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Why to Activate your ESL Students’ Background Schema

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By Cambridge CELTA instructor, Laura Greenwood

Why should you activate your ESL students’ background schema when teaching English as a foreign language?

When doing receptive skills work (listenings and readings) with your students, it is important to take time at the very beginning of the lesson to activate your students’ experiences with and knowledge of the topic of the listening/reading. In TEFL this is called activating background schema. Doing this immediately engages your students, gets them using English, and sets them up for more successful listening/reading comprehension.

The component of a receptive skills lesson is called a ‘Lead In.’ Which includes:
-realia or everyday objects
-personalization – a broad look at the topic/subject/content area of the listening or reading.

Ways to activate ESL student’s background schema:

• Ask some general questions and have your students brainstorm ideas/knowledge of the listening or reading topic or ‘What I want to Know’ (about the topic).

• Read background text, watch a video clip, listen to others discuss the topic of the listening or reading, etc. to stimulate discussion.

• Make a link between the topic of the text and students’ own lives and experiences in order to prepare them for successful listening/reading.

If you don’t activate your students’ background schema when teaching English as a foreign language, your students might not be interested in listening and reading, have a purpose for listening and reading, or even be ready to successfully listen and read.

Beyond all of the above excellent reasons for activating background schema when teaching English as a foreign language, is the fact that you will learn a lot of interesting and remarkable facts about your students.

Finding ways to get material to stick with students is a crucial part of being an ESL teacher. For more tips on how to engage students read about breaking free from frozen teaching techniques.

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate. You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

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