockheart list 19 questions (pg. 82).  Today, I’ll focus on one: “How will the lesson connect to what students already know?”  Needless to say, connecting information to learners’ prior knowledge is at the heart of effective teaching.  There is an old axiom in education: effective instruction involves taking learners from the known to the unknown. 

With this in mind, I decided to analyze a recent lesson (one I taught just today) with the aforementioned question in mind (“How will the lesson connect to what students already know?”).  I have to conclude I need to make improvements in how well I connect new information to students pre-existing knowledge base/schema (or what have you). 

Using a 2nd grade Korean Middle School English textbook as my base, I produced a lesson which served as a review/extension of material covered in the previous week (Lesson 9, “If I were you.”).  For better or worse (I could elaborate at length on this…), I use a set format approach to lesson planning which I modify on a per semester basis.  Instead of analyzing the entire lesson, I will focus on one target language item provided by the textbook: “Are you interested in; I’m (not) interested in…”  My approach is rather straight forward.  Here is the general method I use to introduce and practice a TL item for the second week of review:

a)      Students answer a recall question about appropriate use of the TL item (often there is no answer).

b)      Students orally complete a cloze description of the TL features. 

c)       Students study a graphic organizer detailing the main features of a TL item. 

d)      Students complete worked examples (WE) in a whole class format. 

e)      Students complete WE in pairs.

f)       Students complete sentence stems in pairs.

g)      Students construct novel examples using prompts.

There really isn’t a great deal of connection of the material with students’ prior knowledge/experience.  I really have to stretch to find ways in which I connect knowledge to students’ prior knowledge base.  There are a few things I do to connect the current course content to students’ prior knowledge.  For instance I recycle target vocabulary from the previous lesson in the WE students practice.  For this particular TL item, during the description and graphic organizer analysis, I indicated how “are you interested in is similar to ‘like.’”  This is a small attempt to link information to students’ pre-existing knowledge base.

There are additional strategies I employ which, while not exactly serving to connect, may facilitate greater connection:

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  I analyzed this lesson plan and noted there were seven times when I repeated the main descriptive features of the TL item in a variety of formats (graphic organizer, analysis of WE, textual display, reviewing cloze items, speed quiz et al.).  Though, repetition is not connection. 

Set format.  As addressed earlier, I tend to favor a set format, which I adjust on a semester by semester basis (the day-to-day school year is for tweaks, the semester is for overhauls).  This technique habituates students into classroom procedures, will minimize confusion (thereby reducing cognitive load), and can assist in classroom management challenges.  A set format gives coherence to a semester.  However, format is not content.  While there may be continuity of procedures, which can bring forth a variety of benefits, that doesn’t entail students will assimilate the concepts and knowledge addressed into their pre-existing knowledge base.

In sum, I conclude connecting new information to what students already know is an area where I could use some improvement.  What techniques have you used to assimilate new content knowledge with what students already know?



About cmiller112

Teacher, Father, Jogger, Sleeper, Husband, (add extra label here)
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