How to Help Your Students Build Relevant Background Knowledge.

One of the most important things that I have learned as an educator is that I can never assume that my students know somethingJust because I have an inherent understanding of something, or think that some little nugget of knowledge is (or should be) painfully obvious, does not mean that my kiddos do.

Do you see that I bolded and italicized the above phrases? It is, because this is very important!

Lets say, for example, that you are getting ready to start planning your first set of lessons about the solar system. Kids love planets, right? Well then, they must have some background knowledge, or schema, about the solar system, right? … Not necessarily.

You decided to start with the wonderful KWL chart. You’ve planned your heart out (I promise I’m not being sarcastic… I’ve just been there, done that, and on occasionally I relapse) and created a fabulous lesson.

You get out your trusty chart paper and markers to create a class KWL chart with your focus being on the K…

-What do you know about the solar system my little peeps?-

And then you get all kinds of information about space aliens, martians, and attacks from outer space. (This really happened to me). Now I’m not saying your kiddos are wrong for thinking this (besides… who knows what really exists out there, right?). I’m just saying this is not the information that is relevant to what you are going to be teaching.

By now you are frustrated, because one kid says something, and then another kid piggy backs on the first kid’s comments, this continues on for a few more kids, and your lesson has gone down the drain.

What can you do differently?

Since schema is based on experiences, you may need to provide your students with an appropriate experience which to build some appropriate background knowledge.

Say what?

What I suggest is that instead of a KWL chart, you use an OWL chart. The “O” stands for observe.

I like to have the students cut these on the dotted line and then they can fold them on the solid lines and glue into their science journals

So again for example) if you’re teaching about the solar system, you can bring in lots of images of the planets, the Milky Way, the moon, etc.. and then guide them in making observations. (If you are teaching a topic that you can get actual materials for the students to handle, even better. The students can touch, smell, listen to, etc… and really make some good observations.)

Here’s what to do:

  1. Post a piece of chart paper on the wall, label it on top with an “O”  for observe (or you can just write the word “Observe”)
  2. Provide students with the images / artifacts that they will be observing.
  3. Give your students a few minutes to look, feel, smell, (whatever is appropriate) and discuss their observations with their table mates.
  4. Come back together as a whole group and begin recording individual observations.
  5. Hold on, because here is the secret sauce to really getting your kiddos involved. After you record each individual observation, write that students initials next to their input. Kiddos love to get their deserved credit (so do we for that matter, but that’s an entirely different blog post…). This really encourages the rest of the students to chime in with their two cents.
  6. When you get to a stopping point (end of piece of chart paper), give the students their own OWL chart and instruct them to choose three or four observations that they like best and to copy them into their chart.

Guess What?

Your students now have acquired some relevant background knowledge!

You go, you schema builder, you!

 And, they did all the work. If that’s not student centered, I don’t know what is.

Once they start making observations, then they are naturally going to start generating their questions… which you will record later in the “W” or “Wonder” column…. So, repeat steps 1-6 on a separate piece of chart paper for the W column, and you will then have a great start to whatever unit you are studying. Later students can fill in the “L” for “Learned” column with some of the most important pieces of information that they learned.


If  you have hung on this far into this post, guess what? I have a fabulous FREEBIE for you! Just click the picture below

There is a mix & match set of choices: boy or girl, color or black and white, and regular lines of primary lines!

Well that’s it for this post… I hope you found it helpful! I’d love to hear any feedback you may have. Please feel free to comment!

Until next time…

Happy Teaching,


P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about easy-to-implement science and math activities, I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter which gives you access to my resource library!

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