Initial Publication Date: June 8, 2017

Enhance ELL Comprehension and Retention

"There is a clear relationship between background knowledge and comprehension of new material. Poor comprehension and memory skills may be due to failure to activate the background knowledge assumed by the text" (Tharp, et al., 2000).

Activate Student Background Knowledge to Provide Comprehensible Input

English Language Learners require "comprehensible input" for learning to take place. The term "comprehensible input" as used in language acquisition research describes the ideal or optimal input for learning to take place. The concept is commonly denoted by the simple formula (i + 1 ), where "i" represents the student's current level of knowledge/understanding, and "+ 1" indicates language or information just slightly beyond the current level of understanding. For learning to take place, input must include sufficient amounts of both language/information at the student's current level of understanding and new language/information just slightly above that. If the input provided lacks one of these elements, then learning does not occur. Insufficient grounding in what students currently know/understand gives them no foundation on which to build new understanding. And input containing too much material beyond that level (for example, i + 2, i + 6, i + 10) simply goes over their heads and will not be understood (Krashen, 1982).

Link new concepts with previously learned material and provide effective scaffolding.

The process of activating students' background knowledge follows a cyclical path rather than a linear progression. It requires repeated efforts, throughout the lesson, to make explicit the connections between what the student already knows and the new content material.

To build connections between background knowledge and new material, establish three types of connections: (1) from the text (whether spoken or written ) to other texts, relating new information to previously learned material, (2) from the text to the self, relating the new information to students' personal experiences, and (3) from the text to the world, relating new information to its real world application(s). Do this while providing the visual and memory supports that will help students comprehend and remember what they are learning. Effective scaffolding helps ELL students to overcome language gaps and enhances retention of the new information (Zwiers, 2008).

Encourage learning with demonstrable strategies for comprehension and problem-solving

Many strategies exist for activating students' background knowledge and for providing the support needed to enable students to learn. It is important to consciously and systematically make time for such activities in lessons and assignments. A sampling of such strategies and techniques is found below.

Bridging attempts to identify explicit connections between previously learned material and the topic of a new lesson. It can be as simple as asking students what they know or have heard about a particular topic or phenomenon. Underscore that the purpose is to find as many connections as possible. For example, some students may have read about the topic in an assignment for another course (text to text connection); other students may have lived near a particular land formation or experienced a weather-related event (text to self connection), while other students may identify potential practical applications of knowing more about the topic (text to world connection).

In small groups, ask students to brainstorm what they know about a given topic. Such opportunities allow students to pool their background knowledge filling information gaps and reinforcing the value of a collaborative approach to problem-solving. Brainstorming in pairs or small groups about possible outcomes also encourages students to make predictions and hypothesize without the stress of doing so in front of a large class. It also provides an opportunity for ELLs to practice their language skills.

Lesson overviews
For ELL students, something as simple as a lesson outline or overview can provide enough context and sense of direction about the topic to enable them to follow the lecture more easily. Keeping in mind that for some international ELLs the format and processes for science education in the US may be new, Deussen et al., (2008) recommend that "Teachers should make the norms and expectations of science inquiry clear and explicit to help ELLs bridge cultural differences."

Both Sousa (2011) and Deussen et al. (2008) underscore the importance of demonstrating not only the physical steps of a problem-solving task or experiment, but also the thought process (think alouds) as well, and modeling the academic language of the discipline. "Teachers should include hands-on, collaborative inquiry, which helps ELLs clarify concepts and provides practice in using language in scientific ways" (Deussen et al., 2008).

Pointing out contextual clues, including photos and illustrations
"The density and complexity of textbooks and other texts can be particularly challenging for ELLs" (Deussen et al., 2008).

Help ELLs to understand that the formatting and visuals in the textbook, which at first may seem distracting to the non-native reader of English, can aid in comprehension. Every part of the text contributes to the presentation of new material: subtitles, headings, subheadings, print that is in boldface, italics, color, captions or box inserts, illustrations, diagrams, charts, and framed text. Explicitly teach students how to read different types of charts, graphs, and timelines (Bouchard, 2005).

Graphic organizers
The value of graphic organizers for comprehension and retention of new materials has been recognized by many researchers who focus on enhancing the success of ELL students in the academic setting. Guardado (2001) makes the connection between graphic organizers and Gestalt psychology, describing graphic organizers as "a well thought out visual (that) conveys a message that is broader than merely the sum of its parts and it can be clearer and more economic than a densely packed original text." Tang (1994) encourages instructors to "use graphic organizers to explicitly teach both relationships among concepts and the language needed to express these relationships." A visual representation of new material that succinctly conveys an overall organization as well as the relationship among the individual parts enables students to more easily see patterns. The repeated use of specific graphic organizers in different contexts to illustrate a similar set of relationships builds on the understanding established in earlier lessons. For example, the sight of a Venn diagram leads students to expect a comparison of two or more items that share some characteristics but also display distinctive features not shared by the other items.

Vocabulary preview & sentence frames
Students learning scientific concepts "need to effectively and accurately communicate findings from their inquiry, using the language and structure conventions accepted in the field" (Deussen et al., 2008).

It is important to model the language you expect students to use both orally and in writing. Help students by previewing key concepts and signal words that will come up to aid understanding (Kleiber and Walsh, 2009).


Bouchard, M. (2005). Comprehension Strategies for English Language Learners, Scholastic Inc.

Deussen, T., E. Autio, B. Miller, A., Lockwood, and V. Stewart. (2008) What Teaches Should Know About Instruction for English Language Learner: A Report to Washington State.

Gibbons, P. (2002). Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom. Heinemann.

Guardado, M. (2001). "The Facilitative Effect of Graphic Organizers in TESOL." Theorethikos: la revista electronica de la UFG, Ano V, No 0001, Enero-Junio.

Kleiber, K. and D. Walsh (2009). "Academic Language Sentence Frames for Sciences." Fairfax County Public Schools.

Krashen, S. (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Pergamon Press.

Nutta, J., N. Bautista, and M. Butler (2011). Teaching Science to English Language Learners, Routledge Press.

Souza, D. (2011). How the ELL Brain Works. Corwin-Sage Publications.

Tang, G. (1994). Graphic Organizer" In Purvues, C., Jordan, S., & L. Papa (Eds), Encyclopedia of English Studies and Language Arts. National Council of Teachers of English, pp 542-544

Tharp, R.G., P. Estrada, S.S. Dalton, and L. Yamuchi (2000). Teaching transformed: Achieving excellence, fairness, inclusion, and harmony. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building Academic Language: Essential Practices for Content Classroom. Jossey-Bass.