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ESOL Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Preparing for learning

Activate and build on prior knowledge

 "Associative link-making to students' prior experiences and knowledge is fundamental to the learning process and one of the recurrent and strongest findings in research on teaching" (Alton-Lee, 2003, p.48). Activating prior knowledge is like preparing the soil before sowing the seeds of knowledge, says Jim Cummins.

Introduce topic through teacher story or reading

The short story "Return from Oz" by Witi Ihimaera was selected because it was felt that ESOL students could link the theme of returning home to their own experiences. In many cultures, there are key times when a family needs to return to their home-town. Many students would be able to relate to the concept of parents sacrificing to give them better educational opportunities and the conflict of trying to have the best of both worlds.

Close reading and discussion of a text provides the necessary vocabulary, ideas and structure needed before students begin their own writing.

Begin by reading the first paragraph of the story to the students and/or sharing your own experience of a journey home.

Students share their journey experiences

Prompt the students to talk about their journey experiences by mentioning such traditional journeys as "Thanksgiving Day" when Koreans visit their ancestors' graves with prepared food. Use the discussion starters (Word 40KB) to activate prior knowledge, make links to past experiences and familiarise students with vocabulary and the themes of the short story.

 The starters are on three levels and can be used in a variety of ways.

  • Doughnut (students in 2 concentric circles facing each other share information on an allotted discussion starter. At a given signal from the teacher the outside circle moves a given number of spaces clockwise and the process is repeated.)
  • Say it (Word 53KB)
  • Noughts and Crosses
  • 3,2,1 (Students are in pairs - partner one shares their thoughts on an allotted discussion starter for 3 minutes while partner 2 listens. Partner 2 then shares their thoughts for the same time. They both change partners and repeat the same discussion starter this time for 2 minutes each. The final round is for 1 minute).

Follow up with free paragraph writing by students about their journey experiences. Encourage ESOL students to write in their first language.

Other strategies you could use to activate prior knowledge include:


Ihimaera, W. ( 1977). Return to Oz. The New Net Goes Fishing. Auckland: Heinemann 1977.

Pre teach key vocabulary

 Pre-teaching essential vocabulary is critical in enabling students' to reach their learning goals and teachers need to carefully select which vocabulary to teach. Concentrate on the words that students will encounter most frequently. It is also helpful if teachers of all subjects incorporate vocabulary from the Academic Word List.

There could be a wide variety of key vocabulary that students will need when writing about their own journey. Some of this will have arisen from pre-reading activities and some will be highlighted through reading the text.

Published on: 09 Jan 2018