Many teachers are familiar with the importance of building background knowledge and linking to prior knowledge for English learners. When students encounter a new topic in school, they are spending a considerable amount of mental energy as they learn and deepen their understanding of a topic.

For English learners, this is compounded by learning this new information in a new language. To better prepare all students, and especially English learners to learn and understand a new topic, we should “prime the pump.”

Priming the pump, in mechanical terms, refers to the operation of some older pumps, in which a suction valve would have to be primed, or water would have to be added to the pump in order for a pump to function properly. The phrase is sometimes used to describe economic stimulation as well.

In a lesson, it is more commonly referred to as frontloading and the anticipatory set. The idea is twofold; give students some of the critical vocabulary and concepts needed to be successful with the lesson or unit of study, and create interest and excitement in learning about the topic at hand. While it would seem that this should be done at the beginning of a unit of study, it can actually be done at any time, and throughout any lesson.

Using Pictures, Videos, and Graphs to Prime the Pump

Pictures are a great way to build background knowledge and excitement about a topic. Begin by collecting pictures that relate to the unit of study. Pictures and be found online and printed off, of course, but do not limit yourself to finding and printing pictures, which can be costly. Pictures can be cut out of magazines, or old books, pamphlets or old calendars.

Picture Exploration

Once you have a group of pictures, have students explore the pictures in small groups. Begin by grouping students into small groups. The students can be grouped by proficiency level or by native language, as desired.

Give the small group of students several pictures. The students should explore the pictures, discussing what they see as well as asking questions of each other. These discussions and questions can be transferred to writing, as appropriate.

Picture Sort

As an addition to the picture exploration, ask students to sort and classify the pictures. This can be done as an open sort, in which the students decide upon and create categories based on the pictures they have, or as a closed sort in which you provide the specific categories.

For example, in a recent lesson, students were given a variety of pictures that related to erosion and deposition. Students began by exploring the pictures and discussing what they observed in the pictures. From there, students sorted the pictures into groups, deciding how the pictures fit together.

After the initial sort, students shared how they grouped their pictures and the categories they created. Next, students were given word cards with specific categories, such as glacial movement, mass movement, and chemical erosion. The categories were defined for students, and several examples of each were shown. Students then adjusted their categories based on these categories.

Gallery Walk

Similar to the picture exploration, a gallery walk can be set up to have students explore pictures. Gather some pictures and group them according to the topics of study in the unit. For example, in the Earth science unit discussed previously, you might group pictures that show erosion and deposition, pictures of volcanoes, pictures of different types of rocks, and pictures representing the layers of the Earth and tectonic plates.

The groups of pictures are then adhered to a piece of construction paper or a chart, and hung up in various places around the room or placed on tables throughout the room. In small groups, the students walk around the room, stopping at the various charts to discuss the pictures, ask questions, and make connections to their past experiences or prior knowledge.

Some teachers structure the movement of the students, having them walk from chart to chart in a specific order. However, in an art gallery or museum, most people walk around based on the art that strikes them for some reason, and may not go in a specific order. Similarly, students can be instructed to walk around randomly, and going to whichever poster interests them.

Of course, they should be mindful of how many people are at each chart, and head to charts that do not have very many people around it at any given time so that they can see the pictures and discuss them.

Video Clips

Showing short video clips is also a popular and effective way of both previewing the information and creating interest in the topic. Many teachers are already using video clips found on YouTube, Teacher Tube, or other online resources.

When using these clips, be cognizant of the language that is presented, as videos tend to present fairly large amounts of information quickly. As an alternative, consider turning the sound off for some videos.

After students watch a section of the video, pause and have them discuss with a partner what they saw. Alternatively, use the “silent video” strategy to narrate what is happening in the video, pausing to provide clarifications or have students ask questions.

Using Realia to Prime the Pump

Realia refers to real objects. Think of a museum; it is full of realia. The museum may have fossils and rock specimens, cultural artifacts, or objects related to a particular topic or phenomenon.

Using realia in the classroom makes concepts more concrete, and is a fun and engaging way to introduce a topic. As a part of the gallery walk described previously, students can also look at a station in the classroom that contains realia in addition to the charts that have pictures on them.

Unit Inventory

When doing a unit inventory, especially in science or mathematics, allow students to preview the materials that relate to the unit of study. Have students handle, observe, and discuss the objects that go with the unit. Also have students consider how these materials relate to each other or fit together, how the objects in particular will facilitate learning, and what we might learn based on the objects being viewed, handled and discussed.

Mystery Bag

To utilize the mystery bag, gather some items that represent the topic being studied. In our example about rocks and the Earth, gather different types of rocks. Choose rocks of different sizes, varied textures, and differing shapes. For example, have a piece of sandstone that crumbles a bit to the touch, a piece of obsidian or basalt with sharper edges, river rock that is round or oval, pumice that is lightweight, etc.

Once the materials are gathered in paper bags, hand out the bags to small groups of students, or have one student come up to the front of the class. Students should not look into the bag. Rather, they should reach in and feel what is in the bag.

As they are feeling the item, they should describe it to a partner, small group, or to the class. The other students can take guesses as to what they think the student is describing. The student then pulls out one mystery item, and the other students discuss or write about the similarities and differences between what they had imagined and what they see, as well as how the item fits into the unit of study.

Previewing Vocabulary

Previewing key vocabulary for English learners will help to lower the cognitive demand of the lesson and the related tasks at hand. By sharing the words, their definitions, and an example of key vocabulary words and concepts, you will create mental hooks onto which new information can connect.

I have written articles on teaching specific general academic and domain-specific writing that have several specific ideas that can be used to teach these types of words. The following strategies can also be used to preview words, assess student knowledge, and get students interested in the vocabulary that will be utilized in the lesson.

Word Sorts

Similar to the picture sorts described above, students can sort words into categories as an open sort or a closed sort. Prepare a list of words that goes with the lesson or unit of study. Print the words off or write them on index cards or small pieces of paper, and hand a stack of words to small groups of students.

Begin with students sorting words in a way that makes sense to them, then provide them with a closed sort by giving them specific categories or ways to sort the words. For example, you could have students sort the words into word classes.

Word classes tell the function of a word in a sentence. Are these words acting as nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.? Or you could have students look at the words and sort them based upon the prefixes, suffixes, or roots. Sorting by meaning will likely come natural to students, if they know the words, but you can have them sort the words into words that are well known, somewhat known, or unknown as well.

Stoplight Highlighting

An alternative to having students physically sort words into categories of well-known, somewhat known and unknown words, you can have students engage in the Stoplight Highlighting activity. This activity can be conducted in a number of ways, depending on the resources you have available.

As implied, students are ranking words according to their level of knowledge using a color-coded system. Students should highlight in pink those words that are completely unknown to them. These may be words that they do not know the definition of, or words that they are having trouble decoding.

Words highlighted in yellow are those words that they recognize, and may have an idea of the meaning, but they are unsure of the true meaning or the definition they know does not fit the context of the text. Finally, students highlight in green those words that they know well, understand, and potentially could team the meaning to others.

If having three different colors of highlighters is not feasible or a reality in your classroom, you can have students use a different annotation system to mark the words.

For example, you can have the students add an exclamation point next to the unknown words, a triangle for the words they know to some degree, and a plus next to the words that they know well. Note that the annotations used can vary, but the concept of ranking the words remains the same.

By utilizing a variety of these strategies in your classroom, you will be providing opportunities for students to consider the content concepts and vocabulary they will need to learn and express their learning. These activities also build in engagement and language practice as students discuss and write about what they are exploring, thereby benefiting English learners in a variety of ways.