Building background knowledge = better readers

In our school, we build students’ background knowledge, and thus, their ability to activate schema to decode texts and increase their reading comprehension, by focusing on two key strategies: explicit vocabulary instruction and extensive reading. These two strategies, which Nigel Stott recommends in his article “Helping ESL Students Become Better Readers: Schema Theory Applications and Limitations,” form the foundation of an integrated approach to building the English language proficiency of our middle and high school students to native or near-native levels.

As a teacher of eleventh and twelfth grade English, here is how I do it:


Each week, we discuss the two new ten-word lessons from our Holt Vocabulary Workshop, focusing on word components (affixes and roots) as well as how to transform the given word to other parts of speech. The students complete practice exercises using the words (sentence completions, synonyms, analogies, sentence writing) and access the lessons on, where they can play word games and print flashcards as preparation for the weekly quiz. The 25-point quiz focuses on vocabulary in context and application through short answer questions. To force students to have multiple exposures to the words, and thus increase the likelihood of recall and incorporation into their working academic lexicon, I give monthly 50-point, 5-lesson review tests and quarterly 100-point, 10-lesson review exam.

In addition to this formal vocabulary study, we notice and discuss interesting words that we find in our literature selections and in the students’ free-choice independent reading. The students get a kick out of recognizing their new words in other contexts, and they encourage each other to incorporate the new vocabulary into their everyday interactions. Since I value words and reward word-sense, my students tend to feel comfortable playing with words as well. This playfulness comes in handy during the implementation of the next strategy: extensive reading.


I want my students to be immersed in what Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide calls a “word flood,” a print- (and vocabulary-) rich environment that tempts kids to experiments with words, first through reading and then through writing. From seventh grade on, our students have assigned supplementary novels that they read on their own. By eleventh grade, the kids read three classic novels per semester; assessment of each reading is done through an objective test, and an in-class essay, as well as completion of a study guide (the students can work collaboratively and choose which questions to answer).

In addition to this mandatory independent reading, my students also have fun independent reading time: the first ten minutes of each class is devoted to silent sustained silent reading. The only rule is that the student must read a self-chosen book written in English. No homework, magazines, or Spanish allowed! I have already noticed how even my most reluctant readers look forward to this time, and how everyone, even the bookworms, has improved her reading fluency.

I believe this two-pronged approach of targeted, explicit vocabulary learning and extensive reading will lead to more –and better—readers who are also more effective writers, standardized test-takers, and lifelong learners.


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